By Joy Craig
Editor's Note: Liesel Kershul and Joy Craig wrote each other open letters. Neither of the writers saw the other's letter before publication. Read Liesel's letter to Joy.
Meeting you in Manhattan this spring and, more importantly, liking you has forced me to rethink the years-long grudge I’ve held against military wives. I’ve been taught not to like your kind.
When I was a young Marine, it went against my gut instinct. I was raised a polite person and always tried to make friends, but Marine wives and female Marines typically react like oil to water. But when we met I realized that you’re not like most Marine wives. You have your own career, your own independent thoughts, and a spunk I really admire. Before you and I can become friends, I’d like to address the silent rift between us.
During my 17 enlisted years I attended countless command functions where Marine wives gave me dirty looks, made snide remarks, and gossiped about me, often with their husbands’ encouragement. Some pulled me aside to advise that I “stay the fuck away” from their husbands, branding me a predatory whore. Eventually I got sick of the “Jezebel” title and began to snap back. My standard response became, “Don’t flatter yourself, he’s all yours,” or worse, “If I wanted your husband I’d already have him.” This won me no friends.
I had hoped after becoming an officer, things would be different. Maybe the higher pedigree would calm down the juvenile pettiness between wives and women Marines. I was wrong. While the enlisted wives threaten you to your face, the officer wives are much more “bless your heart” about it.
Shortly after joining my first squadron as an officer, I attended a “Hail and Farewell” party to welcome new officers and send off those departing. Just after arriving I realized the cold shoulder routine extended across the enlisted-officer boundary. Despite my attempts at conversation, the wives congealed leaving me to talk with the only wife married to her husband during his enlisted years. With her low-rent nature and mother-of-three body, she too had been shunned by the beehive.
Since then, I’ve declined giving officer's wives the opportunity to get to know me, quickly dismissing them after a sugary, limp-wristed introduction where we struggled to find anything we had in common. What did they know of my life or the chip on my shoulder? I’d size them up and instantly know where I stood with them, and they with me. And this, Liesel, is why I like you. You’re a breath of fresh air.
Few of the Marine wives I’ve met speak of their own accomplishments, boasting instead of their husbands’. I began to believe this was what they’d wanted all along, winning the, “I found someone to take care of me” contest. They looked at me with pity, that I had to work for a living or that I was a destitute, single mother who, sadly, would likely never land a man.
They were taught the rank structure of wives, and how officially they didn’t wear their husband’s rank, but unofficially they all knew their place. Senior wives routinely induct new wives into the spouses “club,” laying out the standards of behavior and etiquette, gathering for afternoon teas and girls’ days, while their husbands do the mens’ work.
A fellow female Warrant Officer explained to me how she, upon her husband's commissioning, was invited to attend an afternoon tea at the commanding general’s home to welcome the new spouses into the Marine Corps. She was shocked to find off-duty enlisted Marines, in uniform, being paid to serve the officers’ wives. Happy for the extra cash, these Marines were likely unaware of the visual first impression that enlisted Marines were subservient, even to officer wives. Listening to this story both infuriated, and stuck with me.
It didn’t help that the wives of my new coworkers were near the top of the status heap: the wives of Marine Fighter Pilots. It was pilots’ wives who, at my last duty station, mutilated Marine Corps uniforms with scissors, sewing machines, and bedazzle guns into sexy outfits adorned with the Marine Corps emblem and their husbands’ ranks. The pink-camo monstrosities at the Officers Club that night sealed the deal for me; I would never be friends with a Marine wife. Until you’ve endured the soul crushing rites of passage your husband and I have survived, no, you don’t get to wear his rank. You don’t get to slap a sticker on your car claiming you have, “the toughest job in the Marine Corps,” or desecrate the uniform I fought for the right to wear for a “girls-night” at the O-Club.
I do realize much of the poor behavior I’ve witnessed is encouraged by the husbands, and of course, tradition. I get how wives must act, the appearances they have to keep. They’re expected to maintain the “perfect hostess” image forsaking their own opinions and identity… I understand. I’ve been forced into equally uncomfortable molds, with the added responsibility of being a warfighter. While trying to raise children I had to deploy, pay bills alone, stay fit and fight for my place in arguably the most misogynistic fraternity in the United States.
But here’s the hitch; other than you, I can’t think of anyone outside of my sisters in arms who could understand the pain and loneliness I felt being a woman in what is still, very much, a man’s Marine Corps. You know as well as I do that we are pitted against each other because I am expected to do something no one ever admits to: keeping your husband's secrets from you.
We’re not supposed to talk about it, but there is a reason the phrase, “What goes on deployment, stays on deployment” exists. If women Marines and wives don’t get along, maybe I won’t tell the truth about the hookers in Thailand, the strippers in Guam, or the debauchery during our last deployment. Maybe I won’t mention the times they hit on me either. So these men return home, shoot holes in my credibility, spread lies about me, and maybe a few truths, but either way, most wives dislike me before we ever meet, and it’s all by design.
Liesel, I need you to be an ally and I want you to be my friend. I’m writing you this now for the same reason I wore fancy underwear beneath my uniform all those years, to remind myself that the men don’t have control over everything. If you and I can be friends, maybe we can help tamp down the out-of-control “boys will be boys” mentality that keeps giving the Corps its self-inflicted wounds. The other services don’t have this problem to the extent we do. It is unique to the service we share, and you and I can work to mend it.