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Paying for War but Not for Care: A Memorial Day Reckoning

The common image of a mother and a soldier seem to offer little commonality (despite a small number of U.S. mothers who are also soldiers). At the heart of both jobs, though, lies an intrinsic sense of duty and sacrifice. Both are cited as being one of the hardest jobs around. And last but not least, America is said to a better nation because of what each group contributes. Despite the valorization that comes from politicians’ podiums about both mothers and soldiers, only one gets economically rewarded for their hard work and sacrifice.

Members of the military, who are 85% male, often get a nice check for enlisting. The average annual salary of a member of the U.S. Army is nearly $55,000, with variations based on rank and years of service.[1] The ROTC program encourages college students to enlist via education scholarships. Housing is guaranteed and compensated based on average costs in the stationed area and rank. A pension is secured after 10 years of service. Healthcare is promised until Medicare starts at age 65.

Children of military parents are in good hands, too, with 95% of the DoD’s 800 child care centers qualifying for NAEYC accreditation. Cost of child care is based on income. Just this month, Sen. Tammy Duckworth (IL-D) and Sen. Jackie Speier (CA-D) proposed a parental leave equity bill that guarantees both the primary and secondary caregiver 12 weeks of paid leave.  

This level of support is right and good. But why is the labor and sacrifice of soldiers worth so much more than mothers? Both mothers and soldiers give up a tremendous amount of freedom in the interest of improving the lives of others, both could earn more in other occupations, both are critical to ensuring our country remains strong, and both die more often than they should. Women’s labor adds trillions of dollars to the world economy and our work is vital to the future of our country. Still, none of the supports offered to soldiers are granted to mothers.

I have traveled the U.S. interviewing women of all ilk. Many mothers are working just to keep their insurance; child care that is simultaneously unsatisfactory and expensive gets put on credit cards. Student loan debt and housing costs add to the struggle. Motherhood decreases a woman’s earning potential by 50% (where men experience wage growth post fatherhood), and 60% of homeless women have children under the age of 18. Those most in need relate harrowing stories of fighting for access to legally mandated government support and other Title VII protections.

Most believe the financial support offered to members of the military off-sets the huge risk one assumes. When I mentioned this article to my nine-year-old son, he too asked: “But isn’t being in the military really dangerous?”

War certainly brings heart-breaking casualties and injuries, and recent data from the US military reports 52 deaths per 100,000 active-duty military personnel, with the top three causes being accidents, self-inflicted, and illness/injury.[2] However, pregnancy and childbirth remain a leading cause of death for women in the U.S. with Black and American Indian/Alaska Native women experiencing deathrates of 40.8 and 29.7 per 100,000 respectively.    

Keep in mind, the ties between motherhood and the military are not as tenuous as one would think, but our government shows clear preference for the labor it finds worthy of reimbursement. During WWI, a mother’s civic duty included raising sons who would become good soldiers. This was done gratis. During WWII the government offered child care so mothers could work in factories, but this was revoked shortly after the war ended despite mass protests. In contrast, the GI Bill permitted (white) men to galvanize their middle-class standing via low-interest mortgages and education stipends.

Parades, movies, and national holidays (like Memorial Day) valorize soldiers’ sacrifice. We are rightfully aghast when our government doesn’t provide critical support. But where is the outrage on behalf of mothers? Where is the push to ensure that women who are raising the next generation of citizens, voters, workers, and, yes, soldiers are also supported?

 In 2011, when Michelle Obama addressed the soldiers at Fort Bragg, she described the  Joining Forces program as a campaign that would rally “all Americans to give you the honor, the appreciation and the support that you have all earned.” This “hasn’t been a difficult campaign,” she explained, “because Americans have been lining up to show their appreciation for you and your families in very concrete and meaningful ways.”

This Memorial Day please offer members of the military your appreciation in concrete and meaningful ways, but also push our government to offer concrete and meaningful support to our other invaluable patriots: mothers.



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“Despite the valorization that comes from politicians’ podiums about both mothers and soldiers, only one gets economically rewarded for their hard work and sacrifice.”