When Carol and Terry Norman got married in 1976, they didn’t have a lot to sustain them. She had a two-year degree from a small town community college and he was working at a small family business with no hope of advancement and had no college education. The newlyweds were in desperate need of a way to better their situation.
According to Carol Norman, Terry enlisted in the U.S Army in 1977 in order to have a chance at a more lucrative career. “He just decided that without a lot of education and skills, that he could get some of that through the military,” Norman said.
Terry ended up serving in the army for the next 20 years, and a large part of that decision to stay was due to the benefits that he and his family received due to his status as a service member.
According to the Department of Defense, there are currently five million Americans in military families. Many of these family members directly receive health care, housing expenses, discounts and legal aid from the military.
Marriage to a military member is not only beneficial for the spouse, but also to the military members. Soldiers who get married have higher pay and greater autonomy than their single peers.
These benefits clearly have some appeal to soldiers. As of 2012, 56.1 percent of all active duty enlisted members and officers were married according to the Defense Manpower Data Center.
According to Defense Finance and Accounting Services, married soldiers can receive an increase of anywhere between $112 and $333 extra for their Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH) per month.
For example, a single corporal in the Marine Corps receives $580.20, but a married one receives $772.80 a month. This amounts to a difference of $2311.20 extra a year. Soldiers receive the same amount each month regardless of whether they live on or off base.
“If you can find a place for cheaper, then you get to pocket all that extra money that they give you,” said USMC Private Raymond Slavich.
Slavich, who got married in January, elected to move off base with his wife and use his BAH towards a private residence.
He says that his quality of life went up after he married and that he has more freedom. “I can live out of town. I can stay up and do whatever, go wherever. I don’t have to deal with the cops on base,” Slavich said.
Slavich says that the process of changing his marital status was simple and that the Installation Personnel Administration Center (IPAC) made sure that he had the paperwork he needed and that he got the benefits he was due. He said that as long as a soldier gets it in before the end of the pay period, their new status is reflected on the very next paycheck.
However, he says that his superiors do not encourage soldiers to get married due to the high divorce rate in the military. According to the Defense Manpower Data Center, there were 28,024 divorces in 2012 alone. The total divorce rate in 2012 was 4.1 percent for enlisted and 2.1 percent for officers. In contrast the total United States divorce rate in 2009 was 3.4 percent.
When a service member divorces his or her spouse, that spouse can still be eligible for continued health care coverage if they had been married to a member of the military for 20 or more years. If it is less than 20 years, the spouse can receive continued health care for up to 36 months. If a spouse is abandoned by their military spouse and has not technically divorced them, they retain all of their military benefits and are entitled to a portion of the soldier’s BAH.
“The people in the Marine Corp do not encourage marriage, but the Marine Corp as a whole does,” Slavich said.
He says that the officers are concerned that soldiers will get married for the wrong reasons and end up losing a lot of their resources in a divorce.
The availability of extra money and extra freedom for married service members can lead some soldiers to pursue what Slavich calls “contract marriages.” These marriages are purely for the reception of benefits. The soldier gets a higher BAH and greater autonomy, and the spouse gets free housing, healthcare, and access to other military benefits.
“A lot of people in the Marine Corps do that. They think that it’s a good idea and so they’ll marry and end up the wife will end up taking all their money and they’ll be left with nothing. So I have no clue why they would do that,” Slavich said.
He says that many Marines nickname a civilian spouse who marries solely for the benefits a “dependopotamus.”
Norman says that the practice was not widespread at the time of her marriage. She never knew anyone personally who married just for the benefits.
“While the benefits they have are great and are appreciated, I don’t think they’re very enticing to make somebody want to be in the military unless you are going in for education,” Norman said. “They’re (service members) still very low paid compared to other industries and other jobs that people have. I personally think that the benefits were fabulous, they still are. Could they do more? Absolutely, but I’m just very, very pleased.”
One of the other services that the military provides soldiers and their families is health care through Tricare. Active duty soldiers and their families pay little to nothing out of pocket to enroll in one of the plans. All a spouse needs to do in order to enroll under the service member’s name is their marriage certificate, birth certificate, social security card and a photo ID.
All the military health care plans meet the minimum essential coverage outlined in the Affordable Care Act.
Both Norman and Slavich have utilized their military health insurance at some point and both were pleased with the care that they received.
Slavich says that when he had to have surgeries, the Marine Corps made it very simple to get care and have it paid for right away.
Norman says that she and her husband still use their military insurance to cover medical expenses. Terry also has access to Veteran’s Affairs hospitals where he can get the care he needs due to his disabilities as a result of his time in combat. The years of jumping out of airplanes have worn down both his knees and his eardrums, so he makes frequent trips to the VA. If he needs a specialist, the military pays for him to go see one if they do not have one at his local clinic.
However, Norman says that the VA is slow to update her husband’s worsening condition. He is currently classified at 30 percent disabled even though his condition has steadily worsened since receiving that distinction several years ago. She calls this her only complaint though. “They always took care of all the billing and we never had to work to get that healthcare.”
In 2013, the VA distributed $49.1 million in disability compensation to 3,743,259 veterans, with the average recipient receiving $13,131.
Aside from disability compensation, the VA spent $44.8 million on general healthcare for 5,720,614 veteran patients and 296,487 non-veteran patients.
Spouses and family members of veterans receive the same average of $7,450 as their veteran counterparts.
Norman personally has used her military insurance as a supplement to her primary insurance with her employer, Focus on the Family. When she had surgeries in the past, what her insurance didn’t pick up, the military did.
“My husband, myself and my children, we’ve all received very good care,” Norman said.
Norman says that her husband joining the military was hard on them at first, especially when his first assignment had them move from a small town in Arizona to Washington state, but that it was ultimately worthwhile. The military supported them financially, advanced their careers and gave them insurance, but it was their relationship that kept them going through all 20 years of his career.
“We only had each other, so that’s who we turned to. We really leaned on each other, relied on each other,” Norman said. “The fact that we moved away and were all alone is probably one of the best things that ever happened to us as a couple. It was us and God and that was it.”