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Military spouses face employment challenges

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She married a man who was active duty in the U.S. Air Force 17 years ago. They’ve moved 10 times since. And she’s lived in Alexandria for seven out of the last 12 years on three separate tours of duty. Michelle Still Mehta was able to maintain her successful career in consulting until a 2002 move to Incirlik Air Base in Turkey.

“Suddenly I became a real military wife,” she said. “Suddenly all of what I had accomplished didn’t really matter and it was a real transition for me and I struggled for a couple of years trying to make sense of that. I felt that I was really alone in that struggle.”

Her book, Silent Sacrifice on the Homefront, shares the stories of 21 Air Force spouses all similar to her own.

Mehta is a consultant, researcher, writer and coach specializing in military spouse employment, the psychology of working life and organizational change.

“I say ‘silent sacrifice’ because so many of us live this conflicted life where we find it very hard to give up that part of our identity or try to forge a career while moving around and supporting a military member,” said Mehta. “It’s not an issue that is widely known or understood, and many of us suffer in silence as a result.”

Mehta said there is a strong sense of patriotism and service in the military culture. Many wonder if they have a right to complain. “More than one spouse said how can I complain about this when my husband is willing to die for our country,” she said. “A lot of us want to contribute, we don’t want to complain, but it adds up to a widespread problem when there’s almost three-quarters of a million active duty military and the vast majority of the spouses are underemployed or unemployed.”

Mehta said it’s a significant problem and it’s time to let people know there are real impacts financially and psychologically for military families.

“It’s not just about finding a job but mindfully managing the roles in your life,” she said. “It’s about understanding what you want out of that life and how to put that together with your spouse.”

Mehta uses a framework of three Ms — marriage, motherhood and military — to provide advice on balancing the areas to sustain a career. Throughout her book, she includes reflection questions. 

“Although 92 percent of military spouses are female, male spouses do face many of the same challenges of maintaining a career,” said Mehta. “Although, the research does show that males spouses fare a little better than female spouses in earnings and employment.” 

Faith is one way Mehta has found support. “One of the Catholic values I was raised with is the value of social justice. To me, this is a social justice issue where military families are, by default, less financially secure because they are not able to reliably sustain two incomes,” said Mehta. “Finding ways to gain financial stability is a social justice issue.”

Mehta and her family attend Mass at military chapels, including at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall. “They have been a mainstay for us and being able to have Catholic schools,” she said. “We often go to Mass and become parishioners at military base chapels because we can connect with people going through what we are going through. That connection is always unspoken but always there.”

Mehta wants civilians to “understand with compassion that military spouses choose to serve but need awareness and understanding of the issues that prevent them from being able to be full contributing members.”

Military spouses are not alone.

“So many women feel like they have failed because they weren’t successful professionals while being a military spouse,” said Mehta. “I hope that military spouses realize it’s not about them. It’s really a systemic issue — it’s not their issue to suffer with.”

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2019