'After 20 moves in 21 years I feel as if I've done my bit, and I want to be me now,' says 46-year-old Ros Taylor. 'In the Army I don't think you're ever that, and there comes a time when you have to say 'Let's try to make four of us happier and more settled rather than just one'.'
Despite her teaching qualifications, Ros has endured years of 'constantly scrabbling around for work, picking up the tail ends of jobs'. But she has finally put down roots, opening a nursery school in the centre of a Wiltshire town. 'If necessary, I can always put a manager in here and eventually pick up where I left off, but I really do feel I've done my bit.'
Now that the Army no longer guarantees long-term career prospects and an open-ended source of income, many officers appear more willing to back their wives if they want to work.
Even without that support, however, increasing numbers of trailing spouses are letting their husbands know that if they want to continue their military careers, then they'll have to commute - even from other parts of Europe. While Ros revels in having her own life again, her husband, Alan, a lieutenant-colonel, swells the ranks of those who live away from home during the week. For some couples, striking a balance can cause the flak to fly.
'I have had friends refused command posts because they've gone unaccompanied,' Alan explains, 'but I believe that Ros has made enough sacrifices for me. Five years ago you could take job security in the Army for granted. Now that's gone, the nursery school gives Ros an alternative income base, and at the same time she can develop her own career.'
The Ministry of Defence sounds encouraging. 'We do acknowledge that more women work these days, and we in the services are not immune to changes in civilian society,' a spokesman said. 'Domestic arrangements are a matter for the individual family unit and the ramifications are not possible to predict.'
For Annie Musgrove, a major's wife, loyalty to her husband's career has taken its toll. She is a Cambridge graduate, and 11 years ago landed a plum job with good promotion prospects. No one had expected her to be appointed head of a college department at the age of 24, so when the news came, she was 'over the moon'. The following day, her husband, Paul, received a posting to Berlin. It was a real blow, but one that was swept aside by other army wives. 'Oh, you'll really enjoy it, it's great,' Annie was advised. 'The best thing about Berlin is that you can get a fantastic set of pans.' 'Here I was, about to lose a fantastic job I might never land ever again, for the sake of a set of saucepans]' she says.
Her pessimism was justified. Today, her CV contains what prospective employers might well regard as a suspicious number of job changes. Ten years after she turned down that plum job, she co-wrote a book, Gumboots and Pearls, which takes an irreverent look at army life. Now 35 and the mother of three children, she has settled for being self-employed and runs a publishing company from the family's village home. Next month will see the launch of her cartoon book, A Regimental Mess.
It was the Ministry of Defence's review of the armed services, Options for Change, that persuaded 41-year-old Sally Moran to look to her own future and concentrate on the needs of the family as a whole. 'In the current climate, when my husband could be made redundant, it seems wise to pick up the threads of a nursing career. I also need to feel fulfilled. If another posting comes up, he'll just have to commute, or he may even decide to resign his commission.'
Sally has been outside her chosen profession for eight years and is currently carrying out research for The Federation of Army Wives (its journal reaches more than 70,000 wives worldwide) to assess whether the mobility required by the service affects their employability.
Most overseas postings last two years. Because this is a relatively short period of time, many women seeking work conceal the fact, or even lie. As we spoke, Sally glanced at her application for a job at a local hospital. She winced at the thought of the inevitable question: 'What does your husband do?'
Amanda, 32, a major's wife, who prefers not to reveal her full name, says, 'Write in with a job application from a garrison address and a prospective employer is going to scent short-term commitment.' But she can understand their point of view. 'Training new staff and then losing them in no time at all isn't a very good investment.'
Amanda leapt at the opportunity to use her midwifery training when a nursing job came up during her husband's posting to Germany. She later discovered that the Army would only pay her the equivalent of 30p more an hour than she paid her cleaning lady. She turned the job down.
'It would be helpful if the Army provided a better structure abroad for wives who want to continue their careers,' she says. 'But as well as the short duration of the tour, there simply aren't enough jobs to go round.'
Now 32, and living in London, she works in public relations. 'There is a growing rebellion by many army wives who want to keep up their careers, no matter what it takes, but the possible risk to the husband's promotion prospects remains a huge constraint,' she says.
Discrimination also appears to be levelled at wives who seek jobs within the Army itself.
Annie Musgrove recalls being rejected for a teaching post in Berlin because the Army wanted someone other than an army wife, who could take on a three-year contract.
Even talking about their lot leaves many women fearful of spoiling their husbands' career prospects, although the MoD denies this would happen. The official line is that the next job up the ladder is based on 'merit and the capabilities of the individual'.
Amanda, however, recalls the experience of one family: 'When the wife returned to England to work, her husband was hauled over the coals by the colonel and told that she should be toeing the regimental line, supporting the Wives' Club and doing the usual good deeds. He's been stuck at major ever since.
'Most wives haven't a clue what they're in for. When you're courting an Army officer it's all very glamorous, with wonderful balls and all these men in splendid uniforms. It's only later that you realise that the reality is rather like having a baby. With each move you forget how painful and exhausting it is - until the next time.'
Life for the army family means constantly uprooting home, children and friendships, as well as limited career opportunities. Amanda believes that postings lasting four years would both create a more stable Army and make pursuing a career more feasible.
In 1986, growing discontent about the way service life affected wives and families sparked an internal inquiry, which culminated in the Gaffney Report. Although the report was never made public, it is known that it suggested that tours of duty should never be shorter than 18 months when a man is accompanied by his wife and family. Seven years on, however, the latest official Wives' Guide to the Army offers the hope that 'postings should gradually become three years in length'.
Many women say their rebellion has a great deal to do with defending the stability of the family. Annie Musgrove is by no means alone in her accounts of tearful children clinging to mother's knees, dreading the start of another new school, or standing tearfully in the playground taking longer each time to adapt to the problem of making new friends. 'By the age of six, our daughter had attended six different nursery schools. After one move she packed her bag and declared that she was 'going to look for our old house' because she was so unhappy.'
When one colonel's wife was left holding the fort in Germany while her husband fought in the Gulf War, the arrival of tear-stained letters from her children in boarding schools proved too painful, so she returned to Britain to give them her support. Her decision provoked official indignation and caused her husband considerable embarrassment on his return.
Those wives who indicate that they intend to stay in Britain risk being accused of unwillingness to remain mobile, and may lose the contribution made by the Army towards boarding school fees. For a secondary school pupil, this amounts to about pounds 3,000.
The benefits of an alternative approach are summed up by Claire, who is based in Gloucestershire, and whose husband now commutes weekly to London: 'I can have whoever I want to for supper. I can do what I want to do, not what I'm supposed to as 'a good army wife'.' And for a man, she adds, 'Why be an unhappy brigadier when you can enjoy life on a major's salary? There's no point in being a wonderful army officer if your family is miserable.'
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