Soldiering is traditionally a young person’s occupation; in songs and folktales, the soldier is frequently a stock cultural character of rootlessness and wandering in part because of being at king or nation’s beck and call. For most of history, soldiering has thus also been a single man’s occupation—the wages, lifestyle, and accommodations not being overly conducive to either married or family life, especially among the enlisted types. Such characteristics have remained mostly true throughout American history as well, despite more contemporary public perceptions about a supposedly over-funded American military. 

True, the checkered nature of both our continental history and the formation of the United States Armed Forces—from ragtag frontiersmen, scrappy colonial militia, various state troops, and U.S. Army quasi-governors of the American West, to today’s well-regulated and bureaucratized Active, Reserve, and National Guard components—has meant that there have always been wives, lovers, laundresses, adventuresses, and offspring trailing alongside American troops. But it was only in the wake of World War II that the “military family” began to be recognized as an entity, due to the ginormous amounts of personnel required for that war effort and for America’s resulting new global status. 

There are American families who have maintained a long tradition of military service, even stretching back to the War of Independence. The true advent of the American military family as a distinct community, however, was in the demographic changes of the 1960s, the end of the Vietnam War, and the 1973 establishment of the professionalized All-Volunteer Force (AVF). Once the U.S. Government could no longer rely on conscription to fill out its military ranks, it quickly understood that it would have to up the ante on the wages and benefits it attached to terms of military service (in 1970, the starting pay of an enlisted man in the Armed Forces was less than half the minimum wage in the private sector—a mere $1,500 dollars). While never luxurious, the increased wages did signify steady employment, however. The spouses and families proliferated.

Education benefits proved particularly attractive to military spouses, who tended to encourage their husbands to renew their service contracts to access such benefits. As Jennifer Mittelstadt has illustrated in The Rise of the Military Welfare State, in the early 1980s, both within the Pentagon and without, in Congress and in the Reagan administration, decision-makers realized that education benefits were the pivotal benefit to being able to recruit a fighting force. But increasingly necessary to retain that fighting force were health- and housing-related benefits for the servicemember’s dependents. 

By 1982, the Department of Defense had created the Office of Family Policy; by 1983, the still-young organization, the National Military Wives Association, had renamed itself the National Military Family Association. By 2020, between operation and maintenance (which includes the bombs and the tanks, yes, but also most of the non-Department of Veteran Affairs military healthcare system) and military personnel categories, the costs of fielding a family-friendlier military, all told, made up around 64% of DoD’s expenses

Today, after twenty years of the Post-9/11 wars, we don’t just talk about DoD readiness, building troop resilience, and the Total Fighting Force—we talk about Total Force Families; military family readiness, and building military family resilience. And sometimes, we even talk about the 1.6 million young Americans, the Post-9/11 military kids, who’ve “already served.” 

We hardly know what they mean for the future of America’s Armed Forces.

This matters exponentially, because to date, over 60% of those who have joined the AVF come from military families—with that number being as high as 80% as recently as 2016. If the military really is a “family business” as some within the Armed Forces like to joke, and if it really does rely on military families to actually field a force, then the Pentagon must have a clear-eyed understanding of both the internal and external shocks to military families that might influence them away from the military. Already in the past two years, the Military Family Support Programming Survey has found a decrease among especially enlisted members and their spouses for recommending military service either to their own family members or to anyone considering military life. And in 2022, it’s now a well-publicized fact that nearly every branch of the U.S. military will fall quite short of its needed recruitment numbers.