‘What am I here for?’: Military families frustrated by delayed promotions, withheld raises and lives put on hold
For more than half a year, one Republican senator has blocked military promotions on the Senate floor over his disapproval of the Defense Department’s abortion policy.
Originally published by The 19th
When Allison Jaslow ran into Sen. Tommy Tuberville in the Capitol in July, she asked him what he had to say about how his block on military promotions on the Senate floor has impacted military service members’ livelihoods.
“I’m an Iraq war veteran myself,” Jaslow, the chief executive of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, told the Republican from Alabama. “Many of us are very frustrated with your hold on promotions. We represent the post-9/11 generation, many of whom are still serving. There’s a lot of conversation here in D.C., but what do you have to tell them?”
His response: “250 out of 2 million.” That referred to the number of military promotions directly impacted by his actions at the time, a number that has since risen to about 300 and could increase to as many as 650 nominations by the end of the year, according to the Associated Press.
For more than half a year, Tuberville has blocked the promotions of all general and flag officers pending on the Senate floor over his disapproval of the Defense Department’s policy of paying for the travel of service members seeking abortions or reproductive care across state lines. These military holds have a cascading effect, impacting far more than the individuals whose promotions are being held up. When high-level officers cannot assume command, everyone under those commands is also put in limbo: They can’t get their pay raises, can’t move to new stations and can’t make decisions about their families’ lives. Many lawmakers, advocates and military leaders also argue they are a threat to national security — particularly in the wake of the weekend's attacks by Hamas in Israel. Tuberville has said that he’s not holding up all of the promotions, just “a group at a time” and blames the Pentagon and White House for “creating the problem.”
“He was pretty dismissive,” Jaslow told The 19th. “If you’re one of those people or their families, that’s the last thing you want to hear. It is your whole world. You’re caught up in this political tantrum, and one senator and his personal political agenda is being prioritized over your family, your life, your livelihoods, the paycheck and promotion that they’ve earned at this point — but also our national security.”
In a rare moment of public criticism of politicians, several military leaders voiced their concern, and many lawmakers also spoke out against Tuberville’s actions. When reached for comment, Tuberville declined, saying he had nothing to add to what he has been saying for months.Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat from Massachusetts, said in a statement that during her visit to NATO headquarters, U.S. military leaders shared their concerns about both the national security dangers and the costly burden imposed on military families from this blockade.
“It’s shameful that a Republican senator is treating military families as political footballs, inflicting enormous uncertainty on where children will attend school and sometimes forcing service members to maintain two homes as they arrange moves cross-country or even to a different continent,” Warren said.
Jessi, a military spouse who asked to speak with The 19th anonymously to protect her active-duty husband from retaliation, said the holds have had devastating consequences for her family. Her husband has been eligible for a promotion for about two years now — and the hold means he will remain there indefinitely.
“My husband just assumed at this point he would be further in his career,” Jessi said. “He’s kind of defeated. He knows his inability to get promoted right now has nothing to do with him and there’s nothing he can do personally, so he’s just kind of like: ‘What am I here for?’”
Since Jessi, her husband and their two sons moved to a new state in January 2020, they’ve already relocated once to find cheaper rent. Military spouses, 90 percent of whom are women, often bear the immense stress, strained budgets and moving logistics involved when service members move posts every few years. Now their rent is being raised again and Jessi’s husband is deploying, meaning they’ll be split across two households. Jessi said their financial situation has gotten so tight that her 9- and 12-year-old sons cannot afford to participate in school sports. She is actively applying for substitute teaching positions.
“If we knew he was going to be promoted soon, I feel like it would be a light at the end of the tunnel,” Jessi said. “Like at least there would be some extra pay coming soon. It’s financially already hard here and you just feel like you’re falling further down into the hole.”
Kathy Roth-Douquet, the chief executive of Blue Star Families, a nonprofit founded in 2009 by military spouses, said she is shocked that the military has been taken politically hostage like this. Tuberville’s move shouldn’t be referred to as a “promotion hold” at this point, she said; it is a “work ambition drop.”
“It took me a while to engage with the issue because I couldn’t believe it was happening,” said Roth-Douquet, whose husband served for three decades. “At some level, this thing had to go away and had to get fixed because it was so insane. And yet it hasn’t.”
Roth-Douquet said it’s a much bigger deal than people recognize. If it were an enemy that took our leadership out of commission, she added, “we would not stand for it — we would destroy them.” The holds highlight and exacerbate the challenges faced by military families — from high housing costs, spouse unemployment rates and financial insecurity — that have resulted in a recruitment crisis.
“We’re seeing that recruiting is down, and people will say that’s because people aren’t a good fit,” Roth-Douquet said. “But there’s so many good jobs out there, and recruiting is really down because people who serve in the military are increasingly not recommending military service anymore. … These hits to their lifestyle make them feel like their families can’t thrive and they’re losing trust in leadership.”
Blue Star Families conducts “pulse check polls” to gauge the military community’s response to real-time events. Recent surveys on the promotion holds got a lot of response, and many revealed frustration with leadership, disappointment with the state of politics and ultimate disenchantment with service.
“Why serve when merit has no value?” an active-duty field-grade officer said in response to the poll.
One spouse of a field-grade officer responded: “My husband chose to leave active-duty military service and has put in papers to retire as a result of the situation. At the core of our displeasure is that we do not feel like there is anyone within the government who cares about service members.”
“If the machine doesn’t support our troops and their safety by ensuring continuity of leadership, then why should my family put it all on the line?” another spouse of a field-grade officer said in her poll response.
There doesn’t appear to be a clear end in sight. Senators in both parties, including Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, have pushed back on Tuberville publicly and behind closed doors. Rep. Michael McCaul, the chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told CNN that Tuberville should reconsider because his block is “paralyzing” the Defense Department. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a Democrat, has told Tuberville to “back off his reckless pursuit.” Democratic Sen. Tammy Duckworth, who is a veteran, called the hold “bizarre,” “beyond distressing” and told NBC that Tuberville has “backed himself into a corner.”
Tuberville has maintained that the Pentagon’s policy on abortion is illegal and must be protested. In response to criticism, the senator has suggested the Senate bring each nomination to the floor one at a time, but that process could take months. Democrats have said they don’t want to give in to Tuberville’s demands and encourage similar behavior in the future.
Jessi said her husband comes from a family of service members who were proud and more than willing to serve their country, but he has grown frustrated with the government. The main reason he has not opted to leave for a higher-paying civilian job is because he is only a handful of years away from retirement.
“There’s a time before when I would have said it’s been great being a military family — things we would never have been able to see or do had it not been for the military,” Jessi said. “But currently, it’s just not the right thing for our family. I’m at this point where I’m just ready for [my husband] to retire and get out of the military so we can actually live our lives like we want to.”