After managing sales at a clothing boutique and earning a master’s degree in social responsibility and sustainable communities, Katie Lopez thought her experience spoke for itself. So when she couldn’t find a job after relocating last summer to live with her husband, an Army service member stationed in Fort Campbell, Kentucky, the challenge was unexpected. “I was surprised that at interviews, one of the first questions I was asked is when I was leaving,” she says, even though she didn’t know when or where her husband would be stationed next. “There was never any follow-up after the interviews, so I was getting more and more discouraged. And I knew I wasn’t the only one experiencing it.”
She certainly wasn’t. Studies show that labor markets near big military bases are often “saturated with overqualified military spouses eager to work,” according to the Huffington Post. Military spouses face additional challenges, like the fact that they don’t qualify for unemployment insurance when they lose jobs in more than 14 states, since changes of station are seen as “voluntary” moves.
Even when she did attend events geared at hiring veterans and their family members, Lopez found that most job recruiters were targeting veterans themselves — and the positions available were often entry level, virtual jobs that didn’t fit her level of experience. “There was nothing for those of us who were college educated and on a professional track,” Lopez says. “It’s disheartening to think we spent this time and put in the work to advance ourselves and our careers only to get entry level jobs at a call center.”
In Gear Career is a nonprofit that helps military family members with all career-related challenges — from finding jobs and networking to education and professional training. Haley Uthlaut, a military spouse and veteran, conceived the idea in 2009 and then took it to Donna Huneycutt and Lauren Weiner, owners of a consulting firm focused on hiring veterans and their spouses. They helped her make the vision a reality. Although headquartered in Tampa, Florida, In Gear Career has more than 2,000 members in 22 chapters across the country, from Texas to Tennessee.
“The biggest issue we saw facing military spouses was the lack of a professional network — you don’t get that when you move every two or three years,” says Weiner. “We want to help military spouses stay employed, because big gaps on a resume are a red flag. And ultimately, if we get the spouses engaged, we’re going to keep our best and brightest in the military. It’s a military readiness issue at heart.”
Last October, during the government shutdown, Huneycutt and Weiner were in Washington, D.C. for a conference, watching C-Span during a break between sessions. Sitting with a member from Military Spouse JD Network, a group that helps military spouses maintain their legal careers amid relocations, Huneycutt and Weiner became increasingly frustrated listening to politicians on the screen blame their opposing party for the shutdown.
“Enough already!” one of them screamed.
“Fix it!” another one yelled.
“Forget about these politicians,” one finally said. “I’m sick of everyone telling me to call my congressman. I want to be my congressman.”
Looking back, it was a light bulb moment.
Just one fifth of those who serve in Congress have any military experience, according to a September 2013 Pew Research Center survey. And the voices of military spouses have even less representation. “The number of veterans in Congress is only dropping,” says Amanda Patterson Crowe, executive director of In Gear Career. “And for spouses, that’s hard because we’re living the life that Congress makes decisions on, from child care to military pay. We had to figure out how to make our voices heard too, how to get into politics.”
So after the conference, In Gear Career teamed up with Military Spouse JD Network to create Homefront Rising, a nonpartisan initiative aimed at getting military spouses more involved in the political process, from volunteering for campaigns to running for office. “Many people don’t realize that military spouses are uniquely qualified to represent us,” says Weiner. “They’ve lived in small town America and cities, rural areas and overseas. They understand a slice of America that most people who stay in one place don’t.”
Homefront Rising launched this February with an event in D.C. and recently held its second gathering this June in Tampa. The daylong events are packed with seminars and sessions from elected officials, former service members and other leaders on topics like “Building a Public Image” and “How Extraordinary People Lead.”
Homefront Rising’s two events have already inspired several members, including Katie Lopez, to volunteer with local campaigns such as state-level House and Senate races. “I’ve found that when I approach campaigns, their leadership tells me it’s exactly what they want to hear — military spouses having an opinion and getting involved,” Lopez says. Even though she couldn’t attend, learning about the D.C. event motivated military spouse Susan Reynolds to begin writing a column in her local newspaper, the Fayetteville Observer, on military families. And Angelina Bradley was so inspired by the inaugural Homefront Rising event that she successfully lobbied the D.C. Public Schools’ Chancellor’s Parent Cabinet to add an additional seat for the nearby Bolling Air Force Base, where she is currently stationed, giving military families a voice in education that they previously didn’t have.