Not long ago, I read aloud some of the complaints about our current duty station posted in our neighborhood Facebook group. “Who could have a problem with Fort Meade?” I wondered as I shook my head. It’s a quaint, historic post, an easy distance from Baltimore, Annapolis, and Washington, D.C. “How could anyone struggle here?” I thought.
While I may not share their opinion, Meade-haters can take heart. They are in good company–former First Lady Mamie Eisenhower also hated Fort Meade, and for good reason. When her husband, Dwight D. “Ike” Eisenhower, was stationed here shortly after World War I, the family were given a section of an old barracks to live in. Because officers were expected to cover maintenance and repairs for their own quarters, by Ike’s estimation, the Eisenhowers sank between $700 and $800 into fixing up their new home. They almost literally went dumpster diving for furniture, since they couldn’t afford to buy anything new.
Unfortunately, too many modern military couples can likely identify with the Eisenhower’s struggles at Fort Meade. While there, they underwent severe difficulties, ranging from the loss of their three year old son, to financial problems, to a serious threat to Ike’s career in the form of a potential court martial. Both Eisenhowers have described what the trauma of losing their son so young did to them personally, as well as to their marriage. Ike described being “on the ragged edge of a breakdown” afterward, and Mamie attributed Ike’s later health problems, even as President, to the physical stress of losing his son. The disease that took the boy, Scarlet fever, was not treatable then. Children either recovered, or they didn’t. Today, it can be treated by a course of antibiotics. Keeping in mind the hardships previous military families underwent can certainly make us grateful for the things we take to granted in 2017.
There were some positives things that modern military families may identify with, too. Nextdoor neighbor George Patton (ever heard of him?) was a home brew enthusiast, a hobby he and Ike apparently enjoyed together. Even Mamie Eisenhower could relate to the “dependa” stereotypes. Patton’s daughter, Ruth, remembered later that Mamie “wore filmy negligees most of the day.” That would definitely raise a few eyebrows at the Commissary in any era!
Today, it is common to hear and see reminders that we are not in the “old Army.” Spouses are more educated, have careers, and should pursue their own ambitions. The military is more inclusive. I don’t dispute that, and I celebrate it. When I hear stories about how my great-grandparents had to dress for dinner in their quarters because you never knew when a higher ranking officer might drop by, I take a look at my half-naked toddler covered in spaghetti sauce and cannot imagine what that must have been like.
But even with all the forward strides, the military is, for good or ill, a tradition-steeped culture. As we shed some of the less pleasant aspects of traditionalism, we should be careful not to ignore all the things that link us to our military ancestors. Simple age-old ceremonies and customs are more than just quaint relics.
“Tradition,” writes GK Chesterton, “means giving a vote to most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead.” Today’s military spouses, or as Chesterton would call them, “those who merely happen to be walking about,” can learn from their predecessors, be inspired by them, and be instructed by them. Taps, reveille, or a change of command ceremony, largely unchanged over the generations, remind us we are a part of something bigger than the here and now.
Meade was not our first post in the shadow of the Eisenhowers. When we were at Fort Benning a few years ago, I took a picture of a historic marker near our quarters. It described how two years after World War I, Ike had gone down two ranks and been passed over for the Infantry Officers’ Course. Any military spouse can likely identify with Mamie’s disappointment on her husband’s behalf, and at the same time be encouraged by the knowledge that not every successful person’s trajectory was meteoric or inevitable.
By extending the courtesy of remembrance to previous generations of service members and their spouses, I’m treating them the way I hope to be remembered by future service members and their families.
Ruth Patton wrote movingly about a conversation she had with her sister during World War II. In a situation that will also be familiar to many military spouses, she and her sister both married service members themselves. Feeling unmoored as her father deployed and her husband prepared to do the same, she asked her sister, “Where is all the Old Army? Do you remember how it was when we were kids?” Her sister responded, “I guess we’re the Old Army now; it’s up to us.”
One day, the Army my husband serves in today will be the Old Army my children remember. Whether they grow up to serve or to marry soldiers themselves is immaterial. I can’t give them fond memories of a hometown in this life, so I want to create an Army experience they will remember fondly when they grow up. That’s probably why the post museum is almost always my first stop after a new PCS. The tremendous task of creating an Old Army can be mitigated by an understanding of what came before, and the things that link us to the military families of the past.
Can you relate to the idea of the “Old Army?” What do you hope future military families remember about us today?
Posted by Maggie Phillips, NMFA Volunteer and military spouse