Thursday, March 26, 2015

The Meaning of Military Life.. . at least, my military life.

  I find myself living mostly among civilians again. And being the new girl in town, I often hear myself repeating that totally insufficient explanatory phrase, "We're a military family." Usually it's in response to an inquiry of why we moved here, what we were doing living in Turkey before that, or why we only expect to be here in Vegas for two years.  Sometimes it's in response to the question of what my husband does.

I often wonder what people think when they hear that I'm a military wife.  I'm sure of one thing, though. They have no idea what those four words mean.  They might think they do, kind of like the captain of the Titanic thought he saw something in the water ahead. But they don't.

So with full acknowledgement that I don't represent military wives or families and that everyone's experiences are different, here are a few thoughts on what it really means to be military.

It means my life is lived in segments book-ended by moves.  Any memory of any event must first be retrieved from the segment to which it belongs.  This happened in Turkey, that birthday was the one in Utah.  And I can't always easily remember where we were living when this child was baptized or when we attended this event. Locations too. Sometimes a place will be mentioned, a store or restaurant, and the image that comes to my mind will be from the wrong mental map. The sushi place in Florida rather than the one in Texas, for example.

Being a military wife means making friends over and over again. I've never had much trouble making friends but as I get older I find it harder to muster the energy to build yet another temporary friendship.  Friendships with other military women are easier to create. They understand that time is always short. The natural evolution of a friendships has to be sped up.  Military women have room in their lives for new friends. They are almost always living away from extended family and their BFFs from high school just like I am. And they know a successful assignment means building a support system, even if you just did that two years ago at your last base.

Non-military women are harder. They rarely intend to be unkind but they often take long months of casual acquaintanceship before they really notice you as a potential friend candidate. And they often are firmly rooted with fully developed family and friend relationships already filling their lives. These women do not need your friendship. Even when they figure out that you are friend material, they are hesitant to invest in a friendship that will only end. I don't blame them for this. I can't promise a worthwhile reward on that investment. But it can still feel like rejection.

Moving also means re-building the lives of your kids. Every time. There is no possibility of them staying with the same piano teacher, baseball league or anything else for their whole childhood. Not only do your kids need to make new friends at each assignment, which may require your facilitation, but they also need to make a new life. Not all opportunities will exist in all places. Just because I found an amazing theater arts group for my daughter in Utah doesn't mean I'll be able to find something similar in Florida. Sometimes they have to give up something they really like just because it just doesn't carry over well into the next location. And it means that they probably won't become the child expert/champion/overachiever that is so lauded in today's society.

After our third Air Force move I made the decision to primarily homeschool my kids. Honestly it was and continues to be the biggest sacrifice I have ever made. I did it for a number of complex reasons but one of those reasons was so that moving would not involve the pain of changing schools over and over again.  I wanted to give my kids as much stability as I could create in a lifestyle largely devoid of it. I wanted their peers and buddies to be their siblings instead of 30 other kids their same age who they won't see again after the next PCS cycle. Ten years later I can look back and see that my decision has made a positive difference. But it has also meant that my kids don't have the assistance of public school life and its opportunities to help them rebuild their lives each time. So that responsibility largely falls on my shoulders. Sometimes I'm great at it. Sometimes I'm not. Either way it feels heavy. There is a lot of guilt.

Military life means that you are a small part of a massive entity.  In some ways this is wonderful.  I've mentioned before that an F-16 screaming overhead doesn't sound like noise pollution to me, it sounds like freedom.  Being a part of the force that maintains that freedom is meaningful.  We are patriots, the lot of us and we are proud to make the sacrifices as individuals and families that keep this country strong.  But the military is infected with that disease common to all large entities - bureaucracy. We have a bad case of it. It is hard to sufficiently describe how frustrating the bureaucracy of the military can be. And we have to deal with it all the time.

Being a military family also means that our entire lives revolve around my husband's job. For non-military families, the job is just the thing that finances the rest of life.  For us, the job dictates most of the rest of life. Again, it's hard to adequately describe this.  Obviously it dictates where we live and how long we will live there. But there is more to it than that. I have trouble committing our family to any event more than three weeks away because I never know what is going to come up. Unexpected TDYs, late nights or just more than the normal amount of stress can pop up anytime and those thing always take priority.  Even things as important as a family reunion a year away get a maybe from me.  Flexibility is vital for a military wife but sometimes the other side of flexible is wishy-washy.

When my husband and I go out on dates or weekends together we spend 90 percent of our time discussing his job, both the current assignment and what his best options are for his next assignment. And when the stress level at work is high it always carries over into marriage and family relationships. I'm not even talking about scary stress like PTSD or abnormal stress like re-integration after a deployment but just the normal stress of an overworked, underfunded, undermanned Air Force. It's the biggest enemy to military families and it's hard to conquer.

Another tough one is the very very fine line I walk between being independent enough to cope without my husband while still helping him feel a part of the family.  I have to be able to function through deployments and TDYs and those times when he is here physically but not mentally. If I'm not able to do this, it creates a distraction and hardship for him and makes my children's lives unstable and scary. But like many military wives I've spoken with, I struggle with the flip side of that coping ability: your husband ends up feels unneeded and disconnected. Just a paycheck. There are whole volumes that could be written on this one but I'll just say it makes navigating the marital landscape much harder.

Most of all, I guess, being a military wife means that I am a different person than I expected to be. The experience of being married to an active duty military member has shaped me. A lot of that is good and I'm grateful for it. Some of it isn't.  I've had amazing experiences that would never have happened without the military life. I've met wonderful people and experienced life in multiple places. I've raised kids who are resilient and incredibly close, both to me and to each other. And over and over I've learned about sacrifice and felt the soul stretching that comes through it.

All because I am a military wife.


  1. Amen. And thanks for sharing. This resonated with me so very much. The never planning things more than 3 weeks out....and sounding non-committal in my head, while in my heart recognizing my struggle to be ok with flexible and spontaneous. The friends thing. Oh my so true, non military women are so hard to "friend".
    I have never consciously formulated these thoughts, just an unconscious understanding of these truths. Thank you.

  2. Ida, this is spot on! The friend part especially struck close to home for me. We're on the tail end of a 3 year stint living in a completely civilian city because of schooling for my husband and I never did really establish much of a friend circle while here. We are hating that we have to leave because of how much we love the area, but I am looking forward to making new friends at his next duty station - friends who "get it!" : )

  3. Ida, this is spot on! The friend part especially struck close to home for me. We're on the tail end of a 3 year stint living in a completely civilian city because of schooling for my husband and I never did really establish much of a friend circle while here. We are hating that we have to leave because of how much we love the area, but I am looking forward to making new friends at his next duty station - friends who "get it!" : )