Military life is hard. Deployments, frequent moves, long hours, high stress and dangerous work. These things take a toll on a service member and on a family. Regardless of branch, rank, MOS or experience, nearly everyone in a military family has the same greatest worry: serving the nation will cost them the health and happiness of their family. That’s why military families are always looking for the ‘secret sauce’ that will insulate their loved ones from the hardships. The Bingham family seems to have found it.
Retired Army Lt. Gen. Gwen Bingham joined the military in 1981. The Troy, Alabama-native, a grown-up Army brat and daughter of a retired first sergeant, joined for the ROTC scholarship. Her plan was simple: she would serve four years, get a business degree and get on with her life, leaving the Army as a camouflage blur in her rearview mirror.
“Those four years have now become 38 and some change,” Bingham laughed. “It’s hard to call it work when you love what you do.”
Instead of pursuing that business career, Bingham retired from the Army in August after serving as the assistant chief of staff for Installation Management and after earning notable firsts, including first woman to serve as the garrison commander, Fort Lee, Virginia; first African-American woman to reach the rank of three-star general from an Army ROTC program; first woman to serve as quartermaster general and commandant at the U.S. Army Quartermaster School, Fort Lee, Virginia; first woman to serve as commanding general, White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico; and first woman to serve as commanding general, Tank Automotive and Armaments Lifecycle Management, Warren, Michigan.
But her family is just as impressive as her career. For 36 of those 38 years, she has been married to Dr. Patrick Bingham, a teacher, principal and school administrator — though she just calls him “P.J.”. And Patrick Bingham isn’t even the only doctor in the family. Their daughter, Tava, also earned a PhD in education and their son, Phillip, is an engineer.
In a world that constantly warns against trying to have it all, it’s pretty hard not to notice the Binghams.
The couple met at Ft Lewis, Washington, when they were both lieutenants. Also a military brat, Patrick Bingham served 10 years in the Army, deploying to Desert Shield/Desert Storm before getting out and becoming an teacher. For anyone counting, that means the Binghams have nearly half a century of service between them, and a pretty great love story to boot.
“We met and he proposed after just 10 days of dating,” Gwen Bingham said. “Our daughter loves to hear that story but when I tell it to her, I say, ‘Don’t do this! The odds are not in your favor!’ But when I think about my husband, my own spouse, this is why I have so much affection for all of our military spouses. There is no way I could achieved what I achieved without my spouse. It would have been a physical impossibility.”
She says her husband’s background as a soldier made it easier for him to understand the demands she faced and made it easier for them to communicate.
(Spoiler alert: they both said clear, constant, communication is the ‘secret sauce’.)
“He really does have a unique perspective as a male spouse,” Gwen Bingham said. “I think that’s part of the reason we’ve been successful as a couple. He fully understands the lifestyle. He’s been able to help me with situations that I had not been exposed to and that he had. I tell him, we will always be better together than apart. We complement each other and we bring that to our relationship.”
But 38 years of military service, overlapping with a decade of dual military service and with our nation’s longest war, means the Binghams’ gains did not come without great family sacrifices. Together, they navigated tricky role reversals, tough decisions and deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq. They also opted to live apart — “geo-bach” in military parlance — three separate times so Patrick Bingham could pursue his career as a school teacher and administrator and so their children could stay in the same neighborhoods and schools.
“The first year I started teaching, Gwen was deployed to Guantanamo,” Patrick Bingham said. “I had to be the spouse at home, our roles were flip-flopped. I had to quickly learn how to find a hairdresser for our daughter and learn how not to dress a child. And I really had to connect with the children.”
Gwen Bingham added, “When I went unaccompanied for a year to Korea, the kids were 10 and 13. I was able to come home once to visit over the holidays, but when I came back, I felt very much that I had been written out of the script. I always prided myself on being “hub central.” Well, hub central had been gone for a year and they had moved on. I had to ‘win’ my way back into my family.”
She worried that her kids would resent her for not being at every game and recital. When their daughter Tava was little, she once asked why her mother was in the Army when a friend’s mother didn’t work. It was a knife to the heart for Gwen Bingham. But then years later, when Tava was a teenager, she visited her mother at work one day, saw her in her element, and said, ‘Mom, you ought to try to stay in and make general.’
“It brought tears to my eyes,” Gwen Bingham said. “She had developed pride in me and understood what I was doing. The things I am most proud of are being a soldier, a wife and a mother. I was a soldier before I was a wife, and I was a wife before I was a mother. I am very proud that I served my country. I’m very proud to be the wife of Patrick Bingham, and I am very proud to be the mother of Tava and Phillip.”
Tava probably wasn’t thinking then about the challenges her mother would face in that effort, as an African-American woman going for three stars, but to be fair, Gwen Bingham wasn’t thinking about those things, either.
“In leadership meetings, sometimes I’d look around the table and there wouldn’t be any other women, but I tend to embrace that as a positive challenge. I’m not just representing Gwen Bingham, I’m representing everyone who looks like me.”
She’s seen many opportunities open up for women during her military career, including all MOSs in the Army — even the infantry. The changes are inspiring and she loves hearing about women doing great things, but she’s just as quick to praise the men who also helped bring about the changes.
“We women need foundational support, not just from other women, but also from men. There were so many people who poured into me and invested in me. Life would have been very different for me without the support of the men and women around me.”
And what about Patrick Bingham? What has it been like for him as a former soldier and a military spouse, juggling his own demanding career as a teacher, principal and assistant superintendent, while often solo parenting two children?
He said the transition from soldier to educator was easier than he expected. Teaching, like the military, relies on teamwork, and that made the move go relatively smoothly, though he did miss leaving work to go to lunch. “You can’t really do that when you’re chasing after kids.”
As for being the male spouse of a senior officer, sitting at tables typically filled with women, he said, “People are people. I never felt like I wasn’t a part of the spouse community. The other spouses just reeled me right in. I learned to play Bunko. I started taking a yoga class. If someone had told me 20 years ago that I’d be having fun in a yoga class … but when that’s your friend group, it’s fun. But I never much got into the baby shower thing.”