A new class of military spouses are representing the community through the Armed Forces Insurance Military Spouse of the Year® program. Annually, in conjunction with Military Spouse Appreciation Day, the award highlights contributions of individuals from around the world while providing them with a larger platform to bring key issues to the forefront. Previous honorees have advocated for mental health, military child education, careers, heart health and more.
This year’s 2020 representatives are —
BREE CARROLL, AIR FORCE
Working as a civil servant, Bree Carroll had some idea of military life when mutual friends introduced her to her husband at church. They met while he was going through pilot training at Laughlin Air Force Base in Texas, and she said they were the perfect balance of personalities.
“We instantly connected. We were a great pairing because we had a balance. I’m the outgoing, energetic, outspoken one and he’s just laid back, cool, calm, collected,” she said.
Four years ago, Carroll launched B Carroll Events, LLC — a small business providing event design and full service planning. At the heart of her personal and professional life is a quest to help military couples function as a team — something she sees as a top challenge facing spouses today.
“The reason why I say it’s marriages and relationships specifically is because every time we move, every time there is a separation between our spouse and us via a deployment or TDY, we find that we have to reinvent ourselves or find security in these other new things. And when our relationships are weak and our marriages are weak that (adjustment) becomes so much harder,” she said. “It’s one of those hidden giants, if you will, because the sexy thing is to talk about spouse employment or the sexy thing is to talk about our challenges with housing and PCS’ing, but honestly I can live in a cardboard box with my husband if everything is good.”
And it’s a topic the New Jersey-native will focus on throughout her award year, a plan that includes an inaugural Military Marriage Day on August 14th.
“To celebrate Marriage Day couples should set aside time to strengthen their relationship. Festive expressions include planning a date night, special outings, or exchanging gifts or tokens of appreciation. Those who wish to work on their marriage may schedule counseling services or participate in a conference or seminar focused on strengthening marriage. Married couples are encouraged to celebrate in all ways that are meaningful to them,” Carroll describes on her website.
Part of her messaging emphasizes that in order to be a strong unit, the individuals in the relationship need to be whole.
“If you are just a piece of yourself and you try to join with another person who’s just a piece of themselves, like two halves don’t make a whole in this scenario. We need a whole you and a whole them,” she said.
She strongly recommends spouses find opportunities to grow personally, which includes discovering something of their own to focus on — this can be volunteering, a career, hobby or some type of passion project. For example, in addition to her business, Carroll runs a podcast called Hearts & Stripes. She also promotes a proactive approach to relationships, especially in areas of communication.
If you are an Air Force spouse or want resources on military marriage, connect with Bree Carroll at https://www.facebook.com/Bree.afi.afsoy2020.
YVONNE COOMBES, ARMY
Since 2015, Yvonne Coombes has worked with thousands of military spouses from all branches as part of her work with Operation Deploy Your Dress (ODYD). The organization started as a “happy accident” at Fort Bliss, Texas, when a small group of women had the idea to host a local dress swap. Five years later, more than 12,000 pieces of formalwear have been distributed to alleviate the costs associated with attending events — and Coombes is just getting started.
Coombes is no stranger to awards, having earned several accolades along the years while building strong partnerships with key organizations, like AUSA. But as the recipient of an award that propels her to represent the entire Army, she says it’s “a huge honor to be able to represent Army spouses across the world,” and she also wants to use the platform to connect all spouses.
“What I really want to do is to show Army spouses and all spouses that coming together and building a community and helping each other out — even in the little things in this military life day to day — is how we get through it,” she said. “This award is going to allow me to make more connections and more connections equal more fun in my brain.”
In her two decades attached to the military, Coombes learned the importance of relationship-building, something she says needs to be encouraged.
“I think a lot of times, nowadays, military spouses can look at military life like, ‘that’s just my service member’s job.’ While it’s great to have civilian friends and it’s great to have civilian family, they don’t always understand what we’re going through in whatever situations are thrown at us in this life,” she said. “Like it or not, it’s a lifestyle; it’s not just our service member’s job. And so, I think just encouraging military spouses to connect and letting them see the importance of those connections is what I really want to focus on.”
It’s one of the principles ODYD was founded on, bringing people together through volunteer opportunities and in-person gatherings. The organization has also expanded since its founding to nine locations across the U.S., with additional pop-up events in various areas.
But Coombes wasn’t always on the fast track to running an organization. Her previous ambition included pursuing a master’s degree to become a teacher, until a deployment and PCS changed those plans. More than anything, she says, ODYD has brought an important value to her life.
“It’s not that this (ODYD) defines me, but it’s that I have something of my own that’s not dependent on what my husband was doing,” she said.
If you are an Army spouse or want to learn more about Operation Deploy Your Dress, connect with Yvonne Coombes at https://www.facebook.com/2020AFIMSOYARMY.
DAVID CARRERA, NAVY
David Carrera jokingly describes himself as a rarity so odd it’s like seeing big foot riding a unicorn in the forest. Rooted in the humor of his statement is the reality that an increasing population of male military spouses has not forced a substantial evolution of what support programming looks like. He wants to change that as the 2020 Armed Forces Insurance Navy Spouse of the Year.
“There’s a hundred thousand of us as of 2012 married to female service members — and that’s not even counting men married to males — but there’s nothing for us. Every organization or meetup group or welcome to the Navy branch of this or that, the emails always start with, ‘hey ladies,’” he said. “And it’s not their fault; and it’s not an us versus them, but I wish every now and then, we have a lot to offer and we have things we can help with, especially if their sponsor is deployed, we can do odd jobs. We’re dying to do it; we just never feel like we’re included somehow and it’s just frustrating.”
The Connecticut-native married his wife in 2008 after being unexpectedly when he showed up to the wrong Cuban art exhibit. He had little connection to the military prior to that, but a deployment and four PCS moves — including OCONUS to Camp S.D. Butler in Japan — helped him find his stride as a “manpendent.”
“It’s like a community here (Okinawa). And then I met some of the guy with the Manpendent Facebook page for Okinawa, and they’re awesome. Some guys participate more than others, but we make it available to everybody. We do socials, and our last social gathering before this all came down (COVID-19) was a baby shower for one of our friends, Andrew, who was having his first child,” he said. “It’s just guys hanging out, and we have the same similar stories.”
One of the more surprising characteristics of the group is that the guys aren’t afraid to open up about tough challenges, Carrera says, it isn’t only “macho.”
In addition to volunteering with youth sports, PTO and a military spouse dragon boat team, Carrera helps on the local level with an Okinawan nonprofit supporting orphanages and women’s shelters. But before he was a volunteer, he had a successful career in video production that included national campaigns and celebrities. Now he leans on those digital skills to document military life, the male experience and to aid some of the places he volunteers with.
If you are a male spouse or want to learn more about the Manpendents, connect with David Carrera at https://www.facebook.com/MANPENDENT.
PAULETTE FRYAR, COAST GUARD
Together we are stronger is a phrase Paulette Fryar lives by. A current empty nester, she is an active member of Mothers of Preschoolers (MOPS) — a support group for moms with children of all ages, volunteering as a mentor mom.
“It is my desire that no young military mother feels alone,” she stated in her MSOY profile.
However, Fryar, who has been a Coast Guard spouse for 14 years, was a mentee before she became a mentor.
“I was a member of MOPS as a young mom when my kids were toddlers also, but that was before there was a military division. It was just very instrumental in my life in having a support system with other moms going through the same things I was,” she said.
She has also volunteered her time with various Coast Guard spouse clubs, the PTA, sports activities, and participated in the local community through a holiday project for underprivileged families at a prior duty station. As her family prepares to leave the National Capital Region to embark on a next adventure, she is relieved to have found a career in direct sales.
Like most spouses, professional volunteer isn’t the only thing filling Fryar’s resume. She has also held paid positions across a range of industries. But a few years ago she discovered stability when she discovered a company called Plunder Design Jewelry — a direct sales company that propelled her to a leadership position managing 80 women.
“It’s something I can do from home; it’s something I can take with me wherever we transfer and I have quite a few military spouses on my team. I feel like it’s important for military spouses to have something for themselves and this is something they can do very part time or work their business as much as they want to,” Fryar said. “I am a typical military spouse in that I have been a dental assistant, I’ve been a paralegal, I’ve been in banking, I’ve been a staff assistant at a school — every time you move you have to reinvent yourself to a certain extent and I definitely fall into that category. And with finding this business, it was appealing because I don’t feel like I have to find something new everywhere I go now.”
As she looks ahead to the opportunity to represent the Coast Guard community, Fryar has set her sights on being a connector.
“If I’m able to connect with more Coast Guard spouses and get them to connect with others, that would be success for me,” she said. “Another strong passion of mine is the MOPS program. … It’s a great support for young military moms. In speaking with MOPS International, I’ve learned that they’ve had some difficulty in opening up new chapters at military installations and it would be a success to me if I can help get more chapters setup.”
If you are a Coast Guard spouse or want to learn more about MOPS, connect with Paulette Fryar at https://www.facebook.com/paulettefryarAFICGMSOY20.
ARLENE ALLEN, MARINE CORPS
After more than four years in paradise, Arlene Allen is preparing for her sixth move courtesy of the Marine Corps. As she prepares to head back to Beaufort, South Carolina, the wife of 21 years takes comfort in knowing she will be returning to the location that offered her a completely different outlook on how to approach military life.
Allen said she was initially hesitant to connect with others when she was first married because of a stereotype that followed spouse groups. Then, in 2012, she volunteered with the Stroller Warriors — a free running club for military spouses and their family members, and her favorite part of military life became the exact thing she was shying away from: a sense of community.
“I’ve been at both ends (of military life) where as a military spouse my husband discouraged me from interacting with others because of the drama, so I literally didn’t talk to my neighbors or anybody from his work,” she said. “That’s why I like the Stroller Warriors so much. It’s not just people that your husband knows. Now when we move, I make it a point to introduce myself to my neighbors, or if someone new moves here — because we’ve been here awhile — I offer to share resources and give them my number.”
She admits the thing she has come to love, can also be one of the hardest parts of being a spouse. Finding that group of people that you connect with, she says, is a challenge. But the nature of a service member’s career also necessitates discovering a purpose.
“Between trainings and deployments, they’re gone a lot and you have to make your own life where you’re at,” Allen said. “Talk to other spouses. … or reach out to your family readiness officer to learn about groups in your area.”
Throughout the last few years, Allen has been an avid volunteer, giving her time to hiking clubs, Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society, Marine Corps Community Services, and others. She is adamant that engagement with similar-style support organizations is a surefire way to build a positive relationship with the military lifestyle.
“Putting yourself out there is often frightening and each time we move it starts all over. For years I hibernated as a military spouse and as a result felt isolated/lonely. Everything changed when I finally put myself out there and joined a group who challenged me and motivated/supported me unconditionally,” she stated in her MSOY profile.
If you are a Marine spouse or want to learn more about volunteer opportunities, connect with Arlene Allen at https://www.facebook.com/ArleneAllen2020AFIMSOY.
CRISTY REID, NATIONAL GUARD
National Guard spouses talk about straddling two worlds between military and civilian life — something Cristy Reid can relate to. Though her husband has served in the Air National Guard for the entirety of their marriage, she never labeled herself a military spouse until 9/11 happened.
“I was not as involved with his career because he was a traditional guardsman — one weekend a month, two weeks out of the year, so it didn’t affect me as much,” she said.
But now, eight deployments later, Reid sees the challenges associated with military life from a different lens.
“Being a seasoned spouse, and also being married to one of the leaders at our base, I can see how hard it is to know who our younger spouses are so that you can reach out to them. So, I feel that makes them even more secluded in their lives,” she said.
It’s one of the reasons she adopted a passion for mentoring, through programs like the Military Spouse Advocacy Network. She sees it as a tool to diminish isolation felt by spouses. Reid also says a common misconception plaguing Guard spouses is the idea they require less support.
“The one thing I’ve noticed is that, even within our units, leadership doesn’t feel like our spouses need as much support or resources as our active-duty counterparts do, mainly because we’re in our communities — but that’s further from the truth because we, at a moment’s notice, may end up with a deployment and then you don’t have that connection to someone who can walk through that with you,” Reid said.
Reid’s daughter also serves, and she plans to use her year to advocate for families of children in the Armed Forces.
“It really hit me hard when my daughter when to basic training — the lack of resources,” she said. “I feel like there should be better ways to prepare parents, especially National Guard because we send these kids off to train and we bring them back to us. That’s what’s going to make a successful airman or soldier.”
If you are a National Guard spouse or military parent, connect with Cristy Reid at https://www.facebook.com/2020nationalguardsoy.