In a month, I'll be at the wedding of an old shipmate of mine in St. Louis. She was engaged to her partner four years ago when we met, stationed out in Japan. So why the long wait? Because she was affected by a little-known policy in the Department of Defense called "unaccompanied orders." Now, Marine Corps Capt. Matthew Phelps and his husband (remember that proposal at the White House?) are being affected, perhaps not so coincidentally, in the exact same country. It's a policy that is destroying gay and straight families alike.
Every single year, people who put their lives on the line are separated from their families by bureaucratic Department of Defense nonsense. The problem is so common that people who served have a name for the separated servicemembers: "geo-bachelors." It's the lingo for someone who is married but might as well be a bachelor because they're stuck with unaccompanied orders.
Many nations like Japan and Germany have strict immigration laws that make it nearly impossible for a servicemember's spouse to come unless the U.S. government grants them special status according to international treaties. If someone is given unaccompanied orders, they don't get to bring their spouse. They can apply for a 90-day visa, but after that they have to leave. Often, they don't even receive the normal housing allowance to pay for their spouse to have a place back in the United States. When my friend left the Navy, she had a meager salary of about $1,300 per month. The fact that her marriage survived this long is a miracle.
To this day, the DoD does not release statistics on the number of personnel affected by "geo-bachelorism." Great soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen alike are effected by the policy. Commanding officers have their hands tied when trying to help subordinates with personnel offices located far, far away in the United States. Just calling to check up on the status of a change of orders requires someone to call and re-call numbers where the right people never answer, starting late at night. Once you're given unaccompanied orders, there's almost no chance that it's going to change.
On any given year, nearly 70,000 U.S. military personnel are stationed in the European Union, 38,000 in Japan and approximately 30,000 in South Korea. That's more than a 130,000 troops, many sent without accompanied orders. Those people are not as effective, because they're torn apart by longing for their spouses, and the policy destroys families. I've seen more geo-bachelors destroyed by the policy than I've seen survive. For those who did make it, it took a whole lot of prayer and support from friends.
The most despicable part of the policy is that, really, it's just used to save money. If the cost of having 18,000 troops near Tokyo costs too much, they just issue fewer accompanied orders and cut their housing costs. In particular, they use this against lower-ranking servicemembers, who don't have any negotiating power on their first set of orders. To save a few pennies, the military is breaking apart families within the first four years of service. Now, as many gay people are being affected by this policy, it raises the question:
Is the DoD going to follow through on its commitment to giving equal rights to gays and lesbians? There's a big gap between a military policy and the way it's enforced. Let's face it: The military has a zero-tolerance stance toward sexual assault, but how's that been working out? Now Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel wants us to believe that lesbian, gay and bisexual military personnel have equal benefits. Go check out Capt. Matt Phelps' blog to see how true that is.
What does it matter if the military promises workplace nondiscrimination but LGB folks are consistently set aside? It's time for the the DoD to end this travesty of a policy that creates untold geo-bachelors. The DoD needs to release official statistics on geo-bachelorism, and they need to break the stats down by race, sexual orientation and rank. The public deserves to know who is being affected the most. If they aren't going to change the policy, the DoD needs to explain why.
If the military can't afford to send the whole family, then maybe it's time to cut the number of troops sent overseas instead of punishing those who are eligible to serve abroad. Unaccompanied orders are destroying the families of American patriots, gay and straight alike.