By Catherine Maddux
When you meet Tatyana Ray, a youthful, energetic and extroverted millennial, you might be forgiven for not immediately thinking to yourself, officer’s wife,” or in the parlance of the United States military, “milspouse.”
“I’m a smart [expletive], no question about it,“ Ray tells me over coffee and pastries in a cafe outside Washington, where she and her husband, who was reassigned to the Pentagon, only arrived a few months ago. She then lets out an infectious giggle, eyes squinting and twinkling all at once.
She is comfortable in her own skin.
Her cropped hair frames a face that defies the need for makeup. Day to day, she dresses like a fashionable urban hipster – no surprise since she is a native of Detroit, the home of Motown and a long line of musical legends like Aretha Franklin.
Following the career path of his grandfather, Army Maj. James Ray earned his commission in 2004. He was pinned by Tatyana, who attended her own graduation ceremony at Michigan State University – Detroit Center that same day, then celebrated with her high school sweetheart at Detroit University.
“I had made it very clear that I am not going to be a traveling girlfriend,” Tatyana said, her wide eyes flashing as she tries to subdue a giggle. “I told him, ‘I don’t need a ring,’ but I’m not leaving Michigan unless we are married.”
The couple tied the knot a year later.
Tatyana was thrilled – even 13 years later, it’s clear she has ended up with the love of her life – but simultaneously anxious, if not terrified, as she pondered her new role as the wife of a soldier.
“There’s this little book, there’s this green military spouse handbook, so I bought it and I like … oh no,” she recalled while groaning and rolling her eyes for effect.
Co-authored by Ann Crossley and Carol A. Keller and published in 1990, “The Army Wife Handbook” reads like a guide for the newly married from another era, tackling topics such as holding formal dinners, telephone manners, wives’ clubs, hosting coffees and teas, overseas assignments and military funerals. Page 158 includes a diagram of how to seat guests, followed by a step-by-step illustration of napkin folding.
“I read it and got overwhelmed,” she said. “And then I put it in a cabinet for 13 years.”
In many ways, Tatyana is a representative of the profound changes unfolding in America: the rapid growth of minority populations, which is creating so-called majority-minority cities.
According to a 2016 report by the Department of Defense, the percentage of active-duty personnel who identify as racial minorities has risen overall since 2010, including among the officer class, which has increased at a slower rate than enlisted ranks.
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While military culture is undeniably more casual than it used to be, some traditions and hardships remain the same, like the dreaded first overseas deployment.
That moment came so fast that Tatyana had no time to read the “Army Wife Handbook” even if she wanted to in those early, heady days of her marriage. Just six weeks after marrying, Tatyana and her new husband were sent to Fort Riley, Kansas – a shock to the system for an urban dweller.
“It was jarring,” she said, searching for the exact adjectives that might describe the emotions that overtook her that day.
“We pull up, there’s this little sign on the road, and we’ve just gotten to this little dust bucket and I’m like, ‘Where are we? What is going on?’”
Her husband signed in, met his commander and Tatyana started to set up their new home.
A few weeks later, James returned home after work as usual, announcing casually that he was deploying to Iraq.
Tatyana was blindsided.
“I’m trying to blink back tears and I’m like, ‘wait a minute!’ So, that kind of put everything on hold.”
James started packing his gear as Tatyana prepared for eight months apart.
“The first deployment was the worst,” she said.
With James gone, Tatyana left Fort Riley behind and returned home to Detroit to figure out what was next for her – and how she might go about achieving it. She turned to family and friends – and developed a previously unknown passion and talent for lifting weights – to manage the waves of emotional turbulence that is a given if you are a military spouse.
“That’s the thing about the military, you make awesome friends,” she said.
That sentiment has become tinged with pain and nostalgia thanks to nine moves – California, Texas, Alabama, Kentucky and Germany among them – over the couple’s 13 years of service. Five of those moves occurred in just the past four years.
But there is another daunting challenge – one often unrecognized outside the tight circles of military culture – that Tatyana and many other military spouses like her have to overcome.
‘How Hard Can It Be to Get a Job?’
After graduating, getting married and driving to Kansas only to turn around weeks later and head back to Detroit as her husband flew to Iraq, Tatyana set about trying to find a job in education, her chosen field.
“You know, I thought, how hard can it be? I have a master’s degree and, you know, I wanted to do something in my life for me.”
She was surprised to find that many doors to employment were firmly shut.
“Some employers are reluctant to hire people who might be moving who knows when,” Tatyana said. “It came to the point where I stopped telling hiring officials in interviews that I was married to an Army officer.”
A cursory search of YouTube reveals a hidden community of military spouses posting daily videos to share their struggles and swap advice about how to find meaningful and decently paid work.
That reality is validated by the White House Council of Economic Advisors. In a report released in May, “Military Spouses in the Labor Market” found military spouses are less likely to be in the labor market, face higher levels of unemployment and earn less than nonmilitary workers.
At one point, Tatyana gave up looking and decided to devote herself to running their home (the couple has decided against raising children, but do own two dogs). Since then, she has found solid employment in her field, which thanks to a teleworking agreement, she’s been able to take with her, even as the couple moves from one base to another.
Their latest move brought them to Washington, D.C., in May. James is assigned to the Pentagon and Tatyana is working and hitting the gym as they settle in and sample what the area has to offer.
“It’s going well. We like it because there is so much to do,” she told me excitedly.
For her 35th birthday in August, she went to see a stage show at the Kennedy Center, the region’s iconic cultural center. She loved it so much, she’s already booked tickets for another performance there.
As for how to manage being the wife of an Army officer, Tatyana shares this bit of wisdom, gained without a full reading of the little green Army wives handbook.
“Just be a nice person and generally things will work out just fine.”
–Catherine Maddux is a freelance writer and editor.
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