Military Wives

A recent government study sent shockwaves through my community. “Military wives may be more likely to binge drink,” the Military Times reported. My initial response to the study was, Well, when your spouse goes to war, you drink more wineBut is that binge drinking?

As a military spouse of 10 years, I’d say I’ve seen a lot of what happens behind the scenes. I’ve sent my husband off to war with a three week old and a 21 month old. I’ve said goodbye to friends and had tearful reunions. I’ve gone years without seeing my extended family. Some days I’m totally on my own to parent, while others, I’m pouring wine for a date night at home.

But as I read more about this study, I became outraged, and I was not alone. The study, prepared by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) based on a survey conducted in 2015, found that 31 percent of military wives had had four alcoholic drinks in one sitting at least once in the previous 30 days. That four drinks in a sitting is the criterion for binge drinking as defined by the SAMHSA. That third of military wives who had engaged in “binge drinking” was nine percentage points higher than married women in the civilian population. As far as non-binge drinking, military wives still drink more than women overall: 68 percent of military wives drank alcohol in the previous 30 days — compared to 54 percent of all married women.

There are lots of problems with the study. First of all, there are 591,505 female military spouses, according to the 2015 Military One Source Demographics Report, and the majority of them are between the ages of 18 and 30. But the SAMHSA study compares these young women with all married women, of any age, even though women aged 18 to 34 have higher risks of alcohol-related problems than older women. It seriously impacts the credibility of these findings. “You can’t draw a conclusion that military wives have a higher rate of binge drinking,” Kelly Hruska, director of government relations for the National Military Family Association, told Military Times.

The study also lets 300 military spouses — not even a full percentage worth — speak for all of us.

Then there’s the judgmental terminology. What is “binge drinking” and should it refer to people who drink four drinks in one sitting? Army wife Jennifer Morrison doesn’t think so. “If I‘m at a barbecue all day long or at a ball and the after party, I’m probably going to have 3-4 drinks,” she says. “But the alcohol is spread out over a very long time. But I’m not doing those things every day, or even every month.”

In fact, this so called “binge drinking” may stem from a positive, rather than a negative, source. There are lots of occasions in military family life, in addition to the stresses, like when spouses return safely from deployment. There’s saying hello or good-bye to friends, and unit parties and balls.  “We live a lifestyle that celebrates fairly often, and with that comes alcohol,” Morrison said. In other words, there may be more celebrations every 30 days than in the civilian world, which would explain the elevated levels of drinking.

Still, our community is split on the topic of drinking, as it is on most topics. Half of us think that this study is telling us something we already knew, while the other half thinks it is ridiculous. If military wives choose to celebrate their joys or even drown their sorrows in a glass of wine or more, does it really matter? Sometimes, the days are long, the workload heavy, and we’re lonely. When we get together with our friends, we have a drink. Then we gather up our sleeping kids and walk home.

A general officer’s spouse, who asked not to be identified by name, put it in perspective. “Stationed in Germany, I learned about beers, types of beers, how they’re made, etc,” she says. “We learned to drink and appreciate various beers while removing the ‘let’s get wasted’ factor because that wasn’t the focus. Same with wines and their appreciation and the culture built around the winemaking process.” She went on to add, “That didn’t mean we didn’t get a little crazy at Oktoberfest, but it gave us a completely different perspective.”