A Veteran and Military Spouse Shares Her Story

Tonya Willis and Sergeant Major Panapa R. WillisAs we honor veterans this month, I also like to celebrate their families, particularly their spouses. Being a military spouse means accepting the possibility of deployment, moving from place to place, and the reality that maintaining your own career may be difficult. In this blog post, we talked with Tonya Willis about her experiences as a veteran and military spouse. She tells us about the challenges military families face and shares her advice for other military spouses on finding support in their communities. She even offers a tip for new Soldiers.

Q: Can you share a little bit about your experience in the U.S. Army? How long did you serve, and was it a good experience?

A: I was in the Army for six years. My husband and I were a dual military couple, meaning we both served at the same time. I chose to leave the Army after having my oldest son. I praise those who can serve and parent together — I found it very difficult.

I absolutely loved serving. It allowed me to become an "instant adult." When I was 18, I moved out of my small town, and the Army gave me a life that I'm proud of today.

Q: What's your advice for new women Soldiers?

A: It may seem a bit strange, but my uncle, who was also a Soldier, gave me the best advice. He told me to not drink alcohol. That's it — don't drink.

His reasoning was simple: You must keep a clear head and be in control as much as possible. The minute you give up control, you're more open to harm. This was his advice back in 1990. Today, we know that alcohol is involved in a lot of cases of sexual assault. I'm not sure if my uncle could see the future or if this was always a problem, but I'm grateful for his advice and am glad to pass it on.

Q: What are some challenges that military families face?

A: Where do I begin? I must say that I am happy to be a military spouse. Military families are in constant motion. Spouses have to relocate and give up employment, which means fewer promotions and less financial security for families. Military children also have many obstacles. They often have to change schools and friends, and they have fewer close relationships with extended family members. But military families are resilient. It's one of our many strengths. We see obstacles and come up with solutions.

Q: Will you tell us about the volunteer work you do?

A: As a member of the Fort Belvoir, Virginia, community, I volunteer and serve as Scholarship Chair for the Belvoir Enlisted Spouses Club (BESC). The club was established in 1985, and it has been a driving force for supporting military families in this community ever since.

Q: How does BESC address the challenges military families face?

A: Our club supports military families by providing college scholarships for dependents, including high school seniors and military spouses. Our goal is to help college hopefuls get one step closer to a college degree. We also provide relocation assistance, sisterly/brotherly support, and food and clothing donations. Supporting each other is one of the many ways military spouses take care of one another. We are a fairly exclusive group, and it creates an extended pseudo-family.

Q: Do you have any advice for new military spouses?

A: Find your own support system in your community and stay independent. I've found that for many new, young military spouses, family is everything and the only thing. I think it's important for spouses to have something outside their families. The military offers many programs to help train and educate young spouses, and I urge spouses to take advantage of them. It's never too late to develop a new skill. I also advise new spouses to immerse themselves in their communities. There are other spouses who will look to you for help — be there for them.

Q: Is there anything else you'd like to share?

A: For all the military spouses out there, it is important to help and mentor one another. Be there for each other, because you might not need the support today, but you could need it tomorrow.

Tonya Willis is married to Sergeant Major Panapa R. Willis, the Department of the Army Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence (G-2) Sergeant Major. They have three children and one grandchild.

The statements and opinions in this interview are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Office on Women's Health.