Joining the military in the 1970s helped my parents go from hungry in a small apartment to generational wealth

  • My parents hit a low point financially in the ’70s and decided to enlist in the Army to make ends meet.
  • Their time in the military ultimately helped them get on better financial footing and go to college.
  • They were able to get good government jobs and my mom is now comfortably retired.

My momma wore combat boots — even though she preferred heels. She fired a rifle — even though she disapproved of guns. She had to run a mile in under seven minutes, dressed in full combat gear — even though she carried me in her belly.

My mom will tell you the military was a tough path, especially for a woman in the 1970s, but it’s a path she would unquestionably march down again because of the life it afforded her.

“It was critical at the time,” she told me. “The Army made a massive change in where I ended up in life — where we all ended up in life.”

My parents joined the military when they ran out of options

My mom, Christine Knapp, grew up in Detroit and mid-Michigan, helping take care of her six younger siblings. Despite the burden, she graduated from high school a semester early. She dreamed of studying in Italy — maybe fashion or architecture. 

“Did it really matter?” she wondered. “It was Italy.”

My mom met my dad, a Vietnam vet, at a friend’s house the same day she received her diploma. They married seven months later. She never got to Italy.

Life rocketed forward in the following years: College classes for both. My sister’s birth. My dad’s graduation. He began a master’s program through the University of Kansas — but the US economy slowed their progress.

“It was the early ’70s,” my mom said. “Everything started going downhill fast.”

My dad lost the job that supported his studies. She lost her job. They had few options.

“We had to come back home. There were no jobs. And to top it off, money was so bad for the government, I lost my scholarships and grant that I had previously used to pay my tuition. It was gone. There was no way for me to finish college.”

My dad got two jobs at two separate Kroger stores back in Michigan, earning a couple bucks an hour. My mom worked at K-Mart, earning $1.68 an hour. Their unskilled labor afforded them a cramped upstairs apartment in a low-rent part of Lansing. The weeks dragged on with no better days on the horizon.

“Those were pretty desperate times,” my mom told me. 

They were desperate — until my mom got an idea. A friend had just joined the Army and moved to Germany for a steady paycheck and college money.

“‘What if we joined?'” my mom asked my dad. “It was that or go nowhere in that dreary old apartment.” 

My mom had dreamed of living in Europe, but not like this.

“Imagine pulling up stakes and moving a child halfway across the world.”

They imagined it. They did it. And it changed their lives.

2 military incomes made all the difference

Both of my parents enlisted. They didn’t earn much at first. After basic training, they studied Army communications to prepare for a move overseas.

“It wasn’t great. We had a trailer in Georgia and a babysitter.”

At least they knew they would be together.

“The Army had this thing they called the buddy system (Buddy Team Enlistment Option). If we went in, we were kind of locked together and they’d have to put us in the same place.”

The Army sent them to a critical region during a pivotal time: Germany in the 1970s. The Nazis were gone, but the Iron Curtain remained and armed militants like the Baader-Meinhof Group still terrorized the streets. My parents worked for the Army Security Agency, encrypting top-secret communications between officers — the same level of classified intelligence making headlines today.

“These were TS SCI files — the same ones taken from Trump’s home in Florida that could land him in jail. We had that clearance. We were not allowed to visit a communist country within 10 years after we left the military. I worked in a vault — literally a vault.”

Despite their critical work, my parents still didn’t earn much money. They needed both of their incomes to survive.

“I don’t know how families do it nowadays living on a single Army income. You’re getting moved every three years. The spouse can’t keep a job. It’s why you have so many people on food stamps.”

Dual incomes helped, as did a program that paid a little extra to government employees who lived in expensive places.

“When we went to Germany, the Army didn’t have enough housing. We got more money, which we needed to afford an apartment. It made for a much nicer lifestyle, away from the base.”

My mom gave birth to me in Augsburg, Germany. My dad earned his master’s degree in child development through a Boston University program in Munich. A short time later, they headed back to Michigan with a little extra pocket money and a sunnier outlook on life.

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