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Serving a nation –– and a meal

Lisa Smith Molinari

By Lisa Smith Molinari

I’m just a housewife – what the heck do I know?

Some days it seems my only expertise is how to wipe smudges off the refrigerator door, but it turns out I’ve actually learned a thing or two in my 21 years of marriage. No, I’m not talking about the best way to butterfly a chicken breast or how to disinfect the bathroom floor.

I’ve learned much more as a military spouse.

I know that being in the United States military is not just a job – it’s a lifestyle that requires the full-on commitment of the entire family. Since the 1970s, our military has consisted entirely of volunteers who sign up to serve their country, knowing that their families will face sacrifices and hardships.

Over my husband’s 26 years on active duty in the Navy, our family has lived in nine different homes in five states and two foreign countries. My husband has spent many months, cumulative years, away from home. But we’ve been pretty lucky – he has been safe, and our life has been good. Other military families have had it much worse, with multiple deployments, back-to-back hardship tours and hazardous duty. Many have stayed in the military well past their service obligation, even through 13 long years of war.

Why on earth do they do it?

Although retirement benefits and job stability are factors, a sense of patriotic duty motivates military families to keep at it. The honor, pride and respect that has traditionally come with serving one’s country has been a key reason why military families continue to volunteer for duty year after year.

But the climate is changing, and service members feel a chill in the air.

With sequestration and other budget cuts, military downsizing, veteran unemployment and the public’s increasing war fatigue, we’re not exactly feeling the love. The armed forces could be facing the worst military retention rates since the post-Vietnam War era.

National support for the military is a major challenge to maintaining the all-volunteer force, concluded the Blue Star Families 2014 Military Family Lifestyle Survey. Participants in the survey reported their perception that “civilians do not understand the service or sacrifices made by military families.” Blue Star Families recommended that policymakers take note of “the contributions of the military service culture to American life.”

My husband’s service branch reports plummeting morale; only 17.7 percent of sailors ranked morale to be good or excellent, according to the 2014 Navy Retention Study.

“Sailors are most likely to leave uniformed service because of increasingly high operational tempo, poor work/life balance, low service-wide morale, declining pay and compensation, waning desire to hold senior leadership positions, and a widespread distrust of senior leadership, all of which erodes loyalty to the institution,” that study reported.

I might just be a housewife whose biggest mental challenge today was remembering to defrost the rump roast, but I do know this:

On Veterans Day, we all need to snap out of the political buzz surrounding Election Day long enough to appreciate the military men, women and families who spend years committed to securing our country’s freedom. We can’t allow anti-war sentiment and budget concerns to negatively affect the motivations for service, and thus our nation’s military strength.

To bridge the widening gap of understanding between military and civilians on Veterans Day, why can’t we reach out, shake a hand, share a meal, have a conversation? Civilians, invite a military family to dinner and compare stories. Military folks, invite your non-military friends over and help them understand military culture. Our stories connect us, even when those stories are not the same. We can learn to appreciate one another by knowing more about one another.

Along with more than 40 other military family writers, I shared my experiences in a book called, “Stories Around the Table: Laughter, Wisdom, and Strength in Military Life.” My story is about how my husband and I met the challenge of our son’s autism diagnosis, and how it affected my career choices. Other writers tell their stories about adoption, grief, friendship, school choices, depression, faith, marriage and more – because the story of military life is not all about moves and deployments. It’s that and so much more.

It’s nice to grab the hand of a veteran and say, “Thank you for your service to our country.” It’s even better to take the time to sit down and get to know veterans and their families. Now, more than ever, military families need to be told that their sacrifices are indeed worth it.

Lisa Smith Molinari is a “Meat & Potatoes of Life” columnist and co-author of “Stories Around the Table: Laughter, Wisdom, and Strength in Military Life.”