Debt of Service: Personal Finance in the Military

Married to the military

Amy Scott Feb 20, 2009
Debt of Service: Personal Finance in the Military

Married to the military

Amy Scott Feb 20, 2009


Tess Vigeland: Military families move about every three years. The kids change schools. The house gets sold — or, in this market, it doesn’t. And the civilian spouse often has to find a job. But a recent study found that military spouses take annual salary cuts of thousands of dollars. At Fort Knox, Ky., Marketplace’s Amy Scott found some husbands and wives trying to make it work.

Amy Scott: It’s no wonder military spouses struggle to build careers.

Christina Black: In 18 years, we’ve been in 14 different houses.

Kelly Czapnik: Fort Polk, Fort Carson, Fort Knox, Fort Riley, Fort Knox. And we’re getting ready to go back to Riley.

Dana Puryear: We’re on an average of about every two years. We did have one assignment that lasted 11 months. So, we moved twice in one year.

When I visited Fort Knox back in August, Christina Black, the one with the 14 houses, had a job in the Fort Knox career center.

Black: We don’t have as many clerical type things.

She helped other military spouses find work. But it wasn’t exactly her calling.

Black: I have actively been working on a career to become a teacher for the last 12 years. Because we continue to move, I have to keep going back to school. And classes do not transfer well. So, I’m still, 12 years later, still trying, and still have a year left.

In the meantime, Black has trouble moving up in the jobs she does get.

Black: It’s just difficult to continue to start at the bottom every time you do get a job. And after 18 years, I’m still starting at the bottom every time we move.

Entry level work means entry-level pay.

A Rand Corporation study a few years ago found that on average military wives earn $3 less per hour than women married to civilians. They’re also more likely to be unemployed. One reason may be that employers are reluctant to hire someone who’s just going to turn around and leave in a few years. Laurie Burchett had just arrived from Fort Campbell, Ky.

Laurie Burchett: Even here on post, I’ve had a couple interviews so far with one of the local military groups here. The first question out of their mouth was how long are you going to live here? I could just see the skepticism on their faces, and these are military people. It’s hard.

So hard that some women just don’t bother. Karen Ware’s husband is in the Navy. She worked for a while as a chiropractic assistant in Bremerton, Wash., and loved it. But she gave up on the idea of a career long ago.

Karen Ware: Being separated is such a strain on a marriage and everything. I chose to follow him. I could have stayed and gone back to school and started a career path. But I would’ve missed out on so much. And I just felt that, you know, for me, my place was with my husband.

Jim Lever: Don’t stamp it quite so hard. See what it does.

T.J. Lever: All right.

Women aren’t the only ones who make that choice. At the Fort Knox PX, Jim Lever treats his son T.J. to a double-hamburger and coke.

Lever: A good healthy nutritious meal prepared by his stay-at-home dad.

With his cropped hair and athletic build, Lever looks like a soldier out of uniform. But he hung up the green suit about 15 years ago. Since then Lever has followed his wife from post to post as she’s built her career in the Army.

He keeps busy doing volunteer work. He teaches a weekly spin class at the gym. And at 3 o’clock when the kids come home from school, he’s there to meet them.

Lever: I could’ve gone to another job and made a lot of money and we would’ve paid about half that money for a nanny or for childcare, and then who would be raising my kids?

For military spouses who do want careers outside the home, the Defense Department is trying to help. A new law in the works aims to open up more government jobs. A $35 million initiative provides job training and money for tuition in some states. The goal is to steer military spouses towards portable jobs, in industries like healthcare, information technology, and construction. With two wars underway, retaining service men and women is more crucial than ever. Until recently Kathy Lambert ran Fort Knox’s employment readiness program.

Kathy Lambert: The Army has realized that, you know, it does effect retention. Since most of our families now are two-income families, that employment is a major issue in soldiers making a decision whether or not to stay in the military. You know, the spouse has to be happy too.

Recently I called Christina Black, one of the women I met at Fort Knox, to find out how she was doing.

PHONE RECORDING: We’re sorry. You have reached a number that has been disconnected or is no longer in service.

She and her family had moved again.

In Fort Knox, Ky., I’m Amy Scott for Marketplace Money.

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