Connie Perschke remembers her husband’s long days on a military base in Germany.
She would drive him to and from the base. Some days, she would drop him off at 4 a.m. and pick him up at 8 or 9 p.m.
The couple are stateside now, albeit in different states. While her husband is on a U.S. Army base in Missouri, Perschke is at UW-Whitewater trying to get her bachelor’s degree in social work.
But she said paying for school herself is challenging. While she recently had loans approved, she also said she needed to replace the brakes on her car—another cost—because she commutes to campus from Williams Bay.
Richard Harris, coordinator of veterans and military services at UW-W, said some benefits are available to spouses of veterans as opposed to those of active duty members. Some benefits require the military member to be at least 30 percent disabled.
Perschke’s husband does not meet those criteria, so for now she’s out of luck.
Perschke and Harris are pointing to gaps in the system that make military spouses put their lives on hold—something Perschke said could adversely affect the military members, too.
‘Setting me back’
The federal GI Bill allows family members of veterans to cover some school costs. The Wisconsin GI Bill, which is separate from its federal counterpart, covers for dependents of eligible veterans full tuition for up to eight semesters or 128 credits at a UW System or Wisconsin Technical College System school.
Harris said Perschke could be eligible for benefits under the federal GI Bill to pursue her bachelor’s degree only after her husband completes six years of service.
Some support Perschke found would also only help with an associate’s degree, “which really in today’s society doesn’t get you very far in many work places, in many professions,” she said.
“So I think that was a really big shock,” Perschke said. “That’s kind of still setting me back.”
A 2017 survey of active duty spouses found 43 percent of respondents were not enrolled in school or training but would like to be. Of those, 71 percent listed the costs of education as why they were not enrolled.
Perschke requested her husband’s name not be included in this story because they were unsure how it could affect his future career.
Before Germany, Perschke said she was working at Menards and at a domestic violence and sexual assault shelter. She was self-sufficient—paying bills and putting herself through school at UW-Eau Claire.
Perschke, 26, said she especially felt like her life was on hold in Germany. Due to the limited amount of time she was there, Perschke said she was “pretty much not hirable.”
“So yeah definitely that was a year and a half on my life where I was kind of just on hold,” she said.
So she couldn’t work, and school did not work out for her either.
To her face, she said she was called a “Dependopotamus,” a popular term in the military.
Harris, an Army veteran, said the military’s culture toward spouses can lead them to “feel isolated and demoralized at times.”
“They are not seen in the same important light as the member in uniform,” he said.
Perschke has been told it’s her “responsibility to keep the household at bay.” If there is a deployment, she has to make sure her husband is mentally prepared. She has been told if there’s something going wrong at home, she just can’t tell him.
“The wives are very much supposed to be the ones to make sure that the house is taken care of,” she said. “Dinner is made. Laundry is done. Those kind of ’50s, ‘what a woman should be’ type of ideals.”
To be clear, Perschke does not believe spouses should be priorities over everything. She does think, however, that not helping spouses complete their education or find jobs can “hinder” the goal to make sure a soldier is focused on their mission.
So, what should be done about this?
Perschke said she would like to see more scholarships to pay for education beyond an associate’s degree. She also wants insurance coverage for marriage counseling—an absence that, as a social worker, she sees as a “huge disadvantage to people in the military.”
Harris agrees on getting more scholarships. He also said he hopes legislators see Perschke’s story and enact changes through the law.
Harris also wants better tracking. Most universities are able to track this population by their use of federal or state benefits. But perhaps a box to check during the admissions process could let Harris or someone in his position know a student is an active duty member or a spouse of one.
If a student veteran hadn’t been in class with Perschke, brought her to the veteran’s lounge and told her she belonged, Harris would not have seen these gaps in the system or known Perschke.
“I would not know she existed,” he said.