It happened again just yesterday. “Oh, you’re a veteran too?” I can never quite discern if that comment is rooted in my being a woman or the fact that I’m barely five feet tall and just over 100 pounds. Either way, I’ve grown accustomed to that look of surprise. Twenty nine years ago, I transitioned from being an active duty member to being a military spouse, and stay-at-home mom for a period of time. I’ve always thought there should be some mark of distinction on “dependent” ID cards for former service members. In essence, I became an invisible veteran after assuming the role of military spouse. In my eyes, both roles deserve recognition of the inherent dedication and sacrifice. I must confess, however, that until recently I never recognized the distinctive role of male military spouses. Do they receive the same look of surprise in sharing their service role? Are they acknowledged inside our military culture? How have male veteran merged their “service identity” with that of dependent spouse?
In today’s “Bratland” feature, I’ll share the insight I gained to those questions, and more, during a recent telephone interview. Jeremy Hilton was named the 2012 Armed Forces Insurance Military Spouse of the Year — the first man to receive this honor. After graduating from the Air Force Academy, he served in the United States Navy for more than eight years as a submarine officer. He has continued serving, for over a decade now as a Military Family Advocate and stay-at-home Dad to daughter, Kate and son, Jackson. Jeremy took on the support role of honoring his spouse, Lieutenant Colonel Renae Hilton, in 2003. While also spending time in pursuit of an advanced degree as a graduate student at George Washington University, he has been dedicated to educating others. Jeremy has put an inordinate amount of energy into policy impacting our wounded warriors and veterans, campaigning for the “Tricare for Kids” legislation (Sec 735 of the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act), and testifying before the U.S. Senate Armed Services Subcommittee in Washington D.C. — all while continuing to confront medical challenges within his own family.
I took a step back with Jeremy as we began the interview. I wanted to know if being a male military spouse presented any challenges for the reception of his high-powered advocacy work.
Do you find yourself well received by other military spouses? Being a guy obviously puts you in a minority. Do you attend spouse functions? Or have you created your own dad-oriented groups?
I have mixed emotions. There are two sets of military spouses I typically work with and for: general population and families with disabilities. The general population tends to deal with the larger issues, such as spouse employment, mental health in general and deployment issues. In the families with disabilities, those of the Exceptional Family Member Program (EFMP), gender doesn’t seem to matter. Within the larger spouse community we get along fine, but there are so many women that it’s sometimes harder to make a connection. Most men make their connections at work. Many male military spouses, particularly those who don’t or can’t find work tend to be a little more isolated, it’s harder to get accepted into play groups, etc. Some things aren’t appropriate – especially where husbands are deployed. You have to be careful about perception. So, working within public venues such as Family Readiness Groups, or at larger events and venues, is important. Most support programs aren’t made for men. The end result, as a group, is it can be harder for us to make friends, have battle buddies, or have a feeling that we belong — aspects of military life many women find important. While many within the military spouse culture are supportive, you’d be surprised to see where we find resistance. Annually in DC, the Joint Armed Forces Officers’ Wives’ Luncheon is held. Featured speakers have included the First Lady, Michelle Obama, the Second Lady, Dr. Jill Biden, then Secretary of Defense Gates and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Dempsey. We’ve been told “male spouses are more than welcome”. Well, I have trouble attending an event when the name of the event makes it clear I’m not welcome. I petitioned two years ago to change to “spouses’ lunch” and change the name of the “officers’ wives’ club.” It hasn’t happened, yet.
Jeremy, you’ve developed a national campaign for legislation and spoken in front of the Congressional Family Caucus, as well as numerous congressional delegations and staffers on the House and Senate Armed Services Committees — all to help military families coping with disabilities. Did your transition out of the military happen as a result of your daughter being born with severe medical challenges? How have you and your wife weathered the situation, and the accompanying grief?
I separated from the Navy in June 2003. It was time for one of us to transition out. Honestly, the Air Force was a better environment for our family, especially with a special needs child and an expectation that I would be at sea a lot more than my wife would be deployed. When our daughter Kate was born, her head was the size of a three-year old. She had hydrocephalus and a host of other conditions. My wife, Renae, had to undergo a cesarean surgery (c-section) because of Kate’s condition. The Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) docs were amazing; they made sure we got to know our little girl rather than harp on the medical needs, including the first EEG, the first MRI, and the first of many times they had to pull fluid off her brain to keep her alive while we waited for her first surgery. As parents, you experience a type of grief as you go through it. Still today, we work through the reality of Kate’s condition. Having a seizure is never fun, and Kate was having six a day at one time. After trying a variety of different medicines, she’s down to having one grand mal seizure a month. We consider that a “blessing”. It’s all an ongoing learning process. In the midst of all this, you have to forgive yourself – and do the best you can, and make the best decisions you can with the information you have in the moment.
In spite of Kate’s challenges, are there milestones you’ve been able to celebrate along the way?
We’ve learned it’s all relative. Kate has endured early interventions that include 1000’s of hours of therapy and nine surgeries, all but one being brain surgery. They have made such an amazing difference, but she still has accidents at ten years of age, while her much younger brother is toilet trained. She attends a neighborhood school where she’s able to fit in with a special classroom at her current 3 or 4-year-old level. She’s been walking since five and although her eyesight is poor, she reads a little. Through it all, we celebrate every milestone — even the ones that come and go.
How has your son Jackson adapted to his sister’s special needs, given he’s only three? Has that created some additional challenges for you and Renae?
It takes some adjustment in your thinking as a parent. He’s figuring things out that Kate hasn’t hit on yet. There’s a great book for siblings of kids with disabilities; we got the book for Jackson, though he’s not old enough to understand it yet. We also want to understand from reading other kids’ experiences where we might help or not make mistakes other parents have in the past. We’re around plenty of families with disabilities — kids that will never walk, kids on vents, so we think perhaps that helps him gain some perspective. Jackson is incredibly empathetic, even at three. We want him to care for Kate, but never want to put too much on him. We don’t make decisions centering around the problems. They sometimes fight over toys just like typical siblings. We consider ourselves lucky.
My husband and I served together as enlisted members, before he earned his degree under the Airman Education and Commissioning Program. There are some striking differences for airman versus officers within the military culture. Has your wife’s rank impacted your roles as a military spouse and family advocate?
Anyone can make a difference – you don’t have to be advocate of the year. Financial stability does help in terms of being able to be home with our children and taking trips for speaking engagements. Although some dual-enlisted families might technically have more financial resources, there’s constraints on their time. In the end, what is more important than rank is that you have to realize every family struggles at some point in some way. I think if your heart is in the right place, it doesn’t matter what your spouse’s rank is…at all. In the end, I hope people realize I’m doing what I do not just for my family, but for others. We have to think about those who will come after us, down the same path with similar needs.
What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned about parenting children with disabilities? What could you pass on to others?
Be grateful for the time you have, as opposed to wanting what others have — don’t compare yourselves. Acknowledge and appreciate the small steps. Everybody has their own disabilities, a.k.a. issues. You don’t know what kind of day others have had, so don’t make assumptions. Parenting children with disabilities makes you more empathetic toward others, I believe. These struggles have made me and my wife better people. With “perfect” kids, I wouldn’t have been pointed this way by God. With successful careers, we were on a hot track to do “neat” and “amazing” things. Then Kate happened. Moving mountains is still possible, no matter what your situation.
Contact Jeremy Hilton at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Other Interviews: The Daily Beast and Stars and Stripes
Advocacy Contributions: TIME, Huffington Post, and Military Spouse Magazine
“Tricare for Kids” Summary: Joining Forces Veterans and Military Family Summit
TRICARE for Kids is supported by the American Academy of Pediatrics, Autism Speaks, National Children’s Hospital Association, Easter Seals, Maryland Coalition of Families for Children’s Mental Health, Military Officer Association of America (MOAA), Military Special Needs Network, and National Military Family Association (NMFA).