By Gabriela M. Nostro, Esq.
When I was twenty-six years old, I knew nothing about the military but suddenly met a handsome Marine on a rooftop bar in Washington, DC. We got engaged a year and a half later, and married less than a year after that, but I knew two months in with absolute certainty he was it. I was also already a licensed attorney and proud of my recent bar admission to the state of NY, where I presumed I’d end up practicing law. It is not a new story for life to go in an unexpected direction, but it is a new set of challenges when military spouses are increasingly more likely to be established professionals, especially in fields requiring licenses. Who wrote that fairytale?
As a twenty-nine year old, I was married and becoming fairly certain that I would never practice law in NY after all. I had used the reciprocity rules to be admitted in Washington, DC, but my husband and I were stationed in Camp Lejeune, NC immediately upon getting married. I am not a Marine, but was initially optimistic that I could find a legal job on base, even hoping that a perfect federal job there would work out (it didn’t, but more on that in a later article). So I was left with two choices — don’t work, or go through the entire licensing process again in North Carolina. So I applied for and took the NC bar exam. I studied, passed, and a year later I was licensed in NC. I worked for free at the District Attorney’s Office for a couple of months before they had a position I could fill.
I loved my time with the 4th Prosecutorial District and was both sad and frustrated when it came to an end around a year and a half later because of my husband’s orders to Newport, RI, a duty station we knew going in would only be for about a year. After Rhode Island, we went to Germany and at about this point every military spouse reading this is nodding their head and waiting to see if I have anything new to say. The truth is that as military spouses we live a nomadic life. Many have heard “you signed up for this,” but that commentary is surely outdated (and actually never really applied). We chose our professions because we are capable, smart, and motivated. We married our spouse because we fell in love. When in the civilian world would you expect to hear “well, you shouldn’t marry this person you love because of their job?” It would sound just as absurd in the civilian world as it sounds in the military one.
It is not possible to have it all, at least not in the way you thought having it all would be like before you had any of it. That’s the truth. There is space, however, between unrealistic demands and fair expectations to get some of what you want and need. If you are in a profession that requires a license to work, being a military spouse and doing that work might not be impossible, but it is pretty darn hard to maintain. Over a series of upcoming articles I will explore the obstacles facing three of the more common professions requiring licensing — teachers, attorneys, and healthcare professionals. For now, let’s explore whether there are across-the-board solutions, or if we are each flying solo in our respective fields.
In a report titled “Talent Management 2030” released this November, the Marine Corps recognizes and proposes some refreshing changes to personnel and talent management. The report shows that the Marine Corps accepts that its status quo in areas like career flexibility and PCS frequency have become not only outdated but also threaten its ability to attract and retain the best Marines. The section on PCS frequency hits home for any military spouse with a professional license. The report questions the long-held assumption that frequent moves improve the quality of the force, and acknowledges their disruption of spousal employment and educational stability. This discussion admits that the frequency of moves is routinely identified as a contributing factor in separation surveys and restricts the retention of quality Marines — the issue ultimately at the heart of the report. To address this, beginning in 2022, monitors will increase use of Permanent Change of Assignment (PCA) orders (within the local area) instead of defaulting to Permanent Change of Station (PCS) orders (to a new geographic location). The report advises monitors to consider whether career growth is possible within the same duty station, and thus disrupts the long-held belief of the Marine Corps that homesteading will prevent career advancement.
At first glance, this feels like the solution. If we never have to move then we don’t have to struggle with licensing issues. While this is certainly a step, more than a step, a leap in the right direction, the reality remains that while it may begin to remove the stigma of homesteading, it’s not always going to be possible to homestead. It may be helpful for some, based on their speciality and career timing, but it will not solve the overall problem which will still require, even if reduced, routine movements between states and out of the country. These moves are necessary to staff difficult-to-fill assignments, progress in certain career fields by filling jobs that only exist in specific places, and ultimately fulfill the needs of the service and produce the diversity of experience that the report also desires. Except in the most unique of circumstances, moves, even if less frequent, will still be a necessary part of military life.
So while these changes are nothing to scoff at, the work isn’t done, and the question remains what does each professional field, governed by its own licensing rules, require to move forward? Is it a spousal hiring program?
The Department of Defense does have a program for a military spouse hiring preference and the army has a specific preference program for attorneys which we will explore further in a future article but the issue with these is a simple numbers game. Like the reduction of PCS frequency proposed in the USMC report, these changes and programs are critical and tremendously helpful, but the reality is that they help a few, not most. Exploring the realities facing each field at least help us to know what we are facing, and help communicate to our civilian counterparts what obstacles we face due to being military spouses.
So what steps do we need to take? What steps are enough? I’m not sure there is an answer that is both feasible with current military operations and would satisfy the rules of the varied licensing boards. So for now, the next three articles will survey the difficulties and reality military spouses face with licensing issues, outline the special programs and groups that could help ease these obstacles, and explore how each field can lobby for meaningful changes to their existing licensing rules. Ultimately, however, we just want to be heard and understood and if along the way we do come up with a step or two that will help, then a step, however small, is still a step — and military spouses don’t want to stand still anymore.
Gabriela Nostro, Esq. is an attorney licensed to practice in NY, DC, and NC and has served as Adjunct Faculty with the University of Maryland Global Campus since August 2017, both in person and online. Prior to teaching, Gabriela worked as an Assistant District Attorney for the Fourth Prosecutorial District in Jacksonville, NC. From 2009-2012 she was an attorney with the National District Attorneys Association’s National Center for Prosecution of Child Abuse in Alexandria, VA. Gabriela also served as Director of MSJDN’s non-profit organization, Justice for Military Families, serving Gold Star families from 2015-2017. Gabriela is a 2009 graduate of the American University Washington College of Law. She currently lives with her husband and three beautiful children in Twentynine Palms, California.
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