Today we kick off Episode 7 of the 8-part Guest Post series: Military Life: Two Perspectives
In case you missed the introduction to the series: Military Life: Two Perspectives with Leto and Avalune, An Introduction
You can find the whole series here: Military Life: Two Perspectives with Leto & Avalune
The topic today is Work Life in the Military, from Avalune’s perspective. Next Saturday, we’ll hear from Leto & Avalune in a final post, together, on military life.
“Approach your own personal voyage and projects like Michelangelo approached a block of marble, willing to learn and adjust as you go, and even to abandon a previous goal and change directions entirely should the need arise. Research on creators in domains from technological innovation to comic books shows that a diverse group of specialists cannot fully replace the contributions of broad individuals. Even when you move on from an area of work or an entire domain, that experience is not wasted.” Range – David Esptein.
They call this room the “fishbowl.” As expected of a room with such a nickname, all the walls consist of glass windows. One side of the room faces an empty waiting room. The other side faces an internal intersection with one hallway leading to the staff cafeteria, one to the administration staff offices, and one to the intake hallway and the yard containing a school building, three dorms and a gym. I answer the rare phone calls – usually a parent trying to “drop off” a frustrating child at a long-term psychiatric facility which requires a court ordered stay – greet the rare guests, and look for ways to keep busy.
Kelly Services sent me here after a number of other short jobs in everything from helping with filing, to changing the marketing on gas station signs – the last, something I was not aware was completed by hapless temp workers, rather than gas station employees. The job is easy and I’m glad to have found it after floating around in the wake of the hurricane but doing Sudoko puzzles and knitting socks does not exactly live up to my job expectations or potential after having received a master’s degree.
It is not uncommon for a military spouse (or anyone really) to be underemployed or unemployed. Some common factors more specific to military:
Employers, though not legally able to discriminate against military spouses, will often choose the candidate they deem less likely to move after a couple years of investment in time and training.
Jobs offers sometimes only come through networking or “who you know.” Military spouses may not “know” anyone when they first arrive at a new duty station.
Military bases are often in poorer areas with higher unemployment rates.
Credentials for some specialties do not always transfer state to state.
SOFA agreements do not always allow for a military spouse to work in that country and on base jobs may be very limited on remote locations. Wages for these jobs are often set at the lowest minimum wage in the US. Employment in these jobs is encouraged in a way that smacks of “taking one for the team” or “doing your part,” because they do not provide the flexibility or pay to cover the childcare needed to accept the job in the first place. Even if a spouse works out a system in which both parents can cover childcare, the military spouse can be sent away on short notice, upending all arrangements.
Prior to the Post 9/11 G.I. Bill, there were programs which would help pay for education/training for military spouses; however, the degree choices were very limited and often in fields like Medical Transcription. Because they were so severely limited in scope, much of the money allocated for such grants went unused, particularly, since many of the professions in this program tended to be the type in which credentials vary from location to location resulting in the cycle mentioned above. Now military members can essentially trade years in service for the ability to transfer their G.I. Bill to their dependent spouse or child and there are fewer constraints with regards to specific degree choices, but even with a degree, there are still logistical issues with finding jobs while tethered to active duty military.
These factors sometimes result in gaps in employment or very generalist experience in a society where specialist experience is frequently more valued. This creates a cycle where the military spouse is overqualified in a vast array of things and under qualified in others. A military spouse will find themselves working their way up in a particular industry or location, only to find themselves back at the beginning, or in a different industry all together.
After I worked my way up from the fishbowl to founding and running an Intake Coordinator position which allowed the treatment facility to open up a second dorm building and double their patient capacity, I moved on to other jobs, including; executive secretary for Big Jerk Moving Company, adjunct for Some University out of Alabama University, sales associate at a quilt store where I was paid in yarn store (it was a friend’s store and this would have been amazing except my student loan lender would not take payment in hats), unemployed hobo, and eventually a Field Representative for a university with an outpost in Northern Italy.
I sometimes have a difficult time hiding incredulity. I suspect the part of my brain that controls my facial expression really wants the other person to know I’m stupefied by the words coming out of their mouth, but this is Multi-Star General So and So and I’m civilian fodder and I’m not supposed to look at them like I cannot believe the words coming out of their mouth, so I try to look busy.
General So and So is in the Education Office, talking to the GAA (general academic advisor) and the only live university field rep this far north of the major US bases in Italy. Well, really, he is not talking to us, as much as he is talking to Commander Big Deal, and we happen to be in the room. I’m getting a women-are-meant-to-be-seen-not-heard vibe and think he’d probably prefer me in a kitchen somewhere, if only because he has no previous experience with me in a kitchen.
He laments the number of people joining the military for educational purposes and waxes poetic about how they are supposed to be here out of a sense of duty and country. I shuffle papers because I’m not meant to join this conversation, so much as witness it. This attitude among leadership is exactly why I have so much trouble doing my job here.
I clench my teeth because I want to point out that if it’s so egregious, he should have a chat with the boys in the ole PR office because every damned commercial I’ve seen in the last 10 years focuses on some version of join the [insert military branch] and go to school free! Therefore, it made perfect sense that most of the people joining up were doing so with the intent of getting an education. I also want to point out that the path to promotion requires education. Hindering an airman’s education, hinders his chance of promotion, of success. I want to tell him he and Big Deal may as well literally have their boot on the throat of their men, but doing so would probably just give him an excuse to nod knowingly at Commander Big Deal in a way that suggests tut tut isn’t it a shame about the hysterical women.
I am indignant long after he finally hauls himself out of the chair to go spew “in my day” nonsense in someone else’s direction. Leadership here actively hinder airman from participating in class. I’ve heard some say they were given direct orders not to take classes because their mission was highest priority and lessons would negatively interfere with their mission. I am not privy to the details of the mission, so I don’t know whether or not this is an adequate assessment. I only know that the maintenance department had to bolt down the university dry erase board because keep security forces keep stealing it, and I get yelled at by leadership when my instructors erase the meeting notes, so that they can conduct class – on the board, for whom it was purchased by the university. I know instead of sending an email about said board to me, they sent it to the entire base, knowing the intended party was almost literally the only person who would not receive their instructions for the board which they did not own. I know I have to move hell and high water to make sure the building is unlocked and available when it is time for class.
This isn’t my first run in with Big Deal and Maintenance Twerp. I’ve already had to convince supervision to break refund policy because I was convinced the $40 application fee wasn’t worth the damage Big Deal’s wife could cause to our access. I couldn’t ignore the rumors about Big Deal shutting down any bible studies he didn’t run, nor the state of the spouse’s group after Big Deal’s wife took over.
Fortunately, not everyone in a position of trust and leadership is actively trying to sabotage higher education and some people get out of there with the degrees needed to achieve rank. No one is hired before my position goes vacant, so I create a very thorough training binder and tuck it away with a few hail Mary’s for the poor sap who gets to fight the power in my stead.
Here we are again – working on a resume. Technically, I am working on a curriculum vitae because all positions in England require a CV. English CVs have more in common with resumes than curriculum vitae in the sense that I’m accustomed to, so I’m having to work out the differences between the two when Leto pops in the door and tells me to pack my best knitting projects and follow him.
I blink stupidly, and select some lace work and try to make sense of my hair. We drive to the Arts and Crafts side of the Skills development Center where he introduces me to a petite British woman. She and I talk about knitting and some of the other crafts I’ve picked up over the course of deployments. She offers me a job and shows me around the shop. Drill press. Table saw. Hydraulic press. Chisels. Hulking printers. Mug press. Computerized mat cutter. Glass cutter. A clutter of frame moldings. A tiny kiln. An impregnable storage room straight out of an episode of Hoarders and inexplicably, a machine for printing license plates. It is the license plate printing that brought Leto here and subsequently, myself.
Over the next four years, I’ll work as a recreation assistant in a shop usually full of Brits. The auto body shop next door is also part of the Skills Development Center. Sometimes we watch their shop or drive down to the gate to pick up parts for them. My coworkers come and go, usually women and usually military spouses at the start but the shop becomes almost entirely Local National Hires because the military spouses prefer to work in the better paying childcare or barista positions.
I’m happy doing the work and we’re ok financially, so I keep the job despite the abysmal pay. I study how to program the mat cutter to create a wide array of custom designs to showcase and protect everything from shiny belt buckles to commemorate a 100 Mile Ultra Marathon, to stacks of medals and ribbons commemorating 20 years of service. I find it strangely satisfying to solve the challenging puzzles of how best to arrange, secure, preserve and frame a rather eccentric collection of art and objects.
When not framing, I’m building up our course offerings and working with other departments to add variety. I scour localities for class ideas or local artists willing to teach a class. Leadership shoots down anything resembling figure drawing, even if we argue all figures will be fully clothed but outdoor recreation agrees to drive us to Stratford Upon Avon for an urbansketching class in Shakespeare’s hometown. We paint faces and do kid’s crafts at the July 4thParty while Brits dryly wish us “Happy Independence” while trying not to look like they are enjoying themselves.
People travel three or more hours to have things framed at our shop, despite there being closer shops. Sometimes aggravated shop directors call us to ask about our classes because they are receiving complaints about not having the same kind of robust offerings. We’re very proud of our work and work hard. Our shop carries many of the other shops that make up the services squadron.
I learn very British humor. We have an ongoing joke about “going doggin” thanks to our mutual love of Peter Kay’s Car Share. I must keep a straight face while my young Brit co-worker is trying to explain the term after accidentally mentioning it in front of our new commander. He doesn’t really get it and she is very red and I am in danger of biting my cheek right open trying not to burst. We argue about the virtue of American biscuits and gravy and I’m indignant because British people are rather quick to put gravy on almost literally anything else. We also argue about why they say herb like the man’s name, with a hard H, when they don’t say hair to the Queen.
We sweat in the summer, locked in the shop with all the windows closed because there is an active shooter drill and security forces running around playing the bad guy. Will they catch him? Or will we die of heat exhaustion in this poorly ventilated shop? We teach a class in a tiny office full of parents and children and PPE and plastic coverings over vents and doors during an unexpected chemical attack drill. We go to trainings for OPSEC (Operational Security) and Green Dot (Sexual Abuse) and Suicide. Our commander tells us not to treat them any differently while demanding we treat them differently. We are blissful children playing, and there are moments you almost forget the reason we are here but then you have to go sign in the delivery guy and make small talk while he looks nervously at the guns of the men searching the glass sheets and moldings in his van. We show children how to paint happy little animals on coffee mugs and then smile wanly at your co-worker who is looking rather pale during the commander’s briefing about “putting warheads on foreheads” said to grunts of approval and the occasional shout.
I return to higher education when I return to the states. I don’t want to return to either, but I am here now and acutely aware of the four-year gap between my work in higher ed in Italy and the work I seek now. I endeavor to spin my time as a professional framer/craft instructor in a way that emphasizes training and teaching and management and USAFE Best Small Shop Awards. I emphasize my experience with diversity – look I’m cultured! I emphasize having to maintain operational standards following military, civilian and British rules and regulations – all at the same time! Hire me! I should be very good at spinning generalist experience by now, but it is still hard to do.
I am at the bottom rung of yet another ladder to climb.