Reporter's Notebook

by John Biewen

John Biewen, Josiah Dells, Private Joshua Ford
Photo by Christopher Sims

The rule was simple. I would need to be accompanied by someone from an Army Public Affairs Office (PAO) each time I entered the premises of Fort Bragg, even if I were not meeting with any military personnel but were simply paying a reporting visit to the home of a military spouse.

A civilian from haircut to scuffed shoes, and also a journalist type, I expressed some surprise.

Jeannette Mulligan, the wife of the 82nd Airborne Division's Sgt. Clinton Mulligan, had agreed to participate in the making of Married to the Military. She is not a soldier, not an employee of the Army. She's a civilian who lives on Army soil because of her husband's job. So I questioned the logic of the rule. Is the restriction aimed at the reporter, to make sure people like me don't go off snooping around Fort Bragg? That might make sense. But while Fort Bragg has had checkpoints at its entrances since 9/11, anyone can go through. You show your I.D. and driver's registration to the armed guards and they take a look through your car, but they ask no questions about your business on post. I could enter Fort Bragg anytime and drive around the place unescorted. (Of course, fences and guards block access to firing ranges and jump zones and other dangerous and snoop-worthy territory.)

Or is the rule designed to keep tabs on what the Army spouse is saying to the media? This theory has holes, too. If Jeannette and her family lived off-post instead of on Fort Bragg, the Army would not and could not insist on being present while she spoke to me. The other Army wives I interviewed for the documentary, Tabitha Minto and Maxine Crockett, both live off-post; I interviewed them privately at their homes as I would anyone else. For that matter, I could have interviewed Jeannette off-post anytime and the PAO would have had nothing to say about it.

The answer seems to be that the Army has a policy about journalists needing escorts on post and that's that. The thoroughly pleasant civilian staffer from the 18th Airborne Corps PAO who explained this to me seemed mildly bemused at my questions, as though I were challenging some basic law of nature.

So each time I visited Jeannette, or did any other recording on the post, I enjoyed the company of an Army representative, usually Pvt. Joshua Ford of the 82nd Airborne PAO. He was assigned to do the "media escorts" for this documentary project. We would meet in the parking lot of a Fort Bragg golf course, just outside the main gate, and catch up on the pro or college basketball games we'd watched that week. Then Pvt. Ford would come along and sit by quietly as I did my interviews.

I don't believe the presence of military staffers inhibited Jeannette Mulligan. She's a mostly contented Army spouse who, nonetheless, speaks freely and articulately about the difficulties of military life. All the Army people I met acknowledged those strains and sacrifices and showed no interest in glossing them over. Pvt. Ford and his superiors in the Public Affairs Office, while always along for the ride, were supportive and cooperative. If I wanted to record something on Fort Bragg, no matter the day or the hour, I just called the PAO and Pvt. (now PFC) Ford would meet me at the golf course and take me where I wanted to go.

But the policy of requiring an Army presence at my interviews with Jeannette struck me as emblematic of the bargain that people strike when they enlist in the military. They give up freedoms that civilians take for granted. Sure, when you sign up for the Army you agree to be placed in harm's way - and, perhaps, to kill - whether you think the battle you're fighting is a noble mission or a mistake. But many soldiers never get shot at and never fire at an enemy. All soldiers do sign away the freedom to decide where they will live. The freedom to determine what their job will be. To question, even politely, an order from the boss. To quit their jobs without going to jail.

Many of these constraints are shared by the soldier's family. Jeannette Mulligan accepts them with good-natured humor - for example, in titling her husband's military scrapbook, "Home is Where the Army Sends Us."

"I don't get upset about the restraints," Jeannette says. "I actually find a sense of security in it."

When she talks about security, she means it figuratively but also literally. Fort Bragg is a 250-square-mile gated community with, let's just say, a remarkable number of armed guards. Jeannette feels her children are safe there and she considers that a huge benefit of Army life.

She does acknowledge the big demand the Army places on her husband's time and his availability, even when he's not working. The family can't schedule a vacation when they want to; they must take it when Clinton's unit goes on "block leave." Even when Clinton has time off for the Christmas holidays, the Mulligans may have to stay put at Fort Bragg; they can't visit the relatives in Pennsylvania if his battery is on "mission cycle," in which case they're subject to being deployed on little notice.

"They have to be able to get back to the battery [headquarters] in two hours if they get called up," Jeannette says, "because the 82nd's mission is to be deployed within 18 hours anywhere." Anywhere on the globe, that is.

Jeannette told me, with a chuckle, that it's a good thing soldiers can't resign easily. If they could, "we probably wouldn't have as large an Army as we do because it gets hard."

That is her general take on the restrictions of military life. Ultimately, they're aimed at ensuring the military's effectiveness.

In the months that I spent following these military families, I tried to capture some of the ways their lives are shaped by the bargain they make with the military. While I don't think the rules hampered the radio project, adhering to them gave me a taste of the profound gulf between military and civilian life.

Back to Married to the Military

©2018 American Public Media