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Field Problem: Do They Have To?

Dear, Field Problems:

My boyfriend and I just received a frantic call from his mother. She was told that a young woman (an Army spouse) from her church asked for thoughts and prayers for her husband and his National Guard unit [deployed to Iraq]. According to the wife, her husband said the commander told them there is a high risk of casualties in an upcoming mission, and everyone should call home prior to rolling out. Mom asked us, “Can’t they just ‘not go’”? I never heard of this happening and I didn’t know what to say. What should we tell her?

Julie; Lansing, MI; National Guard girlfriend


Dear, Julie:

This story is unique to us, in that a commander told service members the likelihood of return was low. Sounds like a very de-motivating tactic and counterproductive to what we believe most commanders and upper echelons aim for—motivation and leadership. In brief talks with service members, we learned that this type of guidance can and will happen, but was probably misconstrued by a young, inexperienced service member and an isolated incident. Commanders are meant to mitigate risks, but keep in mind our troops are in harm’s way and emotions run high.

Still, there are stories of soldiers refusing orders that may have caused your boyfriend’s mother to believe that service members have some leeway.

For argument’s sake, let’s explore some options and the consequences of each:

  • Willful disobedience is intentionally not complying with the legal orders of a commander or other person with authority. Questions about the legality of the order are best made with assistance from other superiors and/or legal advisors.
  • Away without leave, or AWOL, is an unauthorized absence from the service member’s place of duty.
  • Desertion is AWOL with the established intent to not return. Usually, after 30 days, service members are moved from AWOL to desertion status.
  • Conscientious objector status is given to a sincere individual who believes war is wrong.

Military code is the applicable laws which determine the consequences for each of these options. It is a code that is applied uniformly, hence Uniform Code of Military Justice, by military adjudicators. For each case, the legality of the order, intent of the soldier, and circumstances of the incident are weighed to determine the proper recourse. But, can the soldier just “not go?”

Not without some substantial fall-out from superiors, the unit, and the service.

Consequences range from official letters of reprimand, demotions, incarceration, or in certain willful disobedience and desertion scenarios, death.

However, your boyfriend’s mother’s story begs a greater explanation of what we think the spouse should do upon hearing this news from her deployed service member. Emotions do run high, and we think this commander could be called to question for his statements and leadership style. But, the damage is done, and this spouse is understandably upset. It’s lucky for her that she has an established network of support to which she can reach out for emotional release and comfort during the anxious times without her service member.

If there’s one thing military spouses are, it’s resilient. But, they don’t get that way overnight and sometimes need assistance. We are advocates for establishing a network early on, during the pre-deployment stage, and even throughout peacetime.

We never know when we’ll need a caring ear or steady shoulder.

Some key individuals should include a respected clergy (military or civilian), key unit contact, other military spouses, and the service member. It behooves the military spouse to talk with each of these individuals about how much information may be too much. Each individual is different. Like, some need to watch the news and receive every detail from their service member. Others definitely don’t. But those calls should be made before there is a chance for something like this to happen. Had the spouse asked the service member to censor some operational details, her anxiety would be much less.

This is not to say that our service members should not tell us anything, or that we should never hear the realities of their days. But set parameters, ensure a solid network of support, and learn some coping skills now rather than later.

A great training tool to help with this is Master Resilience Training. The presentation and handout will talk you through skills that help increase resiliency. Possible scenarios that could affect a military marriage, military children, and one’s mental health are addressed with recommended action steps for the spouse and service member. Spouses can take these classes though Army Community Service.

Resiliency classes as well as Army Family Team Building classes would be very helpful before deployment and even now in the midst of this couple’s deployment.

We know you didn’t ask all that we discussed. But, the message we are attempting to get out is to the next spouse who this may happen to.

Both service members and spouses must understand and come to terms with the difficulties military service entails. Knowing their options, consequences, and a range of coping skills assists with resiliency and decision-making.

We wish the commander hadn’t said what he said.

We wish the service member hadn’t repeated it in-kind to his spouse, family members, and faith community. Beyond that, your boyfriend’s mother should include that couple in her thoughts and prayers.

Because, bottom line, that service member is duty-bound to carry out the mission given to him, and that does prove difficult to both service member and spouse at times.



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