FALLING in love with a soldier can mean entering an alien world where frequent separation, lack of stability and deployment worries become the norm.
“The hardest thing is the uncertainty,” says Nic Porrill whose boyfriend serves in Tidworth. “Jim’s away a lot and doesn’t tell me much!”
Like many “unmarrieds” Nic lives in her own home, so doesn’t have instant access to a sympathetic military-savvy environment. “I don’t get that sense of community from being on patch.”
Daisy Gibbs also felt disconnected juggling a long-distance relationship with her studies in Scotland. Her fiancé had to commute weekly from the base to be with her and their son.
“I didn’t have any contact with the Army. Jamie was missing out on being a parent, so I moved to Catterick,” she explains. “We’re a stronger family unit and everyone’s in the same situation here, so it’s easier to talk.”
Male partners can find it particularly hard to adapt to military life; despite increased numbers of female soldiers, they remain a minority. Stacey Sturman, who serves in Middle Wallop, met Rob 12 years ago and they recently married.
“We’ve been together probably more than most couples around our estate but I feel a bit awkward at times; people look at me differently because it’s my wife serving,” Rob says. “Every group event is all women – mums and tots, wives’ coffee mornings. I’m sure this happens in all bases but it’s the 21st century!”
Partners like Rob or Daisy – in a committed relationship, with children – can feel devalued and ignored by the system; non-dependants aren’t allowed onto camp unescorted, for example.
Housing rules cause frustration, too. Service Families Accommodation (SFA) is prioritised for married personnel, so Daisy and Jamie have to wait until after their wedding next May to apply. In the meantime, they rent privately in the garrison at a higher rate than their married neighbours.
The Sturmans have also experienced housing issues. During Stacey’s first posting Rob was only allowed to stay a few nights a week as they weren’t married, even though she had their newborn at home. When Stacey deployed, Rob had to move in with family members because he wasn’t entitled to remain in SFA.
“I had to travel a fair distance as my daughter’s nursery was near Stacey’s quarter, which we still had to pay for every month,” he says. “There were briefs for partners and spouses and I didn’t get asked to any. I believe it’s because I’m a bloke and it’s usually the other way round.”
Stacey adds: “The reason we didn’t get married is because we simply couldn’t afford it – £900 per month was going on our childcare costs.”
Having lived with her husband before their marriage, Bex Valentine, AFF’s Director Personnel, knows that the unit’s response to a “non-entitled person” can have a big impact.
“I think it’s critical that unmarried partners feel welcome and able to use the help available,” she says. “Their concerns are the same as those of any spouse.”
The Army says the challenge in supporting unmarrieds lies in relying on soldiers to provide accurate information about their dependants.
Some soldiers don’t want to include their partner in work stuff or a partner may not wish to be involved, viewing the Service career as separate from normal life.
“Unless the Army is informed about significant relationships, it cannot meet welfare requirements,” adds Major Dave Coward, SO2 Fam Reserves (PS4).
“Often, parents are listed as next of kin so nobody knows the partner exists. The onus is on the individual to keep their personnel record up-to-date.”
It’s also important to check your soldier has told the Army about you because it could affect financial benefits; not all entitlements are based on marital status. Benefits outside those provided by the MOD could be affected too, for example insurance beneficiaries.
Tilly Lambert, from Hampshire, thinks it’s vital to take an interest in her boyfriend’s profession. “Civvie friends don’t always understand and it makes such a difference to know the soldiers he works with, especially if they’re deploying.”
Reaching the wider family
The internet helps many unmarrieds join in with Service life and feel less isolated. AFF has appointed a Social Media Assistant to enhance its online support.
“It’s an effective way of connecting with people we can’t reach through the SFA letterbox,” explains Catherine Spencer, AFF Chief Executive. Regimental Facebook pages advertise events geared towards spouses and partners.
Nic says: “At first I had the impression everything was aimed at marrieds but actually the Army community has been very welcoming.”
A relationship with a soldier clearly presents challenges unlike those experienced by civilian couples – but it has its upsides!
“Jim and I really value our time together,” says Nic.
Rob adds: “I get free access to the camp gym, which I do appreciate! I love the fact my wife is living her dream and will support her all the way.”