In the living room of a Tustin home, 16 women listened as Ursula Kelly, an elderly Santa Ana resident, related her "success story" about reaching a financially advantageous court settlement with her ex-husband, a retired Marine Corps sergeant. When she finished talking, her audience broke into applause.
Then a south Orange County woman told of an ongoing battle to win sufficient spousal support as well as part of the retirement fund of her ex-husband, a retired Marine Corps major. Gradually, as she laid out the facts, the woman's assurance faded and she struggled against tears.
Her son, who is also in the military, has "disowned" her because of her legal moves against the man who divorced her in 1983 after 23 years of marriage, she said. Not long ago, she lost a long-term job, and she has being treated for alcoholism. A judge recently granted her a significant increase in direct spousal support payments from the Marine Corps (those married to military personnel for 10 years of active duty can stipulate direct spousal and child payments in their divorce settlements), but right now, she said, she is almost penniless.
In addition, her lawyer is pushing her to pay his fee with the court-awarded funds, but "I need that money to eat," said the woman, who asked not to be identified because of her ongoing legal difficulties.
"Take him (the lawyer) to the Bar Assn.," advised Cara Lou Wifler, president of the 6-month-old Orange County chapter of Ex-Partners of Servicemen/women for Equality. "Do what you have to do to protect yourself."
Providing a place to give--and get--such down-to-earth advice is one of the purposes for which the organization was created, according to Wifler. At the group's most recent meeting, the chapter members shared their problems, but they also shared their feelings of increasing self-worth as they learn more about how to handle life on their own.
"The military is quite unique," Wifler, an Irvine resident, said in an interview before the meeting. "It's very much set aside from society. It's really hard for some of these women to adjust . . . when they're out of that protective shell . . . There is still a stigma in being a (military person's) former spouse. It's OK to be a widow but not a former spouse," she said, because a widow "didn't do anything to fall from grace," but a divorced woman has either rejected or been rejected by her husband. "If the man didn't want you, why would the system want you?" Wifler asked.
Wifler said she did not like being a military wife, but several other group members said they had enjoyed the life style.
Capt. Robert Raleigh, former assistant director of Family Services at El Toro Marine Base, said he had a positive impression of the group's services and did not feel the group was "anti-military." Raleigh is now a general's aide, but he said that in his former post, he frequently referred military ex-spouses to the ex-partners group. "They (members of the group) were real supportive of divorcees," he said, and "they seemed to be putting out very accurate information" about recent legislative changes that affect former spouses of servicemen and women.
Wifler, a member of the national, Virginia-based ex-spouses organization since 1981, said she founded the Orange County chapter last May primarily to let former military wives know about these legislative changes, which benefit them. For their $10 national and $5 chapter annual dues, members receive both a national and a local newsletter and gain access to a legal referral service. Chapter meetings are held at members' homes every other month. (The Orange County chapter's next meeting is set for Dec. 8; for information, call (714) 786-3346.)
About half of those who came to the recent meeting had attended in the past. Most of them live in Orange County, although two traveled south from the San Fernando Valley because no chapter exists near their homes. (The only other Southern California chapter is in Long Beach. It can be reached by calling (213) 430-3496.) Many were clearly angry about their continuing difficulties in obtaining what they think is a fair share of their ex-husbands' economic benefits.
Wifler said she, too, is somewhat bitter about being left by a man she continues to be "crazy about." (Wifler, who is 47 and the mother of four children, is separated from a Marine major who, she said, left her three years ago. They have been married for 21 years.)
Wifler, a one-time cancer patient, said she is "grateful" she retains the "all-important" medical benefits available to her as a military wife.
"I do not consider myself the average military wife . . . I hate to pigeonhole people, but generally I would say many military wives are just as conformist as their husbands are . . . (as a military wife) you are never considered as yourself," she said. "You are allowed to be in this system because you are dependent."