The year was 1969. Our troops were far away fighting a war that was becoming more unpopular at home. Women’s lib was catching on, but military wives were dismissed as “dependents,” whose place was in quiet support of their husbands’ careers. Their roles were as hostesses and volunteers, equipped with the right hat, shoes, and gloves for each occasion.
Most of those “dependent wives” didn’t know there were no Department of Defense survivor benefits and that their income would stop when their retiree spouse died. Tired of watching their friends become destitute, a small group of women met around a kitchen table in Annapolis, Maryland and formed the Military Wives’ Association (later the National Military Family Association). They decided to wage war on these inequities and pledged to fight for the same pension for military widows that widows of retired federal civilian workers received.
A local reporter asked the first president, Raye Dickins—“properly” identified by the reporter, of course, as Mrs. Justin H. Dickins—whether there was really a need for the organization. She responded:
“Our Service men are bound by a code of ethics. They have been taught to accept orders and to abide by existing laws. They bow to these conditions and don’t talk back. As a result the military hasn’t had a voice even in affairs that concern them. But, their wives are now ready to stand up and fight.”
The year is now 2014. Our troops are far away fighting a war that most Americans forget is happening. Budget cuts are making military people a target for last minute deals. Meanwhile, military spouses—male and female—continue to support their service members through recovery of visible and invisible wounds. They endure frequent moves that hurt their own careers. They deal with deployments that test the strength of their families. They support their service member and others in their communities as volunteers, caregivers, advocates, and good neighbors—hat and gloves no longer necessary, heels optional.
As the National Military Family Association celebrates its 45th anniversary this year, we remember the determination of Raye Dickins and our other founding mothers. Her words about the struggle to gain survivor benefits for military widows could be the rallying cry for today’s #KeepYourPromise efforts to persuade Congress to end the budget deal’s military retiree COLA cuts:
“We are determined to keep trying until an unreasonable and inequitable situation is corrected.”
Our Association has made a difference for military families for 45 years because of the military families who have joined us in speaking out, connecting, sharing their stories, and supporting each other. We’ll channel their voices—and those of all military families—this anniversary year to fight to end the inequities that put them at risk. We will work to ensure families can connect with the resources they need to thrive in military life, to speed military spouses’ journey to work and career, to find quality education for their children, and to gain timely access to quality health care. We will help military families find strength while dealing with deployment; the return of their service member, however changed; or a transition to civilian life.
We’ll continue our fight on behalf of military families as we remind our Nation’s leaders, and its citizens, of the obligations all Americans share to ensure that the strength of our military and our country starts with its people—and their families. There’s no better way to celebrate 45 years of service to military families than by fighting for them every day of the year!