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Help for the Former Military Wife : Support Group Aims to Break Stigma of Being an Ex-Spouse

In the living room of a Tustin home, 16 women listened as Ursula Kelly, an elderly Santa Ana resident, related her “success story” about reaching a financially advantageous court settlement with her ex-husband, a retired Marine Corps sergeant. When she finished talking, her audience broke into applause.

Then a south Orange County woman told of an ongoing battle to win sufficient spousal support as well as part of the retirement fund of her ex-husband, a retired Marine Corps major. Gradually, as she laid out the facts, the woman’s assurance faded and she struggled against tears.

Her son, who is also in the military, has “disowned” her because of her legal moves against the man who divorced her in 1983 after 23 years of marriage, she said. Not long ago, she lost a long-term job, and she has being treated for alcoholism. A judge recently granted her a significant increase in direct spousal support payments from the Marine Corps (those married to military personnel for 10 years of active duty can stipulate direct spousal and child payments in their divorce settlements), but right now, she said, she is almost penniless.

In addition, her lawyer is pushing her to pay his fee with the court-awarded funds, but “I need that money to eat,” said the woman, who asked not to be identified because of her ongoing legal difficulties.

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“Take him (the lawyer) to the Bar Assn.,” advised Cara Lou Wifler, president of the 6-month-old Orange County chapter of Ex-Partners of Servicemen/women for Equality. “Do what you have to do to protect yourself.”

Providing a place to give--and get--such down-to-earth advice is one of the purposes for which the organization was created, according to Wifler. At the group’s most recent meeting, the chapter members shared their problems, but they also shared their feelings of increasing self-worth as they learn more about how to handle life on their own.

“The military is quite unique,” Wifler, an Irvine resident, said in an interview before the meeting. “It’s very much set aside from society. It’s really hard for some of these women to adjust . . . when they’re out of that protective shell . . . There is still a stigma in being a (military person’s) former spouse. It’s OK to be a widow but not a former spouse,” she said, because a widow “didn’t do anything to fall from grace,” but a divorced woman has either rejected or been rejected by her husband. “If the man didn’t want you, why would the system want you?” Wifler asked.

Wifler said she did not like being a military wife, but several other group members said they had enjoyed the life style.

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Capt. Robert Raleigh, former assistant director of Family Services at El Toro Marine Base, said he had a positive impression of the group’s services and did not feel the group was “anti-military.” Raleigh is now a general’s aide, but he said that in his former post, he frequently referred military ex-spouses to the ex-partners group. “They (members of the group) were real supportive of divorcees,” he said, and “they seemed to be putting out very accurate information” about recent legislative changes that affect former spouses of servicemen and women.

Wifler, a member of the national, Virginia-based ex-spouses organization since 1981, said she founded the Orange County chapter last May primarily to let former military wives know about these legislative changes, which benefit them. For their $10 national and $5 chapter annual dues, members receive both a national and a local newsletter and gain access to a legal referral service. Chapter meetings are held at members’ homes every other month. (The Orange County chapter’s next meeting is set for Dec. 8; for information, call (714) 786-3346.)

About half of those who came to the recent meeting had attended in the past. Most of them live in Orange County, although two traveled south from the San Fernando Valley because no chapter exists near their homes. (The only other Southern California chapter is in Long Beach. It can be reached by calling (213) 430-3496.) Many were clearly angry about their continuing difficulties in obtaining what they think is a fair share of their ex-husbands’ economic benefits.

Wifler said she, too, is somewhat bitter about being left by a man she continues to be “crazy about.” (Wifler, who is 47 and the mother of four children, is separated from a Marine major who, she said, left her three years ago. They have been married for 21 years.)

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Wifler, a one-time cancer patient, said she is “grateful” she retains the “all-important” medical benefits available to her as a military wife.

“I do not consider myself the average military wife . . . I hate to pigeonhole people, but generally I would say many military wives are just as conformist as their husbands are . . . (as a military wife) you are never considered as yourself,” she said. “You are allowed to be in this system because you are dependent.”

Wifler said she wants to see military ex-wives receive the financial benefits she thinks they’ve earned. “I’m very zealous in the things I believe in,” she said. And the chapter treasurer, Shirley Miller, said that “if the group stays together it will be because of Cara Lou, because she really cares.”

Miller, a Garden Grove resident who attended the recent meeting, has been divorced from an Air Force staff sergeant for eight years. During her 24-year marriage, her family moved every year or 18 months, making it difficult to establish a career, but “I was one of the lucky ones,” she said. “Because I have accounting experience, I could always get a job.” She now works for a Los Angeles oil and gas company.

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“Military wives give up so much because you move so much. To me, it was living out of a suitcase for 20 years,” Miller continued. “A military wife lives in the future” while putting up with transfers and separations “because the pot of gold is at the end of the rainbow. You wait until you’re retired, and one year after you’re retired, he’s gone again--forever,” she said.

The national organization was founded in 1980 by 10 women who were divorced or separated from their servicemen husbands. In five years, the group has gained 5,000 members, according to Mary Wurzel, the national president, and the group has lobbied to change laws that restrict former military wives’ access to their ex-husbands’ pensions and other benefits.

This lobbying helped persuade Congress to pass the 1982 Uniformed Services Former Spouses Protection Act, reversing a 1981 Supreme Court ruling that prevented pensions from becoming part of divorce property settlements. This law, and laws that followed, gave medical benefits and on-base shopping privileges to ex-spouses who had been married for 20 years to servicemen or women on active duty. Medical (but not shopping) benefits were also given to ex-spouses married to military personnel for 15 active duty years.

According to these laws, if the ex-spouse remarries, he or she loses all these post-divorce privileges. If the ex-spouse begins working for a company that offers employer-paid medical benefits, the military-provided medical benefits are lost.

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There are no male members in the Orange County chapter, and few of the women at the recent meeting were under 50 years of age. Most had spent well over 15 years married to military men who, they said, left them. Some are still married to military personnel from whom they have long been separated.

One plump, white-haired woman (who asked not to be identified, for legal reasons) spoke of her continuing struggle to win part of the retirement benefits of the Air Force captain she said abandoned and divorced her in 1963 after 20 years of marriage. At the time of the divorce, she was unable to engage in a legal fight for spousal and child support, the woman said, because all her resources were directed toward feeding and clothing her four children.

Her husband later retired from the military with a disability pension, the woman said, but “I got nothing.” (No taxes are collected on military disability pensions, and such pay is usually not considered part of a marriage’s community property.) Now a retired teacher who has a small civil service annuity and some Social Security income, the ex-wife is considering legal action to attempt to gain part of her former husband’s retirement benefits.

Another woman said she had been married 30 years and was awarded half the marriage’s community property at the time of her divorce, only to see her ex-husband leave California and fail to give her the court-awarded money. “What good are laws, what good is what the court gives you, if you can’t collect (a financial settlement)?” she asked.

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Not all the group members saw themselves as victims, however. Two of the 35 women on Wifler’s mailing list initiated their divorces.

One of these, Santa Ana resident Carole Gould, left a 29-year marriage in 1980. During that marriage, she helped raise five children but gradually realized she and her Navy officer husband were incompatible. “I knew there was more to existence than what I had,” she said.

During the 1970s, Gould earned a two-year degree in government management from Santa Ana College (now called Rancho Santiago College). She now works for Orange County. “I discovered I was a person, and I could do things by myself,” said Gould, who is 51. “I’m not sitting there anymore waiting for somebody to promise me something that isn’t going to happen.” During her 1982 divorce, she said, she didn’t ask for spousal support, but after passage of the Uniformed Services Former Spouses Protection Act, she filed papers to give her part of her ex-husband’s Navy retirement fund. She now receives $237 monthly from that fund.

Getting the military to respond to an ex-spouse’s request is often not easy, said Patricia Ruhlman, a Long Beach resident who was attending her first ex-spouses’ meeting, but “you have to be persistent, and even if you get a ‘no,’ there’s a recourse somewhere. . . . You have to be very aggressive in your phone calls and letters” to get financial benefits, she said.

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Ruhlman, who directs the Tustin-based Volunteers in Parole program (part of a Big Brothers-style statewide project to match volunteer attorneys with parolees), was formerly married to an Air Force squadron commander. Because her 22-year marriage included only nine years of active military duty, she is not eligible for military medical or on-base shopping privileges, she said.

Nevertheless, she said in an interview after the meeting, her lawyer is trying to cut through the paper work that has delayed her Survivors Benefit Protection insurance (which guarantees lifetime payments from military pensions to widows, ex-spouses and dependents). Ruhlman said she currently receives a small part of her husband’s pension, but most of her income comes from her full-time work.

She joined the organization, she said, “to get information and to share what I know, and hopefully to help others.” But being in “a roomful of other military wives” made her feel “sad,” she added, because, as she told the group, “any woman over 45 is in what I call the ‘ripped-off generation.’ We were all told to keep our hair curled and our crinolines crimped and everything will be fine, and it’s not like that in the real world.”

Yet several of the women said they’d made progress on a personal level since their divorces or separations. “Nobody in the whole wide world can put this little girl down. I’m 62 years old, and I can do anything I want to do!” declared Eleanor Conti. Formerly married to a National Guard officer, Conti now works for Orange County as a counselor, recruiter and job developer. She also attends college part time.

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While some members of the ex-spouses’ organization are still bitter about their failed marriages, it’s important that the women move past their anger, another member said. “Why go through life holding this big grudge? I think bitterness is not productive.”

Wifler said she would like chapter members to become involved in the political realm but feels most of the Orange County chapter members are not interested in organized political activity. To help get the women involved in their community, she has asked the members to bring canned goods to the December meeting for a “care basket” for a homeless or battered woman.

“Many of these women are very submissive and very passive. I would like to see them get out of the rut of being former military wives,” Wifler said. “I would like to see them be dragged, kicking and screaming if necessary, into being connected with the here and now.”


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