Column One:
Eye on Unmarried America

December 19, 2005  



Military singles deserve better treatment

by Thomas F. Coleman

Service members, their parents, and other family members are complaining that military personnel who are married are being given preferential treatment at the expense of those who are single.  Whether it is housing, pay, or support services, unmarried personnel seem to get left-over scraps.

A survey conducted by the National Military Family Association, reported two weeks ago in Stars and Stripes magazine, found that parents of single service members felt ignored, even though unmarried military make up nearly half of deployed troops. Unlike spouses, parents of those troops are not given military ID cards and are often not able to access information and services available to military couples.

Last week I received a letter from a woman whose brother had served long and honorably in the Air Force, including the Persian Gulf. 

"He told how men of lower rank who were married, even without kids, got nice housing while he got stuck in the cattle barn barracks with no amenities and zero privacy," she explained. "He told me he had to be available nights, weekends and holidays because the marrieds had families and he did not."

Her brother "spoke of being paid less than marrieds for the same or less rank," she added.

The website of the Deputy Undersecretary of Defense acknowledges major housing problems experienced by single service members. 

"Junior-enlisted service members are required to live in barracks, where they share a room with at least one other person and with a communal bathroom and a telephone down the hall," the website states.  "About half a million single service members live in these quarters, which are often substandard, inadequately maintained, or obsolete."

A survey of single service members living in barracks found that most of them would prefer to live outside the barracks, regardless of cost. Their preferences in order of priority were for larger rooms, more privacy, a private bath, and more storage for their personal items.

The issue of substandard housing was the focus of a letter I received from an Army private a few years back.  He complained that single soldiers are housed in small 165 square feet rooms.

"Along with other problems in our run down barracks, we also have to deal with asbestos located throughout the barracks," he said.  "It's great that we have warning signs to tell us that it is going to kill us, but there is nothing that we can do for our own well being."

G2mil, a quarterly magazine published by former military officers, tells of the housing nightmare for single sailors assigned to a ship. An article entitled "Quartered on Ship" explained their plight.

"Civilians may confuse Navy deployments with their Caribbean vacation cruises.  Navy ships have no alcohol, live entertainment, legal gambling, or swimming pools. A small two-person cruise cabin would typically house nine junior sailors. Everything they own must be crammed into the room. 

"In recent years, terrorist concerns have severely restricted port calls around the world making Navy life tougher.  When ships return from deployments, the Navy does not provide quarters ashore for unmarried sailors below E-6, so they continue to live crammed aboard ship.  Since they are always on ship, they are often rounded up for special details while 'off-duty', while their married counterparts sleep soundly at home."

According to the G2mil article, these inequities cause most unmarried sailors to either marry or leave the service. This conclusion was echoed by Wil, a former Navy man, who once wrote to me.

"After living in the barracks for my entire stint in the military and watching the disparity in quality of life between myself and married folks, I decided to leave the service," Wil said.  "The military is losing competent people hand over fist because we're treated differently," he added.

As for inequities in pay, the Air Force website bluntly tells would-be recruits that "your salary will be based on your time in the Air Force, marital status, where you live and your rank." 

What's the connection between marital status and level of pay?  Why should a single service member get less pay than a married one?

Problems with unfair pay and second-class housing are not limited to the Air Force or Navy.  A few years ago, a single soldier told me about inequities in pay as well as housing.

"If you are married you get money for separate rations about $220.00 a month, but if you are single you don't," the soldier complained.  "You are given a meal card and if you are single and would rather buy food and cook for yourself, then it comes out of your pocket."

Married soldiers can either get on-post housing or if none is available then they can move off post and are given a housing allowance. He added:

"As a single soldier we live in the barracks, and these barracks are really crappy. They have 2 people living in one small room, and we have community showers. If a single person wants to move out, he has to get it approved by his chain of command. He cannot get on post housing so he must live off post, and he does not qualify for a housing allowance or separate rations because he is single."

The unfair treatment of singles in the military is affecting millions of people.  According to Department of Defense statistics for 2002, about 51 percent of enlisted members in all branches of service are unmarried. 

Marital status varies by Service. Air Force members are most likely to be married (56 percent, while Marines are least likely to be married (41 percent).

It is common knowledge that young people are not enlisting in the armed forces in large enough numbers.  Unless we return to the draft, the military will have to make some major changes to entice more young people to volunteer for service. 

Since 90 percent of recruits are single, perhaps one of the issues which the Pentagon should put on the table for discussion, is how the military can become more "singles friendly" to these newcomers as well as to long-term singles in the service.

According to Carlton Meyer, editor of G2mil Magazine, if the military were to become more fair to single service members, "morale will soar, desertions will decline, reenlistments will rise, and combat readiness will increase." 

That certainly would be an improvement over what we have now.

Unmarried America 2005

Thomas F. Coleman, Executive Director of Unmarried America, is an attorney with 33 years of experience in singles' rights, family diversity, domestic partner benefits, and marital status discrimination.  Each week he adds a new commentary to Column One: Eye on Unmarried America. E-mail: Unmarried America is a nonprofit information service for unmarried employees, consumers, taxpayers, and voters.