VANCE AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. – When military spouses arrive at a new duty station for their military member’s job, they find themselves asking, “Which space is for me? Where am I going to find friends? Where can I find resources and connect?”
Move after move, military spouses ask the question, “Is there space here for me?”
“Finding the best way to answer this question is something spouses and active-duty commanders have been grappling with for a long time,” said Kristen Johnson, the spouse of the 71st Flying Training Wing commander at Vance Air Force Base.
Now, they have a space at Vance AFB. On Oct. 12, base and Air Force Association officials cut the grand-opening ribbon on the Air Force’s first Spouse Space.
Military families frequently make the choice for a spouse to sacrifice their career and their connections to follow the service member. While this is necessary for the mission, it often leaves military spouses feeling isolated and underutilized.
Long-standing research indicates that personal and professional satisfaction of the military spouse is predictive of a service member’s intent to remain in the military. That feeling of satisfaction is heavily dependent on the spouse’s ability to contribute to the family unit as a whole and to connect with a network of peers who support and empower them.
Despite being highly educated, with many spouses holding a bachelor’s degree or higher, this group typically finds themselves underemployed and unable to progress within their professional field.
According to the Federal News Network, military spouses have a 20% unemployment rate compared to 6% among their civilian counterparts. Further, Blue Star Families report that 63% of employed military spouses are underemployed in some way.
Spouses find themselves unable to start or maintain a meaningful primary career and make professional connections due to factors such as frequent moves, unpredictable service member’s schedule and cost or availability of child care.
“Spouses play such an important role supporting quality of life challenges for our military families,” said Anne Parker, co-founder of Vance Spouse Space and spouse of a military member. “So often spouses are the ones who see the problem, advocate for change and then innovate the solution.”
At the recent Air & Space Forces Association’s Air, Space & Cyber conference in Washington, D.C., Sharene Brown, spouse of the 22nd chief of staff of the Air Force, highlighted the need to support military spouses and significant others to advocate for change and fortify the mission as a whole.
While the operational mission of Vance AFB is to produce the world’s best pilots, one of its priorities is to develop resilient airmen and families.
“We can no longer afford to think of the two as separate,” said Col. Jay Johnson, commander of the 71st FTW. “As Vance leads the way for pilot training innovation, it should come as no surprise that Vance spouses are at the forefront of the movement Mrs. Brown highlighted.”
Seeing the increase in remote learning and work opportunities for military spouses, popular demand voiced by Vance spouses led to the development of the Vance Spouse Space. This space was created by spouses, for spouses, and provides an area for spouses to call their own.
All Team Vance spouses can work, study and connect in this space. However, this initiative goes further than just providing a physical space. It addresses the isolation that often comes alongside remote work.
While the virtual platform offers amazing flexibility and is ideal for military spouses to carry with them from duty station to duty station, it often comes with a sense of isolation. The Vance Spouse Space will fill that gap with fellow students and professionals, enforcing the good mental health habits of socialization and community building.
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“As someone who has recreated a career trajectory with each move, this has the potential to be a game changer,” said Jessica Smith, the spouse of the Vance command chief master sergeant.
Beyond work and academic purposes, the space will host professional and personal development seminars on a recurring basis. The team has tapped into the vast expertise of the military spouse network and has recruited military spouse professionals to speak on topics including coping with military life stress, a home buyers workshop utilizing Veterans Affairs loans, and a lactation workshop.
Each of these seminars will be free of charge and open to all Vance spouses and significant others. The team hopes to empower spouses with personal and professional development while highlighting the immense expertise found in the military spouse population. Likewise, the space is filled with contributions and donations from the entrepreneurial, professional and volunteer lives of the spouses.
“Setting up the space at Vance was an absolute labor of love,” said Kristen Johnson. “The Vance Chapel graciously donated two classrooms in the community chapel activity center for this grassroots initiative.
“Spouses jumped at the chance to volunteer their time and talents to bring the space to life. In a matter of a week, Spouse Space volunteers breathed new life into two unused rooms which will comprise the working areas of the Spouse Space; one room as a working office and another as a conference room,” she said.
The rooms adjoin with a large common area which can be reserved for meetings and gatherings, squadron spouse activities, as well as a place for spouses to meet and connect with their service member or other spouses throughout the duty day.
This space can bridge the gap between home life and military life, fostering understanding from both viewpoints. It provides a space to make meaningful peer-to-peer connections amongst new and experienced spouses across all of Vance Air Force Base.
“This support came in many forms such as financial support, publicity, time, ideas and manual labor,” said Meg Hewes, co-founder of Vance Spouse Space and the spouse of the 71st Student Squadron commander. “It was truly a team effort and would not be possible without the help of the 71st Operations Group, the 71st Mission Support Group and the 71st Medical Group. The contributions of Vance spouses, the base and the community have been vital to the success of this project.”
As Vance shows military members what “right” looks like, Vance spouses are encouraged to gain development alongside their service member. Learning and growing from their time within the Vance and the local communities, spouses gain valuable insight and expertise. Active spouse development opportunities like those found at the Vance Spouse Space strengthens the bonds of the military.
“These opportunities empower our spouses to shift their perspective from a feeling of being underutilized and lacking control, to becoming confident as the flexible, resilient powerhouses that we know military spouses to be,” said Chief Master Sgt. Brandon Smith, Vance’s command chief.
Vance’s Spouse Space garnered the attention of national AFA representatives already working on quality-of-life initiatives for Department of the Air Force families. As Vance is the start of many Air Force careers for airmen and their families, the Vance Spouse Space is being reviewed as a potential pilot program to be implemented across all Air Force installations.
This endeavor would not be possible without the support of Vance leadership. While this initiative is spouse-led and community funded, Wing leadership has supported this initiative from the beginning.
“Capitalizing on the many strengths, talents and diversity of our spouse force will only strengthen the success of our mission,” said Colonel Johnson. “Supporting spouses and quality of life for our military families improves the force’s readiness and retention, and strengthens the resilience of our families and our communities as a whole.