Lyndsey Akers, Air & Space Forces Association United Forces & Families (F2) event moderator, left, moderates a fireside chat with Chief of Staff of the Air Force Spouse Sharene Brown (center) and Chief of Space Operations Spouse Jennifer Saltzman, who shared their mil-spouse experiences at the Air & Space Forces Association United Forces & Families (F2) event, May 30, 2023, in Arlington, Va. Mike Tsukamoto/staff
Photo Caption & Credits

World: Military Families

June 22, 2023

5 Keys to Life as a Military Spouse

By Chris Gordon


ilitary families face many personal issues associated with their service, and the spouses of the top officers in the Department of the Air Force are not immune to them, they said May 30 during an Air & Space Forces Association United Forces & Families (F2) event, appearing alongside family advocates.

“I guess it worked out for the best 30 years later,” Jennifer Saltzman, wife of Chief of Space Operations Gen. B. Chance Saltzman said. “I did not grow up in the military. I didn’t know what that life was about, and just thought … he’s really a cute, nice guy. Let’s just do that. That’ll be easy. We won’t do it very long, right?”

Since then, Jennifer Saltzman—who appeared on a panel alongside Sharene Brown, the wife of Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr.—learned that being a military spouse was challenging, though rewarding. Here are five things Jennifer Saltzman and Sharene Brown have learned over the years—some big takeaways and others simple daily rituals.

1. The 20-Second Hug

“Time, definitely we never have enough of it,” Saltzman said. But her husband came home from a conference with an interesting suggestion offered by a speaker, which Jennifer  Saltzman says the couple has now taken up.

“Take a deep breath and hug your spouse for 20 seconds,” Saltzman said. “It allows you to take those couple of deep breaths and then you kind of just re-center.”

Saltzman said that with all that military families are juggling, it is important to connect.

“Now it’s just almost a call in the house,” Saltzman said. “That’s a fun connection. But you’d be surprised if you really do count 20 seconds, it’s longer than you think.”

Saltzman said families should find whatever works for them, whether it’s quirky or not.

“But always make sure you create the time because it goes by really quickly,” she said. “You don’t want moments to be few and far between. You want to make sure that you always capture your connection first.”

2. Fight for Yourself and Your Family

Sharene Brown’s signature initiative since her husband became Chief of Staff is “Five and Thrive,” focusing on five key concerns for military families. And two of those areas, child care and education, are particularly important to the Browns, given their experience after one of their sons was diagnosed with autism.

“When you see something that’s happening with your family, you need to take as much of a proactive stance as you possibly can,” Brown said. “I tried to soak up as much information about what schools should require or do require for students as much as I could, because I knew the next location wouldn’t necessarily have all that information.”

But whatever the situation is, Brown said families are their own best advocates.

“To all of our family members, I say to you, you know your family is really important because all the things that are going on in a military life, you’re thrown a number of different curveballs along the way,” Brown said. “It’s not so much what you’re thrown, but how you handle that and how you’re able to seek out those people around you and those resources that are out there for you. Because let me tell you, our military has a lot of resources, birth to grave, and we’re just overflowing with any sort of information that we’d like to be able to share with you.”

The Browns know firsthand that is not always easy, she said.

“Reaching out is probably the hardest thing to do initially,” Brown said. “If you recognize that there’s something that’s just not quite right, then investigate, explore, try to figure out what’s going on, and be proactive. Because ultimately, if you don’t engage early enough, you will be dealing with a number of challenges, either early on or later on in life. And the longer you wait, the harder the challenges become.”

3. Make Connections Outside the Military

Roughly two-thirds of military families live off base. Families should reach out to their civilian neighbors, military family advocates said.

“You can’t only rely on the military spouses around you,” said Kirstin Navaroli, the co-founder of Wives of the Armed Forces, who appeared alongside fellow spouse advocates Nicole Murray and Aaron Evenson. “We can’t only rely on our partner. You have to get creative.”

Navaroli recounted a time when she needed urgent help taking care of one of her kids. While she may not live in her current neighborhood for the rest of her life, civilian families are still willing to help out—if they know they can, she said.

“Building relationships and building trust,” is key, Navaroli said, “so that when you need that text to go out and you know it’s going to be answered.”

Military members make frequent moves, but that doesn’t mean families shouldn’t try to connect with as many people as possible. Brown recounted her trepidation upon heading for her husband’s assignment to Shaw Air Force Base in Sumter, S.C.

But, she learned, “people are people everywhere.”

4. Explore

Being a military family has many challenges, but America relies on an all-volunteer force. As the military struggles with recruiting and retention, Brown said it is most important for families to get everything they can out of their military experience.

“Get out and explore,” Brown said. “You never know how long you’re going to be in a location. I always tried to get out and see as much of wherever I was living and to meet as many people as possible.”

As General Brown was sent to places like South Korea and Italy, the family got to experience the cultural rewards of those different environments.

But Saltzman said military families should try to make the best of any location they’re posted in.

“I take advantage of every opportunity in every place,” Saltzman said. “Even if it’s not your first choice, and it was your second or your third, there’s going to be something fabulous there for you and your family. You just have to go out and find it.”

“Don’t be disappointed or scared if there’s a location that you’re going to that you weren’t quite sure about,” she added.

5. Be Flexible

“There’s only 24 hours in the day, even though some of you use those a lot more efficiently,” Saltzman said. “Be flexible.”

Despite her husband’s high rank and their new Space House quarters, General Saltzman’s first posting with Jennifer was to Montana when he was a young missileer, and they have moved roughly 14 different times.

She recounted one story that illustrates the hectic life of military families when she was asked for an emergency contact.

“‘I don’t have one, I just got here yesterday,’” Saltzman recounted. “‘I think one time I made a person up, ‘What’s the area code here?’ That’s fine, I’ll just write a name. But there are other people experiencing those same things. Hopefully, you can just find that network of people because military families and military kids are the greatest ones out there. So I’ve always been honored to be able to be in that group. But you have to be flexible.”

New ICBM Cancer Study Will Examine ‘Everyone Possible’

Airmen from the U.S. Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine visited a Missile Alert Facility at Minot Air Force Base, N.D., in 2023 to gather information for their cancer study. Staff Sgt. Michael Richmond

By Chris Gordon

The Air Force is pressing to find out why some Airmen and former Airmen who worked with the nation’s intercontinental (ICBM) ballistic missile fleet are being diagnosed with blood cancer—years after the service dismissed such concerns in the early 2000s.

A new Missile Community Cancer Study launched earlier this year aims to “make sure we get to the truth, whatever that truth is,” said Col. Robert D. Peltzer, a senior medical officer with Air Force Global Strike Command.

Air Force reviews of cancer rates among missileers in 2001 and 2005 could not identify an increased rate linked to missile service, but new medical knowledge has emerged since, Peltzer said. Doctors have “a better understanding” of factors that can cause cancer today.

“Look at [the herbicide] Roundup being one of those,” Peltzer said. “Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma is the No. 1 cancer on the list when you look at it. We didn’t know [Roundup] caused those types of cancers back in 2001.”

Armed with greater knowledge and detection capability, the Air Force will also have better access to highly classified ICBM facilities and the health data for a broader range of personnel, including both those working in underground bunkers for 24 to 48 hours at a time.

Peltzer said maintainers, security forces, and food service workers—among others—will also be in the new study, not just those who worked in launch facilities. Members of the study team, which is led by the U.S. Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine, visited bases to better understand the facilities and potential exposure issues.

“We want to make sure we didn’t miss out or exclude groups that actually are just as much—or potentially as much—at risk, or more at risk, than those members,” Peltzer said. The research team is made up of experts experienced in conducting cancer studies, including one that showed increased risks of cancer among pilots in recent years. That study led to a broader Pentagon review that validated the Air Force study’s conclusions.

“This is the same team and through that they learned which data sources and what they could get and how long it took them to get it,” Peltzer said.

But to conduct a study, Air Force medical officials said, they first have to know what an ICBM base is and what ICBM forces do—from an “operational, occupational, and environmental” perspective.

Col. Tory W. Woodard, commander of the USAF School of Aerospace Medicine, told Air & Space Forces Magazine that seeing the bases was a new experience for the research team. “Many of the medical experts had not previously been to a missile base or been in the operational locations where the missileers work,” Woodard said. “This visit was extremely important in order to inform the future cancer studies.”

Woodard was on the team that visited three ICBM bases— F.E. Warren Air Force Base, Wyo.; Minot Air Force Base, N.D.; and Malmstrom Air Force Base, Mont. The trip took place from Feb. 27 to March 7 and included his staff, members of the AFGSC Command Surgeon’s office, and experts from the Defense Health Agency.

“The team did not see any acute risks that needed immediate attention,” Peltzer said.

But Peltzer said there was no intention to dismiss cancer risks as they reviewed the facilities and flagged other possible medical concerns, such as running vehicles too close to air vents, burning documents indoors, or signage that indicated the presence of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), which have long been banned and should have been removed. Whether the signs were left behind after the PCBs were removed years ago is not clear. To locate traces of PCBs and a long list of other possibly toxic substances will require extensive sample testing, according to AFGSC.

ICBM facilities are often surrounded by private land where agricultural products may have been used without regard to the potential effect on missileers working nearby. The next-generation Sentinel ICBMs that will eventually replace today’s 50-year-old Minuteman III ICBMs will likely also be safer, given modern understanding. But an AFGSC official noted that even new missiles will have their own hazards.

Air Force officials said these first visits were not intended to draw definitive conclusions.

“It’s not the epidemiology study, so it wasn’t looking at cancer-related items,” Peltzer said. “That will be done later through the actual study itself.”

Interest and focused attention on the issue comes only after long-held concerns among some members of the missileer community pushed to the fore earlier this year, following a presentation detailing cases of non-Hodgkin lymphoma at Malmstrom by a Guardian who formerly served there. His PowerPoint slides later surfaced on Facebook, prompting AFGSC Commander Gen. Thomas A. Bussiere to call for and launch the study in February.

Bussiere, Woodard, and AFGSC Command Surgeon Col. Lee D. Williames briefed members of the ICBM community at a recent virtual town hall, Air Force officials said. Bussiere directed his staff to explore the idea of assigning medical professionals directly to ICBM units, modeled on how flight surgeons support flying crews. Because of the remote and classified nature of ICBM work, that could yield more real-time access to sensitive areas.

While the study is inspecting the three current active bases, which have ICBMs spread out over five states, the service is going through military, federal, and state cancer registries. The study will then have to match that data with service personnel files. That is not a straightforward process as the Air Force has changed job titles over time. The study is expected to take 12 to 14 months from start to finish, according to Woodard. The time is largely due to the amount of data that needs to be collected and analyzed, Peltzer explained.

“They will look at everyone possible,” Peltzer said.

A number of closed bases will also be examined as the service reaches back four decades in its data-gathering process. Only the on-site work is limited to those three active bases.

Peltzer said researchers will use Air Force Specialty Codes, bases, and timelines. “We know them all and all locations that were active since 1983,” he said. “Those members will be captured into this data study because that seems to be a great concern, especially of those who are retirees or former retirees if they’ve already passed away.”

Former and current service members have expressed skepticism over previous Air Force health studies, criticizing them for leaving the Air Force to study itself. The new study leverages epidemiologists from Veterans Affairs and the National Cancer Institute to monitor the study and provide feedback.

“There’s going to be outside entities,” Peltzer said. They “will give us a fair and objective look at what we’re doing to make sure we’re aboveboard.”