FORT GEORGE G. MEADE, Md. (Army News Service) -- When Rhiannon Knutson found out a group of her friends and co-workers had nominated her for the National Guard's military spouse of the year, she burst into tears of joy.

"It made me cry to know that people took time out of their day to do that," said Knutson, a 31-year-old mother of four.

Leading the family readiness group of her husband's unit in the Minnesota National Guard, Knutson organizes events and assists families in obtaining their benefits.

"I love being able to help other military families," she said of her group, which supports the 211th Aviation Regiment's Company B, 2nd General Support Aviation Battalion. "It's like having a second family."

Knutson ended up winning the Guard category -- and along with Cassaundra Martinez, who is representing the regular Army -- is in the running with other branch winners for the honor of becoming the 2017 Military Spouse of the Year. The winner, which was chosen by online voting earlier this month, will be announced May 12 at a ceremony in Washington, D.C.

"I'm completely honored and humbled to be in this position," Martinez said. "It's tough being a military spouse, but through programs like this we can share our stories and bring light to the unique needs and challenges of military spouses."


Juggling a busy routine with six children, a full-time internship and volunteer work, Martinez also finds extra time to connect military spouses through a monthly "Girls Night Out" event at Fort Belvoir, Virginia.

Martinez, 30, started the networking event last year as a way to give "mompreneurs" a space to learn and share resources on running a successful small business, particularly businesses involving direct sales. The free event has gained popularity and now has over 500 women taking part in it.

Asked why so many women sign up, she said, "There's no support for them. You really have to struggle to build that network when you have those types of companies."

Another challenge Martinez hopes to tackle is helping unemployed military spouses, who often have to take jobs for which they are overqualified. As a former Army military intelligence sergeant with a master's degree who has worked in government consulting, she has struggled with this.

When her husband received orders to work for the Army Intelligence and Security Command at Fort Belvoir, she had to quit her job as a consultant and start from scratch.

"The transition was a wreck. It was really hard on our family," she said. "Despite me having a master's degree, Army experience and all of the above, it didn't matter."

While Soldiers get assistance when moving to a new duty station, Martinez suggests there should also be a military family transition specialist to help guide spouses in landing a job, among other things.

"We don't want to be part of the problem, we want to be part of the solution," she said.

Prospective employers should also realize that many military spouses make highly skilled employees, she noted, even if they may not be there for the long term.

"We should be valued even more because of our mobility. That lends to flexibility, perseverance, [and] resiliency," she said. "Those are all things that companies value [and also] affect the bottom line."


Without the resources typically found on an active-duty base, Knutson holds monthly family readiness group meetings to inform local Guard families of their benefits, such as health care and referrals to financial counseling and home maintenance when their loved ones are deployed.

"That's why I take the [family readiness group] leader role so seriously and reach out to them constantly when things come up," said Knutson, who has led her current group of about 80 families for the past five years.

She recalled helping one spouse get her home's air conditioner fixed during a heat wave last summer. On another occasion, she set up a video teleconference for a pair of newlyweds, one of whom was deployed at the time, so they could see each other on their anniversary.

"It's the little things, the milestones that are missed during deployments," Knutson said. "So to be a part of that was great so they could feel like they were at home."

She also volunteers at her children's school and helps organize yearly events to connect families in her family readiness group.

Networking is helpful, especially when deployments roll around and spouses basically turn into single parents. Because they're adaptive and share similar experiences, Martinez said, military spouses can easily become close friends.

"Military friendships are very synonymous with family," Martinez said. "We just have each other's back without even really knowing each other."

(Follow Sean Kimmons on Twitter: @KimmonsARNEWS)