“I was screaming at the television,” an African American Navy spouse told CNN, as she watched peaceful protesters running from military police and law enforcement officers who were advancing on them near the White House. Protestors were covering their ears with their hands and gripping their mouths as they tried to escape the acrid clouds of smoke and wafting pepper spray.
A short time later, as President Donald Trump walked to a nearby church to hold up a Bible for a photo-op, the reason for the melee became apparent.
National Guard troops deployed to cities around the country last week where they were a visible presence in communities. Approximately 1,600 active duty troops were brought to Washington – an extraordinary move – but not used. They have since returned to their home bases.
CNN Home Front interviewed 11 military spouses married to service members in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard.
They are black, white and Hispanic men and women, spouses of both enlisted service members and the officer corps, some of them veterans themselves, many with biracial children, speaking on the condition of anonymity to protect their spouses’ careers and the personal safety of their families.
The spouses uniformly condemned the use of military force within the United States and described being stunned – and horrified – by the images from Lafayette Square.
“We don’t serve this country to fight our own,” one said.
“That’s not why they signed up – to take away your right,” said another.
“You know that they’re there on orders, but they shouldn’t be there. It’s such a war within yourself. It’s a contradiction,” a Coast Guard spouse told CNN.
Hearing military helicopters whir overhead in Washington, one Navy spouse of a chopper pilot thought, “That could be him. What would happen if he was asked to go as a service member to patrol against our fellow citizens?”
Many joined peaceful protests this weekend, alongside other military spouses. From Anchorage to California to Omaha to Washington, DC, small groups of military spouses and family members did the same, often marching by uniformed National Guard on the parade route.
“Until we ensure racism and hate have no place in this country, we are disrespecting the countless men and women who have given their lives for the fundamental promise of liberty and justice for all,” a Marine spouse who protested told CNN. “All lives do not matter until black lives matter.”
Others organized formal and informal events to talk about the racial divide in the country. Hundreds have flocked to a Facebook page called “Military Spouses for Black Lives Matter,” to find like-minded military spouses supporting the movement.
“There is this understanding that we are stepping out of line by sharing our voice. This is stepping in uncomfortable territory,” an Air Force spouse said.
They acknowledge a large number of military-connected Americans – a majority in their estimation – don’t agree with their views on racial injustice. But they have been encouraged to find a large number of spouses who do, and they all said the stakes were too high not to speak up and say that all Americans should be treated equally.
“The reason I’m doing it is for my kids,” said a white Air Force spouse who has biracial children. “I’ve watched what my children have gone through growing up and it infuriated me. Trayvon Martin just shook me. My kids were around that age and wearing hoodies.”
After George Floyd died, she thought, “Are you freaking kidding me? Why is this still happening?”
Some spouses fear the perception of the military as the tool of one party or leader could have devastating effects on the diversity of future generations of recruits.
According to the Pentagon’s latest figures, 18.7% of enlisted members of the military are black. But only 8.8% of officers are black, compared to 76.1% who are white.
“Not everyone in the military thinks the same way and it’s important to highlight that so the next generation … doesn’t believe they have to think one way,” an Air Force spouse said.
The politicization of the military had a swift and visible effect last week, when leaders at some military installations located in communities with sizable protests ordered service members not to wear their uniforms in public.
“He had already stopped wearing his uniform and changing at work,” one spouse told CNN.
After the military was used for the socially divisive mission along the US border with Mexico, they worried the uniform could make him a target.
Even as the spouses CNN talked to were alarmed by military members mobilizing to quell protests, many lauded the leaders of each military branch for their response to this historic moment.
Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force, Kaleth Wright, an African American who is the country’s top enlisted airman, wrote on social media last week, “What happens all too often in this country to Black men who are subjected to police brutality that ends in death…could happen to me.”
“This, my friends, is my greatest fear, not that I will be killed by a white police officer (believe me my heart starts racing like most other Black men in America when I see those blue lights behind me) But that I will wake up to a report that one of our Black Airmen has died at the hands of a white police officer.”
Gen. David Goldfein, the Air Force Chief of Staff, has announced the inspector general for the branch will be conducting an independent review of the legal system, racial injustice and advancement opportunities in the service.
For the spouses who have attended protests, the experience has been life-changing.
One Hispanic Air Force spouse took her young son to a demonstration. As the crowd chanted, “Hands up, don’t shoot,” her son raised his hands in the air. She was overcome with emotion and grabbed him up in a hug.
“A white lady near us saw that moment and she looked at me and I could tell she understood my fear for my son,” the spouse said.
“We are with them,” a white spouse told CNN. “I don’t want them to ever think [military] families aren’t there supporting them. They have more support than they think.”
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CNN’s Zachary Cohen contributed to this report.