What is a MILSO? The Secret Life of Military Significant Others
This one is for everyone who has wondered– what is a milso? You are the ones who love a service member, but aren’t married yet. You may live far from the military community, or be surrounded by family members who know nothing about military life. Maybe you have flown around the world to meet your service member in a distant country for a few days of leave… or perhaps you have never left your home town, and the idea of moving to a new place thousands of miles away is both exciting and terrifying. Dear milso, I have been in your shoes, and I’m here for you! I spent seven YEARS dating or engaged to my Marine. So I know that being a milso can feel overwhelming at times. But I also know how to help you through it.
What is a Milso?
Let’s start at the beginning: The word MilSO stands for “military significant other.” While that could include military spouses, it typically means someone who is in a relationship with a service member: girlfriends, boyfriends, fiancés, and fiancées are all milsos.
Because the military does not recognize anyone as a military dependent (who receives military benefits like housing and health insurance) until there is an official marriage certificate, a milso is in the unique position of being connected to the military because of their relationship, but not recognized, acknowledged, or supported by the military community. It can be a lonely and confusing time.
Milso experiences can vary
Everyone’s experience as a milso will be different. Some may have grown up in a military family as a “military brat,” or they may have lived their whole life in a military town close to base. Others date their service member long-distance. They live in a regular civilian town, surrounded by people who know nothing about the military, and continue in their work or their school without setting foot on a military base.
Some milsos only date for a few months before they marry their service member! Many military relationships lead to marriage quickly. This is often because of military timelines for training and deployments… and because of the requirement in some branches to have a marriage license before the service member qualifies for their housing allowance.
In this case, a milso probably won’t know much about the military when they get married. Sure, they will know a little about their service member’s job and they may have spent time visiting them on base, but they will usually be unfamiliar with military acronyms, the challenges of PCS moves or deployments, and the general information of how and where to get things done on base.
My time as a milso
In my case, I was a milso for 7 years before we were finally married. I dated my husband before Boot Camp, but he made the decision to join the military without consulting me, because it was still early in our relationship. He spent a year at Boot Camp and infantry training, and then he was sent across the country to a base in California: 29 Palms. During that time, I didn’t connect with other military families, and I don’t remember ever wondering, “what is a milso?”
From there, my Marine deployed three times in back-to-back combat deployments to Iraq. Although we discussed marriage, I was finishing college and working at my first job. Since he spent so much time away on deployment or training in between deployments, there wasn’t much reason for me to leave everything and move to the desert to be unemployed and lonely. So we waited. It wasn’t until he got orders back to the East Coast that we finally got engaged and planned our wedding.
So I understand the frustration of being a milso and feeling confused or disconnected from the military community. You may not know any other military spouses to talk to. Perhaps your family doesn’t like the military, or they don’t expect your relationship to last. Maybe your service member is deployed or stationed far away, and you can only fly to visit each other a few times each year. You probably feel like no one else understands the challenges of your relationship, and there are definitely moments where you are jealous of your friends who can see their significant other every day.
I experienced all of that during my time as a milso. After the attacks on September 11, 2001, my Marine was preparing for combat deployments, and the country was having heated arguments about war. I desperately wanted to talk to other military loved ones to find support and get answers to my million questions. I didn’t know what to expect from deployments, how to communicate while he was away, and whether it was okay to be proud of him and afraid for his safety at the same time.
No one else at my college was dating a service member, so people sometimes teased me about my “imaginary boyfriend.” Worse, strangers sometimes cornered me to discuss their political beliefs. When I sought online groups or sites for support (this was before social media existed!), the few websites I found were clearly for military spouses. I knew I wasn’t a military spouse, so I didn’t think I belonged. I didn’t hear anyone using the term milso back then.
Resources for every milso
Because of my lonely years as a milso, military loved ones will always have a special place in my heart. I know that you begin facing military life challenges before you marry a service member. I know that spouses and milsos face many of the same difficulties and stressful situations. You miss your loved one, when they are gone, whether you are married or not.
That’s why I have worked hard over the past few years as “the Seasoned Spouse” to reach out and include the milso community. When I led deployment events for our unit on base, I made sure girlfriends and boyfriends were also invited, and would have an escort for on-base events. When I write on this blog, I try to use inclusive language, and tips that are helpful whether you are already married or still dating a service member. And my deployment support group called Handle Deployment Like a Boss has over 7,000 members from all stages of military relationships.
So when I started writing a book for military loved ones, I wanted it to cover the complete military journey–from the first weeks of dating a service member or sending them to Basic Training, all the way to “seasoned spouses” and military retirement! My book, Open When: Letters of Encouragement for Military Spouses has an entire section for those who are New to Military Life. The letters in this section are written just for you, to open when you are facing specific challenges.
Whether you feel alone, confused, or misunderstood, you can find comfort in letters like “Open When You Are Dating Long Distance,” or “Open When Others Don’t Understand Military Life,” and “Open When You Spend Your First Night Alone.” I’m here for the beginning of your military journey, and I’ll be with you all the way through it!
Open When: Letters of Encouragement for Military Spouses makes an excellent gift for any milso, for someone newly dating a service member, or for anyone planning their military wedding. You can find it on Amazon, purchase it directly from the publisher, or request an autographed copy here. Either way, I hope it’s a book you’ll keep on your bookshelf so you can turn to it again and again.
What is a milso?
I know that being a milso can be special, powerful, and beautiful. You are falling in love with your service member and learning creative ways to communicate across the distance. The crazy military schedule is making you patient. You are learning your own strength and what you are truly capable of. Your time as a milso can become the strong foundation on which your military marriage will stand. So if you ask me, what is a milso? This is what I can tell you:
- What is a milso? A milso is strong enough to wait for their service member across great distances and through their first deployment.
- A milso is flexible, adapting to every change in the military schedule and orders.
- A milso is brave, facing a future where they don’t know where they will live or work, but they know they will be with the one they love.
- A milso is independent, focused on their own skills, school, or career without the daily support of their service member.
- A milso is creative, learning how to celebrate holidays apart and send love in a care package.
- A milso is loving, making sacrifices for their service member, staying up late to talk to them, and being supportive even when they don’t understand military life.
- A milso is a friend, finding instant connection with other military loved ones online, and forming strong friendships even if they have never met in person!
- A milso is proud of their service member, the job they do, and the country they serve.
- A milso is YOU! Welcome to the community!