On a recent Friday afternoon in May, Dave Etter was running around trying to narrow down a topic for his weekly “Male Military Spouse Radio Show,” less than two hours from airtime, while also promoting his idea for a database app that military spouses can access via their smartphones to see what resources are available in their local area. He’s also busy planning support for Landstuhl’s Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts packs with Troop 243, which he just volunteered to be the chartered organization representative.
You’d think he was trying to win some kind of award or something, but he just did.
The presentation of the 2016 Army Spouse of the Year to Etter May 5 in Virginia hasn’t slowed him down to reflect on accomplishments. If anything, it’s spurred him to validate that selection by building on what he already does in the U.S. Army Garrison Rheinland-Pfalz community, and that’s helping others.
“I don’t believe I did enough to earn this kind of honor,” said the Family Readiness Group leader for Charlie Company at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, where his wife Sgt. Stephanie Etter is a respiratory therapist. “I don’t feel special.”
One could easily chalk up such humble rhetoric to standard awards-talk etiquette and politeness, until Etter almost apologetically goes on to detail the achievements of his competition for the next five minutes, including “a very dynamic activist in the LGBT military community who’s succeeding in her push for reforms” and “a well-known blogger doing so much to help military children adapt to the transitional lifestyle,” ending his praise of each with “she really deserved this.”
Though downplaying his own efforts and praising his fellow Army spouses, it’s not to say that Etter took his selection lightly or wasn’t appreciative.
“When I went on stage (to accept the award), it was all I could do to keep from crying like a baby,” Etter shared. “I know that’s not very macho of me, but it was a very emotional and overwhelming moment.”
While all the nominees were worthy of recognition to advance to the level of consideration they did, the judges from the sponsoring organization, Armed Forces Insurance, selected Etter as the first male recipient of the Army Spouse of the Year award from 29 candidates. AFI puts out the call for spouse of the year nominations to all service branches each January in the monthly Military Spouse Magazine.
Someone else who felt Etter had earned the accolades was fellow military spouse and the second husband recognized as the Air Force Spouse of the Year Chris Pape, who won that service’s award in 2014. He nominated Etter through the AFI program.
“Too many people talk about what they could do,” Pape explained. “But Dave is one of the few who actually accomplished what he set out to do. … And it’s helping a lot of spouses.”
Pape nominated Etter because “Dave busts his butt to help military spouses locate much-needed information and programs.”
“He has gone the extra step and received official military-spouse resiliency training, which he then shares as needed,” Pape said. “I know a lot of guys within our community that really respect the knowledge Dave brings to the table.”
The knowledge that the former radio personality and program director of an Arizona station shares is dispersed each week through his live show on www.blogtalkradio.com, where he averages half a dozen call-ins from male spouses looking for answers to questions ranging from benefits to resources. All of his podcasts are available on the site to access.
“He had quite a bit of experience in that industry,” Pape said. “This is exactly why Dave deserves to be the 2016 Army Spouse of the Year. He saw a way he could help our community, and then he actually got off his couch and worked at it. … (He) continued to plug away until he built something that is useful and beneficial (to male military spouses).”
Etter also has the advantage of understanding the perspective from the other side, serving almost 10 years in the U.S. Navy with his own military spouse who “didn’t have the benefit of the many programs available to spouses today and unfortunately didn’t always get the support she needed.”
Living through the aftermath of his first wife’s suicide invigorated Etter to tackle the hard subject of mental health and try to make a difference in the lives of other spouses who face unique military-related challenges that could seem daunting at times.
“It can become overwhelming for some,” Etter noted in his Spouse of the Year biography. “Isolation, loneliness and suicidal ideations, or completed suicides, exist in the spousal community, and the military is currently not tracking these numbers. Mental health and suicide are important issues our military, military families and veterans face today.”
Etter recalled that when he became a survivor of spousal suicide he received minimal support from his command and no support from the military community.
“There are many ways in which we can change the face of mental health and suicide by providing family members a more complete knowledge of the military culture, structure and daily living,” Etter said. “I encourage everyone that I come in contact with that asking for help is not a sign of weakness but a sign of strength.”
Since then, Etter has seen a lot of progress.
“Now, the military spouse has a true voice in how the military family can get involved and grow where they are planted,” he said. “Spousal issues are treated with the same gravity as active-duty service members, and they are provided the resources they need to address their specific concerns.”
Etter has immersed himself in those resources as well, serving as a spouse master resilience trainer, Army Family Team Building instructor, Army Family Action Plan delegate, Family Readiness Group volunteer and Ramstein Enlisted Spouses Association member. He has volunteered more than 1,200 hours with the military and more than 7,000 hours in the past 20 years with the Boy Scouts of America.
And he’s not done yet. With the sudden need last month due to the upcoming permanent-change-of-station season, Etter added more responsibility to his packed schedule by volunteering to represent the Scout troop at Landstuhl. He’s also already planning an addition to his weekly radio program by starting a second show called “Spouse Spouts” for all spouses, to be co-hosted by Air Force spouse Susan Reynolds.
Based on his experience, Etter shared his main advice to spouses adapting to the military culture.
“Recognize that there is no rank in the military-spouse community,” he said. “We are all in it together to support our service members, and we all have to be there for each other because you can’t have a focused service member if you have a distracted family.”