THE BLOG
11/03/2014 03:14 pm ET Updated Jan 03, 2015

The Military-Civilian Divide Just Got Bigger

The military community will look back on the Ebola crisis as the time when the military-civilian divide split like a gorge. At issue: quarantines.

Just recently, President Obama, speaking to C-Span regarding the differences between post-Ebloa exposure quarantines for military and civilian workers, said this:

When we have volunteers who are taking time out from their families, from their loved ones and so forth, to go over there because they have a very particular expertise to tackle a very difficult job, we want to make sure that when they come back that we are prudent...[because if we are not] we're just putting another barrier on somebody who's already doing really important work on our behalf.

President Obama was speaking about civilian health care workers, not military service men and woman. More on that in a minute.

A little bit of background: Civilian health care workers, many of whom are treating patients one day and arriving on U.S. soil soon after, are so far only required to self-monitor for symptoms of Ebola. "Self-monitoring" means checking one's temperature twice a day and refraining from using public transportation. We've seen how well this works. Indeed, our entire community health response has largely rested on personal accountability, and it's been an eye-opening, disheartening experience.

When Dr. Craig Spencer returned from Africa, he checked his temperatures daily, but he also rode the subway, went bowling, and ate at two New York restaurants. Then he fell ill with Ebola. Whether Dr. Spencer could actually infect people during the days leading up to his symptoms is partly irrelevant. In the middle of Ebola hysteria (warranted or not), public exposure results in a tremendous amount of resources and money being spent on decontamination and lost wages for the venues an ill person visited.

In contrast with civilian measures, the Department of Defense is requiring that its men and women returning from West Africa be quarantined for 21 days before returning home.

The discrepancy set up obvious and maddening comparisons. The United States can supposedly trust civilian workers to be accountable, but the United States can't trust military men and women to do the right thing?

President Obama tried to explain the differences this way: "Well, the military is a different situation, obviously, because they are, first of all, not treating patients. Second of all, they are not there voluntarily."

I had to read that statement multiple times to make sure I wasn't misreading it. Military men and women aren't treating patients, therefore they need a 21-day quarantine. Civilian workers are treating patients, therefore they do not need a mandatory quarantine. Does this logic make sense to anyone?

President Obama's second reasoning is a little clearer. The government is ordering service members overseas to fight Ebola, so it can order them to be quarantined, too. The spectacular thing about military men and women is they understand this and they will do whatever is best for the common good. Compare that with the Maine nurse who refuses to submit to an in-home quarantine.

And yet, it is the misunderstanding of what an "all volunteer" force truly means that has done severe damage to the military-civilian relationship. Service men and women get paid, yes, but because they choose this line of work, you don't have to. And let's not forget that many of the civilian "volunteer" doctors and nurses are getting paid, too.

But of all the surprising remarks in a one-minute clip, I am stuck on this one. Read the first quote again:

When we have volunteers who are taking time out from their families, from their loved ones and so forth... we want to make sure that when they come back that we are prudent... [because if we are not] we're just putting another barrier on somebody who's already doing really important work on our behalf.

If we took that out of context and plopped it into a debate about military pay, Veteran's affairs or the treatment of our returning soldiers, it changes everything, no?

Here's the bottom line: Military men and women take time out from their families, their loved ones, and sometimes, in the case of reservists, their jobs, on a regular basis to do "important work on our behalf." They do it in wartime and in peace. They do it with news coverage or without. That's why, when some commentators questioned the fairness of making anyone wait an extra 21 days to see their loved ones, military families didn't flinch. They have often given (much) more than 21 days in service to our country.

And so, when Ebola fear drops out of the news cycle, I hope we can have this conversation again, only this time let it be about not placing "barriers" on an all-volunteer military force that continues to do outstanding, selfless work "on our behalf."

Navy wife Sarah Smiley is the author of a syndicated newspaper column and three memoirs, including DINNER WITH THE SMILEYS. Sarah has been a Navy dependent for more than 36 years. She is the daughter of retired admiral Lindell Rutherford, a career Navy F-14 pilot, and the wife of Cmdr. Dustin Smiley, also a Navy pilot. Sarah is often credited with blazing the trail for contemporary military-spouse bloggers, authors and spokespersons. www.SarahSmiley.com