Military spouses commonly hold a misconception: you have to keep your political opinions to yourself because you don’t want to “impact your service member’s career.” I’m here to dispel that myth and encourage military spouses to GET INVOLVED with politics. Our voices and stories need to be heard!
While it is true that according to the DOD Directive 1344.10, Active Duty service members need to stay non-partisan whenever they are at work or in uniform, we as spouses are not required to do the same. The decisions that our government makes directly impact our lives in unique ways. While the transient lifestyle of a military family can be extremely challenging, one positive is that it occasionally provides opportunities for direct action.
When we received orders for the Washington D.C. region, I was thrilled to be close to the heart of where policy decisions are made. The first two years were consumed with getting settled and adjusting to the addition of a new baby in our lives. But after the 2016 election, I decided I was going to find ways to get more involved.
As the granddaughter of Mexican-American migrant workers, advocating for comprehensive, compassionate immigration reform has always been in my blood. My mother picked produce every summer with her family from the time she was 6 years old until she graduated high school and left for nursing school. She later helped support union organizers trying to improve living and working conditions for the workers, and brought me along as a kid. In high school I volunteered with the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, including a trip from Ohio to D.C. to march for immigrant rights. In college I volunteered as a translator at migrant tax clinics and wrote my senior thesis on the history of the Bracero (temporary worker) program.
Before I married my husband, my plan was to go to law school and become an immigration attorney. Military life changed that plan, but my passion for immigrant rights has never waned. It was this passion, paired with the anti-immigrant rhetoric of the 2016 election, that pushed me to decide that I needed to meet face-to-face with my legislators. The “immigrants are rapists and criminals” message appalled me, and the new office of Victims of Immigrant Crime Engagement (VOICE) tipped the balance: from my long involvement with immigrant communities, I know immigrants are far more likely to become the victims of crimes than perpetrators. Though I was a busy mom of two young kids with two part-time jobs and no direct connection to any local advocacy groups, I was outraged and knew my voice needed to be heard.
Although I had written emails and left voicemails and messages with congressional staffers, I wanted to look my Senators in the eye and let them know how deeply upset I was. I quickly signed up for two “Constituent Coffees” with my Ohio Senators. I knew I likely wouldn’t get the chance to speak to them for long, so in addition to the few talking points I’d prepared, I also wrote down my thoughts and concerns in a letter I could hand-deliver to the Senators.
I used my personal Facebook page to tell my Ohio-voting friends about the meetings and offer to pass along any letters they wanted to get into the hands of their elected officials. I received a dozen letters on a variety of topics.
Because my husband was working long hours at the Pentagon, I had to take my 16-month-old son along for the experience. It took some extra planning, but I put him in the baby backpack, and he joined me at both coffees.
On February 16th, 2017, little Sam and I headed to the Hill to meet Senator Sherrod Brown. It was a very positive experience. Senator Brown and his staffers were receptive to my concerns and gladly received the letters I brought. They reassured me that all the correspondence constituents send do get read! Even when my son had an epic fifteen-minute meltdown, Senator Brown and his wonderful staffers were gracious and kind as their smallest constituent lost his ever-loving mind.
Two weeks later, on March 1st, 2017, I attended Senator Portman’s Constituent Coffee. It was far more crowded than Senator Brown’s because of Ohio’s birthday, but I still managed to squeeze to the front of the line and talked to Senator Portman briefly twice. He jokingly asked me who my son was there representing. I told him proudly that Sam represented military children. He genuinely thanked me for our family’s service and welcomed us to come to his office anytime. I then excused myself because Sam was losing it (he wanted “MORE!!!” ice – turns out 16-month-olds are completely unimpressed with Senators).
The second time we spoke after pictures, I relayed my concern about the vilification of immigrants. He told me about the summer he worked with migrant workers and they taught him Spanish. He assured me that he knows the majority of immigrants are good people looking for a better life. He said that the previous night was the first time he’d heard of the “VOICE” agency and would look more deeply into it. Though our interaction was short, it was positive.
While my small piece of direct action may not have made a huge impact on the policy choices of my Senators, it was important to me to set the example for my children, friends, and family that in a democracy, every voice matters. Sharing our stories and communicating with our elected officials about the issues that are close to our hearts is how we stay engaged members of our society.
Lena Steiner is the owner and head coach of TRF Coaching, a certified personal trainer, and group fitness instructor. She is also the mother of two fantastic kids and one goofy dog. She has supported her husband’s Army career for 15 years.