“Cyber-Bullying” takes aim at military spouses

Military wife Kristine Schellhaas, www.usmclife.com, created this image to send a message about cyberbullying. (Photo: Kristine Schellhaas)

The introduction of social media has been pivotal in changing the way we connect with one another. Social media sites have allowed families and friends living apart to stay in touch, further careers and camaraderie, but it’s also opened a new avenue for ill-meaning individuals. More and more often, people are spending their time online tearing down others for their own amusement. Unfortunately, one of the most prevalent examples occurs right here in our military community, where “Cyber-Bullying” takes aim at military spouses.

Many of you have probably heard the word “dependa”, it’s been floating around military circles for years now and has quickly bled into civilian vernacular thanks to social media sites like Facebook. The definition of a dependa is a military spouse whose uneducated, lacks goals and aspirations in life and is completely reliant upon their servicemember for financial support. Many of these individuals thrive by living through their servicemember’s successes and rank as well.

The Dependa Crux

Military spouses face harassment each time they visit the Commissary or Exchange, unsure if a veteran or fellow military spouse will snap a photo of them for ridicule online. It fact, many military spouses often shy away from getting help online, afraid of being ridiculed for asking a “stupid question” and being targeted by thousands of hateful “anti-dependa” individuals.

The word dependa is thrown around all too often, even though the majority of spouses don’t fit the bill. Military spouse author Rebekah Sanderlin is a frequent target for attackers any time she writes a controversial piece. She explains, “I don’t fit any of the “dependa” stereotypes. I don’t do any of the things or fit the physical description that would put me at risk for having my picture snapped and posted online. I certainly don’t behave in ways that justify someone “correcting” my behavior. And yet… I get called “dependa” pretty much every day.”

Kristine Schellhaas, the founder of USMC Life agrees with the disparaging use of “dependa” and the relentless cyber-bullying that is occurring with many military spouses.  “Social media has opened the floodgates for people to say things they wouldn’t normally say to someone in person. We all know someone who has behaved badly, but the majority of military spouses in our community are simply not the problem; they’re the ones volunteering at schools, military units and keeping the homefront fires burning,” Schellhaas told Popular Military.

Employment in the Military Spouse Community

Worse than the proliferation of the term itself, is the generalizations that these sites are creating. Suddenly, every military wife (and military husband, although the sites remain mostly geared toward military wives) is a dependa. Any military spouse who isn’t working is viewed as a dependa in the community, regardless if they are in school, raising kids, or supporting organizations through volunteer efforts.

Schellhaas explains, “There is nothing wrong with spouses who want to stay at home and raise children, it’s a noble and demanding job. Furthermore military spouses can’t simply get a job because they want one.  Military spouse employment is a very real problem in our community due to the constant moves, remote duty stations, and loss of career opportunities.”

Because military spouses move often, many companies specifically try not to hire spouses because they don’t want to invest in an employee who is going to leave within one to three years. While they can’t specifically ask if someone is a military spouse, they will ask questions which lead to the desired information at hand.

Most spouses therefore are faced with a choice: they can work extremely low paying (non-career) jobs while putting their children in childcare, or they stay at home to care for their children themselves. Those who choose to work, often find that they are paying the majority of the wages they earn into childcare, so they end up taking home mere pennies of each dollar earned.

Oh, We’re Not Talking about “You” – You Don’t Fit the Dependa Bill

The aftershocks of vile and hateful messages are felt by most in the military spouse community. Because many of them have never donned a uniform, they’re told their opinion doesn’t matter regardless of what kind of person they are. These sweeping generalizations hurt the community, even those military spouses who have often held the community together.

Take a look at the spouses who changed the landscape of our military community. The spouses who formed the Semper Fi Fund to help wounded warriors, or the military spouses who fought to keep veteran benefits and pay on behalf of servicemembers who signed away their rights to protest when they signed on the dotted line to serve. Any one of them could be called a dependa and attacked online any given day.

One of the most popular retorts on the comment boards is, If you don’t like the word dependa, you probably are one. That’s just misguided thinking according to Erin, founder of Many Kind Regards, She says, “Let’s reframe that thought for a moment. Use ANY other derogatory term that describes another human being you can think of… Why does using the word “dependa” offend or upset any of us? Because it is used to ridicule, embarrass, harass or otherwise defame a human being, period.”

The Fallout from Military Spouse Bullying

The damage from online bullying can have life-altering consequences. Rebekah Sanderlin explains earlier in her life when she felt particularly vulnerable after her husband deployed to Afghanistan a couple weeks after she gave birth to their child. She was living away from the support of family and friends and was about 50 pounds heavier than she wanted to be.  “I truly cannot imagine what I would have done if someone had taken my picture and ridiculed me online. Actually, I CAN imagine… I would have killed myself… If I’d been subjected to the abuse and harassment some of my sisters in this community have been subjected to recently, it would have been too much for me” she explains.

Marine Veteran Jeff Edwards of Unprecedented Mediocrity agrees the online bullying has gone too far, “The collateral damage is just too high and if it were a drone strike in Afghanistan, it would cause 10 Generals to lose their jobs because 1,000 innocent women were taken out to just tell this one particular woman a piece of your mind. These online people are indiscriminately bullying women, not because they are leeching off service members, but because they simply exist.”

What’s To Be Done?
What makes the military spouse harassment worse is that much of the shaming comes from active duty personnel, those same people who give everything to support our nation only to turn their backs on their brothers in arms.

“When I married my soldier I was so impressed with the people I met in the military community — awed by their sacrifice, discipline and commitment to each other, and I include the spouses in that, too. I am not awed or impressed by the military community anymore, largely because this behavior has been allowed to flourish, to go unchecked and uncorrected, perhaps it has even been encouraged. I’m not proud to be a part of a community that acts this way” Sanderlin explains.

Marine veteran Edward agrees and thinks that the command needs to step in, “Personally I think all the command needs to do is identify these bullies…  [to learn] respect and the ability to be a little bit more discriminate with whom he attacks online.”

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