7 Facts You Should Know About Military Spouses

May 10, 2024   |   By Lyndsey Akers

Americans are generally familiar with the U.S. military, holding our 2 million Active, Guard, and Reserve members in high esteem and routinely thanking the millions of veterans of the armed forces for their service. But few know much about the unpaid shadow force behind those volunteering to serve the country in the military—the nation’s military spouses. 

Ronald Reagan sought to highlight that service when he established Military Spouse Appreciation Day in 1984. By 1999, the nation had expanded that observance to National Military Appreciation Month, and ever since, the Friday before Mother’s Day—May 10, this year—has officially been recognized as Military Spouse Appreciation Day. 

Here are seven key, surprising facts every American should know about military spouses—and the personal, quality-of-life, and economic issues they face during and after their spouses’ service.

1. Today there are currently around 1 million military spouses, and more than 11 million spouses of veterans.

The Department of Defense reports there are nearly 1 million Active-duty, Reserve, and National Guard spouses. The U.S. Military Spouse Chamber of Commerce estimates an additional 11.2 million who are spouses of veterans. With such a large population, military spouses comprise an enormous part of the community and culture at military installations around the world.

“It’s no surprise that military spouses report having a better quality of life when they feel a sense of belonging in their communities,” said Tara Brandt, an Air National Guard spouse. “Social media and resources like the Twelve Million Plus app make it easier for military spouses to connect digitally even though we might be geographically separated.” 

2. Roughly 10 percent of all military spouses are male.

And the rate is even higher in the Air Force, where 13.8 percent of military spouses are men. Research by the Defense Department and Blue Star Families suggests that this demographic creates a unique set of challenges. For instance, male military spouses die by suicide at higher rates than female spouses. Divorce rates across the military are the highest in families where a female service member is married to a male civilian.

“We face many of the same issues, we just react differently. Inability to find meaningful employment, childcare, loneliness during deployments, lack of friends—these issues are not unique to female spouses,” said Mike Franklin, an Air Force spouse and the host of The Professional Dependa podcast. “The phrase ‘Hey Ladies’ can be seen on the bulk of social media posts on any spouse page for the different installations. While innocent enough, it makes almost every male spouse scroll right past the question. I feel that most male spouses want to be included in events happening within the military community.”

3. The unemployment rate among military spouses is five times the national average—and could be a factor in declining Active-duty service.

The unemployment rate for military spouses has remained five times the national average for more than a decade—and the underemployment rate is far worse. Military spouses have faced a 24 percent unemployment rate that has gone statistically unchanged in the last 10 years. Military spouses estimate thousands of dollars in income lost while waiting to obtain a new professional license (or have a current license honored) after relocation.

The high rates of unemployment are also contributing to an already-diminishing force size. According to an executive order from the White House in 2023, “Nearly one in five military families cite challenges with spousal employment as a reason when considering leaving Active-duty service.”

“Military spouses are highly educated, yet disproportionately unemployed and underemployed. Many of us have our own ambitions and aspirations, and if those can’t be realized, they rise up as an important point of discussion when we evaluate our spouses’ continued military service,” said Melissa Shaw, a civilian Guardian, Space Force spouse, and the Vice Chair of AFA’s United Forces & Families (F2) Task Force. “The talent pool of military spouses is deep for employers who are willing to embrace our strengths and offer a bit of flexibility now and then for our unique circumstances. And those efforts may make a meaningful difference, long-term, in military readiness and retention.”

4. One in five military spouses is a primarily self-employed entrepreneur.

In 2022, the U.S. Military Spouse Chamber of Commerce cited that 21 percent of all military spouses are primarily self-employed business owners. The report calls military spouses “a mighty force,” reporting some 26,000 milspouse-owned businesses around the world.

Small business ownership is a transportable, flexible option that can fit well into a military lifestyle, but it’s also an important financial factor—of these entrepreneurs, 87 percent say they feel their work is right for their family.

“As a military spouse, it can be hard to find a career doing something you truly love, if one at all,” said Monica Fullerton, an Air Force spouse and the founder of Spouse-ly, an online marketplace featuring products and services created by military families. “Because of this many spouses are turning to entrepreneurship to bridge the gap between doing what you love and living a life on the go. Military spouses make some of the best entrepreneurs because we are accustomed to overcoming challenges, leveraging our creativity and passion, and we have a whole lot of grit.”

5. Military spouses are some of the most highly educated and skilled professionals.

According to Military One Source, 84 percent of military spouses have some college education, and 25 percent have a bachelor’s degree. Yet, military spouses earn roughly 25 percent (around $12,000) less than their civilian counterparts.

Military spouses often have gaps in their work history due to frequent moves, which can make it difficult for them to find traditional employment options—despite their being more educated than most working Americans, according to a 2017 report by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation.

“While the unemployment statistics facing military spouses are high, we also recognize that military spouses make up a remarkable talent pool of highly skilled and educated individuals. Military spouses are uniquely equipped to adapt, navigate ambiguity, and accomplish their mission with resolve,” said Erica McMannes, the co-founder of Instant Teams, an online talent marketplace that’s focused on sourcing military spouses for remote work. “When military spouses are supported professionally with remote, flexible employment that aligns with their skill level, regardless of gaps in their job history, they are more likely to remain with that employer for the long haul.”

6. Dual-military families face unique challenges.

Roughly 111,000 service members are married to another military member, bringing increased challenges related to being stationed together, childcare, career trajectory, and deployment cycles. 

“We’ve faced the challenges of finding duty stations where there are positions for both of us based on rank and career progression, but also that fit our family needs,” said Savannah Stephens, an Air Force Reserve Public Affairs Officer whose husband is an Air Force pilot. “Being dual-mil changed even more when we started a family. I deployed last year, leaving behind our 18-month-old while my Active-duty husband juggled his career, flying long sorties, and dealing with the day-to-day life of a toddler alone—which was incredibly difficult for us all.”

7. Around 70 percent of caregivers to veterans are their spouses.

The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that nearly 5.5 million caregivers are assisting veterans with daily-life activities and medical tasks. Of those, some 70 percent of caregivers are spouses or partners, and they care for their loved ones for an average of 10 years.

Tech. Sgt. Melissa Kirkbride, a military trainer at the U.S. Air Force Academy is a caregiver for her husband, Mark, who was also an Active-duty Airman until he fell ill and began suffering strokes just a year into their marriage. Now Melissa is juggling the roles of caregiver, military spouse, and service member.

“Mark now needs assistance in most aspects of his life, and the Active-duty military would not recognize me as a caregiver,” Melissa said. “Becoming a caregiver for me wasn’t easy. Many times, I wanted to give up because life was so hard. Nearly every day after his strokes, we were struggling in our marriage. All the goals we planned for ourselves were either put on hold or forgotten.”

Supporting the Whole Military Family

The unique challenges facing military spouses spurred the Air & Space Forces Association (AFA) to create the United Forces & Families (F2) program in 2022. Since then, AFA has integrated quality of life discussions into its annual Air, Space & Cyber Conference and launched its F2 grant program, committing $100,000 in grants in just two years. So far, these grants have directly impacted more than 126,000 Airmen, Guardians, military spouses, dependents, and family members. Learn how you can help F2 support military families here.

About the author: Lyndsey Akers is an Air Force spouse and the Chair of AFA’s United Forces & Families (F2) Task Force, an advisory group dedicated to bringing awareness and impact-focused recommendations to AFA for quality-of-life issues facing today’s military families.