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Two military wives form nonprofit to connect military spouses, families

by: GINGER UNZUETA - Alyson Schumacher was inspired to co-found Oregon Supports Military Families after moving to the area a year ago with her husband Joel, a Marine Corps recruiter, and family. Oregon is one of few states without an active military base.Alyson Schumacher recalls riding out Hurricane Irene nearly two years ago, huddled in a bathtub with her son, daughter and the family dog.

“At midnight, the tornado sirens went out — there I am with my now 6-year-old and my 2-year-old in the bathtub, holding onto my dog, thinking, ‘I love you Sally, but you’ll be the first to go.’”

Her next thought was, “What was I thinking?”

For more on Oregon Supports Military Families, visit their website.

The question is not uncommon among military spouses, and it carries with it some existential weight: With Schumacher’s husband away on deployment, the mother of two often found herself in the unexpected position of functioning as a single parent within a happy, intact marriage.

“When you’re in the middle of it, you realize, ‘I really rely on that person to help me with some seriously practical things,’” she added.

Schumacher was not alone in this feeling, but found herself more isolated once she settled in Oregon, one of few states without an active military base — which can leave military families feeling they have no center and little community.

With kindred spirit Tara Clark of Tualatin, Schumacher founded Oregon Supports Military Families to reach out to the partners and families of active-duty military personnel stationed in Oregon.

Love in the time of war

Schumacher met her husband, Joel, 14 years ago while interning at a child protective services agency where the Marine Corps reservist was a case worker.

“We met, fell head over heels in love, and about a few moves, a war, and about five years later, we were married,” Schumacher said. “The invasion of Iraq kind of twisted our plans around a bit.”

Tara Clark has a similar story. When she decided to marry her high school sweetheart in 2002, she had little idea she would be signing up for more than a decade of wartime marriage.

“I don’t think I’d anticipated 11 years of active duties, never being able to rely on my spouse for practical things, and being alone a lot,” Schumacher said. “Not being lonely, but being alone.” Schumacher has seen her husband off on three deployments, but with his most recent assignment at the Portland Marine Corps reserve center, and her new residence in Ridgefield, Wash., she finds herself and her family feeling more settled.

That’s when Schumacher and Clark got to talking.

Offering spousal support

Each branch of the military offers a family readiness program to help often-itinerant active duty families make each transition, which is what brought Schumacher and Clark together.

“It was clear to both of us that there was a serious gap. That’s kind of how it started,” Schumacher recalled.

According to Schumacher and Clark, one of the more daunting aspects of living among civilians is the feeling of alienation. Often, military families living off-base miss the simple camaraderie between military families.

“In a base community, one thing you’re going to have is, most of your neighbors are going to be military spouses,” Schumacher said. “(Your neighbors) understand why your grass hasn’t been cut in a couple weeks, and they’ll watch your kids so you can cut it, or come over and cut it for you.”

“It’s very difficult to balance the military life, customs, culture, policies on so many different things, with civilian life,” Clark agreed. “My family’s moved three times in the last six years, just within the state. Having to make new friends, and find the resources and find the support — every two to three years — that can be a real challenge.”

Living away from a military community is about more than missing out on the many morale-boosting USO shows and free events bases offer, Schumacher said. “Support services aren’t here. There’s no building to go to, because we’re not attached to a base.”

The two women realized there were around 70,000 veterans, reservists, active duty military personnel and members of military families living in Oregon.

“We thought, ‘Who are they and what might they want?’” Schumacher said.

A life less ordinary

One of two things happens in the military spouse lifestyle, according to Schumacher.

“It either eats you up and spits you out and you end up on a cocktail of psychotropics,” she said, “or you gotta flip it out and think, ‘I just did that. That really is freaking amazing. I can do anything.’”

Among the hardships military partners face, spousal career option ranks high, said Clark, who is pursuing her master's degree in social work.

Balancing coursework and transferring between schools is difficult, but when the family is compelled to move every two to three years, she said, any career that requires licensing that differs from state to state can be a challenge to maintain.

“I see it as a social justice issue,” Clark said. “I’m just really passionate for military families and advocating for their needs and educating the community — we would say ‘civilians.’”

Interestingly, both Schumacher and Clark are in the same line of work: While Schumacher has focused on child welfare and mental health as a social worker, Clark’s studies have been primarily focused on the military population — specifically veterans.

“When you’re a social worker, by nature, you connect people, you find resources for people,” Schumacher said.

One connection they’ve already made is with The Home Depot, which has agreed to offer a series of classes to teach military spouses how to do various home repairs and upgrades on their own.

“With individuals, churches, other special interest groups, there can be a hundred ways that they are actively engaged,” Clark said.

Starting with an event

For Clark, the public awareness piece is essential to the organization. She wants to inform a public that has less military presence of the unique challenges military families face.

In particular, Clark has been passionate about replicating a celebration familiar to anyone who has lived on-base: a Military Spouse Appreciation Day.

In cities with a strong military presence, Schumacher said, “It’s not uncommon in those environments to feel like you’re getting a pat on the back.”

The Tualatin-based nonprofit is hosting a Military Spouse Appreciation Day on Saturday from 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. at Oba Restaurant, 555 N.W. 12th Ave., Portland.

One of the Saturday event's special guests will be Mollie Gross, a comedienne and fellow Marine Corps wife whose book, "Confessions of a Military Wife," has become recommended reading in the military lifestyle canon. The saucy but diminutive blonde has become something of a motivational speaker through the witty but heartfelt advice she offers to military partners struggling with an oftentimes isolated, nomadic existence.

In her standup, Gross has been known to riff about base life — detailing, for example, the pain of trying to pay proper respect during the evening flag ceremony while suffering from irritable bowel syndrome.

“We chose her because she’s kind of known for saying the things that most people won’t say about military life, which makes spouses and families feel like someone gets them,” Clark explained.

But “spouse” is perhaps too narrow a word: all are welcome.

“We’re talking about all spouses — girlfriends, fiancés, male, female, domestic partners.” Schumacher does not mean to discourage partners who aren’t bound by marriage to the military.

“We were engaged for two years,” she recalled. “I wasn’t necessarily getting the support (of benefits) I needed, but I was actively supporting my Marine.”

And although the majority of military partners are women, Schumacher said the organization hopes to recruit a more diverse group.

“(The repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell) should open the floodgates,” she said. “In the Marine Corps, the current commandant (Gen. James Amos) has been very upfront about inclusion. He’s basically said, if you are going to have your functions on my bases, you will include.”

(Although Gen. James Amos publicly opposed the repeal of the military’s policy of censuring homosexual troops, he has since changed his stance.)

As Oregon Supports Military Families awaits approval as a 501(c)3 nonprofit, Clark and Schumacher agree that the organization is still finding its identity.

“Who and what this organization turns into will be powered by the military spouses we come into contact with,” Schumacher explained.

Their mission remains a labor of love — and understanding.

“We’ve both experienced it,” Clark said of the often challenging military lifestyle. “We’ve had to figure it out ourselves, that’s what military spouses do. They adapt and overcome, just like their counterpart.”

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