By Nathan Van Schaik, IMCOMApril 8, 2014
SCHWEINFURT, Germany -- Tina MacDonald cleans spinach in a public sink at the local library's kitchenette here. She and three others are making a Mallorcan salad as part of a health challenge. They pulled the recipe from someone in their group -- 4,000 miles away. Tomorrow, Ms. MacDonald will plop her tablet device down on a gym floor so that she and a group of spouses can go through a yoga routine they found on the Internet. They have no instructions, no obligations and nothing to model their bold new program. It's what makes them InDependent.
MacDonald is just one of a handful of "community ambassadors" striving to connect and inspire other military spouses around the globe to live a healthy and meaningful life. "We're creating a community to support health and fitness, and striving for balance in a mobile, sometimes isolating lifestyle," she says.
Built from the ground up by like-minded military spouses, the group InDependent is a nonprofit organization aimed at garnering other dependents to invest in themselves and elevate health and wellness as the top priority, according to their military spouse manifesto. But what the group represents -- tied loosely together through social media -- is a revolutionary movement to bust through barriers and overcome hardships cast on military dependents worldwide.
"At InDependent, we believe that with the right structure and environment, healthy behavior can be contagious," explains Michele Bradfield, the group's executive director and Army spouse of five years living in Fort Riley, Kan. "The platform we've created is designed for military spouses, by military spouses, in the hope of supporting individual change."
The group works like this. The InDependent website, www.in-dependent.org, serves as a hub drawing in a network of men and women living a lifestyle anchored to the spouses' military orders, yet conducive to unhealthy living habits, unemployment and desolation. The site mobilizes others around wellness to tackle spousal woes. And it comes at no cost. A representative known as a community ambassador assumes the role at a military installation -- so far, the group has only attracted an Army presence -- to keep others informed and motivated, or may even launch local cooking clubs or fitness groups. Members take food challenges, experiment in alternative wellness programs and offer each other advice. Anyone can "like," read, contribute or participate in any of the group's activities blasted daily on a number of different social media outlets.
With daily blog titles like "4 Stages of Culture Shock Every Military Spouse Should Know", "4 Ways to Make Work-Out Time for Mommy", "6 Things to Know When ETS-ing", as well as regular posts by Olympian medalist Deena Kastor, the site is tailorable to individual interests and goals. Kimberly Bacso, the group's editor-in-chief and a military spouse since 2001, perhaps best articulates the members' ethos that wellness is not a one-size fits-all solution. In her piece titled, "Why I Quit Crossfit", Bacso explains that it's okay to abandon a program to pursue one's "fitness tribe."
So far the group has 20 active blog contributors and four ambassadors in five different regions on two separate continents. The number of members loyal to the program fluctuates. But it will take only a spark to set this program ablaze. For its founders, the organization's expansion is in clear site. Going viral is a necessary next step.
"Expansion is absolutely a goal," explains Emira Wininger, the community director responsible with recruiting and guiding community ambassadors abroad. Her goal to launch 10 new communities by the next month is premised on a simple concept: "Our hope is that by providing a valuable service to military spouses they will be inclined to share this with their friends, who will in turn, share it with theirs."
And her aspirations are reasonable. In the past six months the group's site has attracted 37,000 visits and more than 800 social media followers. Plus, InDependent recently picked up sponsorship by Public Health Foundation Enterprises, Inc., a nationally-recognized 501(c)3 nonprofit fiscal sponsor having served government and nonprofit agencies since 1968. And given that the group has gained nonprofit status, it can now continue to grow through grants and corporate sponsorships.
GRASS ROOTS: HOW IT ALL STARTED
The idea to deliver a free, accessible nutrition and wellness program to military spouses around the world was hatched in April 2013 at the remote Army garrison in Schweinfurt, Germany. The idea was bold in its ambition.
Founders Leslie Brians, Michele Bradfield and Margaret Gotheridge -- all military-spouse contractors working inside the Army garrison's award-winning Public Affairs Office -- were driven not only by their own experiences, but by a series of articles and studies illustrating the hardships of those that follow their spouses' military careers.
The role of the traditional military spouse didn't sit well with them.
Ask any of them and they'll site a 2004 Rand Corporation study which found that military spouses are not only less likely to be employed than their civilian peers, but are also less likely to earn less money when they are employed.
"As women take on even greater roles in American professional life -- they now make up a larger share of the national work force than men -- their attitudes and expectations will be increasingly at odds with the traditional role of the military spouse," notes Thomas E. Ricks, writing for Foreign Policy magazine, whose article co-InDependent founder Leslie Brians cites as a source of inspiration. This, along with her observations at her local commissary, got her thinking.
"Military spouses are underemployed and overqualified," says Brians. "And coupled with the unhealthy habits we were witnessing among commissary shoppers, we decided we had to do something"
And there's empirical evidence to back up their beliefs. A study recently conducted by the Military Officers Association of America and the Institute for Veterans and Military Families found that 90 percent of female spouses reported being underemployed or overqualified. What's more, military spouses earn less than 38 percent than their civilian counterparts and are 30 percent more likely to be unemployed, according to the same study.
"As a demographic (of military spouses) we often hear these statistics and think, 'Woe is me,'" says Bradfield, InDependent's executive director. For Bradfield and her team of InDependent colleagues, the objective is to "empower a mind shift."
"We are exposing the problem through social modeling. Through our blogging platform our members are encouraged to share their own personal struggles and the path they've taken to overcome," Bradfield says. "At InDependent, we believe that with the right structure and environment, health behavior can be contagious," adding that "we have an important message to share and believe we have the skill to teach people how to break down the mental and emotional barriers. Switch the mindset from 'can't' and instead focus on what is possible."
IS IT FOR ME?
Spend any amount of time in the military community and you might get ensnared in the bureaucratic red tape of the DOD's health care system. "Often, I don't even feel like I'm a partner in my own health," an Army colonel once told me. InDependent promotes good health. But so does the U.S. military. So what separates the two?
"It's not that the military system isn't trying to help," explains Bradfield. "It's more that they are just looking for a quick fix. If they can't link it to something -- gluten allergies, for example -- then they just give you a prescription and send you on your way. The result is a population of heavily medicated individuals that continue to suffer. They aren't getting to the root issue."
And maybe that's what separates InDependent's bold stance on fitness, nutrition and health: Group members invigorate others to take control of their own health as an alternative to a military's one-size fits-all health plan.
"Tricare has been supportive. The Army Wellness Centers have too," Bradfield emphatically notes. "We are actively working to partner with them. They are simply restricted in what they can say or do. InDependent is not restricted. We can provide an alternative perspective."
InDependent makes clear that its members are not medical professionals. But its message resonates: Perhaps when it comes to health, YOU are the first health professional. InDependent empowers military spouses to take their health and wellness in their own hands -- a support system that helps peers find a lasting solution.
Together, Tina MacDonald and her InDependent peers add the finishing touch to their Mallorcan spinach salad. They sit and eat at a make-shift table at the Schweinfurt library. The neon light above us flickers. Spinach is full of iron, an excellent source of B vitamins and is rich in calcium, magnesium and dietary fiber, according to the infograghic handout MacDonald passed out in the beginning.
"By no means are we professional chefs," MacDonald notes, as if announcing a superfluous disclaimer. It doesn't matter. When your health is in your own hands, spinach just tastes better. It tastes like independence.