When Deanie Dempsey, whose husband is the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, took the stage at the Marine Barracks Washington earlier this month to announce 2012’s “Military Spouse of the Year,” she fumbled for her words. There were six nominees—five women and one man—and Dempsey clearly had trouble finding the appropriate gender-neutral pronoun, in order to not blow the identity of the winner. Finally, she gave up. “I have confidence that he will do his fellow spouses proud,” she said. The room collectively gasped.
This was, after all, decidedly a ladies’ luncheon. The hot-pink gift bags held tubes of shimmery eye shadow and sparkly necklaces. But this year, for the first time ever, the spouse of honor was not a wife, but a husband: Jeremy Hilton, a cheerful, mustachioed fellow. Taking the podium, Hilton cracked a joke, “Now, we’ve obviously established that this is not a beauty contest.”
Hilton is an outlier in more ways than one. Women like his wife, Renae, a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force, make up fewer than 15 percent of active-duty armed-service members; fewer than half of them are married. Nine years ago, Hilton left his own career in the Navy to care for the couple’s daughter, Kate, who was born with hydrocephalis—a condition that has required multiple surgeries and caused significant brain damage in their little girl. Hilton’s choice made him one the country’s rare stay-at-home dads, not just in the military but in the country as a whole. (According to the U.S. Census, in 2010, there were an estimated 154,000 stay-at-home fathers, compared with 5 million such moms.)
But for all his exceptionalism, Hilton’s place at the podium is also one more sign that the military—among the most male-dominated, staunchly traditional institutions in America—has, over the course of the past year, begun to undergo a seismic change. In September, the ban on open sexuality of gay and lesbian service members was lifted with the repeal of "don’t ask, don’t tell." Then, a few months ago, it was announced that the Pentagon would revise its policy excluding women from combat roles, opening up 14,000 new jobs for female service members.
Hilton’s trajectory itself exemplifies the changes that have been ushered in during recent years. When he was in the Navy, Hilton served on submarines that excluded women until 2010. Now his business cards are hot pink. “I’m probably an example of the widest swing you can make,” he laughs. “I think I’m just secure enough in my manhood that none of this bothers me.”
It’s the fifth year that Military Spouse Magazine has given out the honorific title of Spouse of the Year. Each winner is tasked with speaking on behalf of the nation’s 1.1 million military spouses, and each nominee chooses a particular platform and agenda to push. For Hilton, it’s advocating for families affected by disabilities, a mission that seems particularly relevant this year, as more and more veterans return from overseas suffering from traumatic brain injuries and posttraumatic stress disorder.
Hilton’s advocacy started, as most passion projects do, at home. Many of the programs and support systems for Americans with disabilities are administered on a state-by-state basis, often with long waiting lists. In Virginia, where the Hiltons currently live, while his wife is stationed at the nearby Joint Base Andrews, the waiting list for Medicaid waivers is some 15 years long. “If I was a civilian, my daughter would hopefully be provided some support by the time she was an adult,” Hilton explains. Instead, because the family has to move so frequently, “we go from the bottom of the waiting list to the bottom of the waiting list.”
Hilton hopes that as soldiers return from Iraq and Afghanistan, the time is ripe for a national conversation about disabilities and stigmas, one that might prompt a change comparable to what the GI Bill did for education. “We’re all impacted,” he told The Daily Beast. “You may not be now, but just wait, it’s coming. You will be impacted and you’ll be glad that it’s been thought through.”
It is an argument that Hiltion will bring to Capitol Hill, in visits with lawmakers, which he says he does whenever he can find a babysitter. And it was a point that he made particularly well at the Marine Barracks luncheon. “For some, this will happen in a split second, whether from an IED or from the doctor telling you that something is wrong with your baby,” Hilton said. “For others, it will be the shocking realization of the road you’re about to travel as you deal with M.S., cancer, or Alzheimer’s.”
For Hilton, the cause is much more important than breaking gender barriers. “I don’t want to be applauded for being a man. I want to be applauded for what I’ve done,” he says. “I don’t want to be known as the first male military spouse of the year. I suspect the first female fighter pilot was like, I’m a damn good fighter pilot, and that has nothing to do with my sex. It’s because I’ve worked my butt off. ”