You may have seen him at playgroup or at a spouse club meeting. Maybe he looks a little lost, a bit overwhelmed and very, very lonely. You ignore him at first, but then start to wonder: Who is he? Why is this random guy showing up at events with a bunch of women? So you finally talk to him. He’s a male military spouse, a stay-at-home dad. His wife recently deployed, leaving him alone with their baby for the first time. He’s terrified for his wife’s safety, so scared he can’t sleep at night. He’s also isolated at a new installation, far from family and friends — trapped at home with the kids as a single parent without any babysitters or child care options.
Unlike his female counterparts, he can’t turn to the army of other spouses in the command, spouses who are there to provide an understanding ear or a reassuring hug, who babysit each other’s children, meet up for birthday parties, relax with a group over wine on Saturday nights, or spend an afternoon shopping. He doesn’t have that. There simply aren’t enough male military spouses, and of the few who are on post, he’s the only one who actually goes to the spouse group meetings. He doesn’t always feel welcome, and other than being a parent and being married to a Soldier, he doesn’t have much in common with the group.
“I don’t want to play Bunko,” Wayne Perry quipped to a group of Army spouses (all women) who were gathered for a meeting in Washington, D.C. “And I sure don’t want to do it in my pajamas.” Perry writes a blog, The Army Wife (Dude), and runs a Facebook support page for male military spouses, MANning the Homefront. After his wife, Andrea, a sergeant and a combat medic, joined the Army three years ago, Perry dedicated himself to bringing Army husbands together. He estimates that there are about 20,000 civilian “man spouses,” as he likes to call them, in the Army. With the military set to open additional military occupational specialties to women, Perry said that number can only go up, so maintaining healthy marriages and families is vitally important. In fact, Army leaders have echoed this sentiment countless times, saying strong Army families are the foundation of a strong force.
“We know that resiliency in the Army is key,” he said. “We understand battle buddies, which green-suiters have. You have your battle buddy. Military spouses, military wives, have their battle buddies. They’ve embraced that. We don’t have that. We’re kind of just left out there. But we know that resiliency is key to making a successful marriage work in the military. We make up nine percent of the marriages in the military, but we make up 34 percent of the divorces. That’s a staggering number to me. I can’t wrap my head around it.
“I want to put it a different way: Imagine you have two battalions that are identical. They both have a thousand Soldiers. One battalion is receiving 20 casualties. One battalion is receiving 80 casualties, and there’s no answer for why. That’s what we’re seeing in the marriages of our female service members. This isn’t really about the male military spouse. It’s about our service members and their families.”
Andrea enlisted after they were already married, when their son was nine months old. (Perry also has a now-12-year-old son from a previous relationship who lives with them.) After more than a decade in landscaping, Perry had hurt his back and could no longer work, so Andrea had to find a way to support them. The Army seemed like a natural, obvious choice.
“We thought it would work out great because it would give me an opportunity to stay with the kids and she could do what she wanted to do. We’re not your typical man and woman, so it’s kind of fitting for us for her to be at work and for me to be the one taking care of the kids,” Perry said in an interview. “I hate to put it like this, but she’s a man and I’m a woman as far as our mentalities and our emotions. It’s quite unique the way we’re wired, I guess you could say.”
He was excited at the opportunities that would unfold for her, he freely admits, excited about becoming a member of the Army family, but he was utterly unprepared for what it would mean for him. “There was no one to really talk to. We had family and friends and stuff, but I went from being able to go play poker with the guys on Saturday night to now I’ve got two kids at home and nobody to watch them, so I can’t play poker. I can’t go fishing. I can’t do the things that I enjoy doing. It was Dad on duty all the time. That challenge – I wasn’t prepared for it.”
Between basic and advanced training and a deployment, Andrea was gone for 18 months straight and the loneliness and the worry were crushing for Perry. He even moved to San Antonio for a few months when Andrea was at AIT, just so he and the boys could see her for a few hours once a week. She didn’t want him to come, she said, she wouldn’t be able to see him more than an hour or two a week, but he did it anyway. He missed her too much. And she ended up seeing their son’s first steps, something she would have missed had he stayed home.
Then Andrea deployed to Afghanistan in January 2011. Perry had imagined her staying and working on a large forward operating base, with little exposure to actual combat. Instead, Andrea served much of her tour on an all-female cultural support team. She was not only going out among the villagers, she was assigned to a small outpost in the middle of an Afghan village with little outside communications. The only phones were in a common area, so she and her husband couldn’t even have a private conversation. Perry talked and she mostly listened. He had a hard time talking about his deepest fears, though. He worried he would never see her again, but more than that, he worried she’d be raped. Although Andrea says it never even crossed her mind, the remote possibility kept Perry up at night. All night. Every night. Even three sleeping pills a night didn’t help. He was her husband. He was supposed to protect her, and he couldn’t.
“That was always on my mind. I think that’s something that guys think about a little more often than the female military spouses do,” he said. “You know, your wife is out there. … It got really bad, really dark (and I dealt with) a lot of mental health issues. … I’ve been learning to cope with it. … That was something I did and continue to do, you know, getting on medication, trying to work through anxiety and depression, talk therapy – counseling – going through that, really just anything and everything. The resources are available, just utilizing them.”
And then Andrea returned, and like any Army family after a deployment, they had adjustments to make. Actually, as Andrea admitted, Perry had to do the most adjusting. He said that’s another major difference between male and female military spouses: When his wife came home, it was to immediately take up her mantle as wife and mother. Even though Perry had been home with the kids for the past year, he didn’t feel as if he could contradict her parenting decisions. She let him continue to discipline the kids, but “she’s got that maternal instinct. She comes home and ‘This is how we’re going to do it,’ and as a guy, you really can’t (object) because you’re telling Mama Bear how to take care of her cubs. That just doesn’t go over well,” he said. Perry, for example, had his younger son in bed every night at seven. After Andrea came home, she let their toddler stay up with her until nine, until he fell asleep on the couch. Now, he won’t go to sleep in his own bed.
During Andrea’s deployment, Perry had started playing video games to keep him occupied during the day. It also helped when he finally found more male spouses at Fort Riley, Kan. At first, all the other spouses (all wives) in his son’s playgroup ignored him. But they gradually opened up and then someone from the USO introduced him to another male military spouse.
“We all decided, you know, let’s go ahead and try to do this,” Perry said. “And then with my knowledge of social media, I just started reaching out to more and more guys
and started finding them by the boatloads. (There were actually 502 of them at Fort Riley in July 2011.) It was quite quick that I went from ‘Am I the only one?’ to ‘Holy cow. There’s tons of us.’
“Most guys (are like) ‘I don’t need a battle buddy. I can do this. I’m a tough guy.’ Deep down, we do need that. We need other guys to go to the park with, to grab a burger and a beer with, to go to a ballgame, just to have somebody who can share our sentiments: You know, ‘I’m struggling that my wife is gone.’ ‘You too?’ ‘Me too. I didn’t know other people did that.’ We get our support in different ways than women.
“We see guys getting together to brew beer, to play golf, to grab a burger, to go to a ballgame. That’s what we’re finding. That’s the community. That’s the resiliency. You don’t necessarily get the counseling from another guy by sitting down and having a heart-to-heart conversation. Maybe it’s on the way to the ballgame. Maybe it’s at the ballgame. This is the first time that male military spouses have had a voice on a large stage,” he continued, noting that male spouses have another new online community named Macho Spouse, and that the 2012 Military Spouse of the Year was actually an Air Force husband named Jeremy Hilton.
Although having that community of other male spouses has made a huge difference, Perry has recently had to step back from his blog and the Facebook site a bit as his family prepares to move to Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash. He’s already been in touch with the spouses’ club on Lewis, however, and plans to get back in the thick of things as soon as they settle in.
“I’ve proposed to them creating a subgroup within their spouses’ club for guys,” he said. “Just let the guys go to dinner once a month. It will be sponsored by the spouses’ club, but the spouses’ club doesn’t do anything except get numbers out of it. They don’t pay for anything. The guys just go to dinner. But you get that word out and then you have the leadership from the spouses’ club.”
“It makes it easier on both of us,” Andrea said, “for him, to be able to make contacts and ask questions and kind of know people before we get out there, and then I don’t feel as much pressure because I know he’s already talking to people. I know he feels better, so it makes me feel better.” Perry and other military husbands have made a lot of progress, she continued, but she still wishes more men would come forward. “In the Army, women have come a lot farther than the men at home have come.”
While Perry admits that he had his doubts about Army life during Andrea’s long deployment, he’s embraced it now, thanks, in part, to his newfound battle buddies. “It truly is an honor to be a military spouse,” he said. “I think just the community we live in, it’s remarkable. A lot of people take it for granted, but it’s an extremely awesome community to be a part of.”