MilSpouse Musings

Welcome back, dear Reader. The Air Force recently celebrated it’s 70th Anniversary and I’ve been thinking a lot about my MilSpouse status lately (that’s military spouse for all you normies out there). It’s far more likely though that my recent reflections are due to our impending PCS orders. PCS stands for Permanent Change of Station. Meaning? We’re waiting to hear about Billy’s next position – and our new location! – for the next 2-3 years.

A few months ago we filled out our wishlist of locales but, as regular readers know, the impact of these lists is questionable. Middle Georgia was never on our list and alas, here we are, “enjoying” 90-degree days in late September.

This time is both nerve-wracking and exhilarating. Imagine, dear Reader, waiting for a phone call to tell you whether to pack up and move your entire family to Japan in 6 months. Or maybe North Dakota. Or Hawaii. Or, actually, maybe you’ll be told to ride it out in Middle Georgia a few more years. It’s a real roll of the dice but, as with any gamble, I try to remind myself that if you can lose, you can also win.

May the odds be ever in your favor…..

Anyway, we don’t know where we’re headed yet, but it got me thinking about my experience as a MilSpouse these past two years. Let’s flashback to spring of 2016. We’re living in Italy and have just found out about Billy’s command opportunity (yay!). In Georgia (not-so-yay). In three months (WTF?).

A Revelation in Rewind
While leaving spin class on base, my friend Julia comments on my recent blog post about being a military spouse. This post was – and still is – my most popular by far. For someone who had been a military spouse for a hot second, I still managed to strike a chord.

“Maybe you could write a book about it one day,” Julia suggests. “There are tons of books out there and…”

But my mind is already elsewhere, her words hitting me like a smack in the face. Oh my god. BOOKS! My oldest friends. Why hadn’t I thought to consult books?! Here I am, fumbling through this transition to military life when surely some knowledgeable spouse had already outlined the tricks of the trade! To be honest, dear Reader, it never occurred to me anyone would write about spouses. Not unlike furniture, we get shipped from base to base, lending a sense of consistency and comfort to the ever-important Active Duty Member. What’s there to say?

I had to find out. To the digital library!

Julia was right, there are a ton of books out there for and about military spouses. Let’s see, there’s An Idiot’s Guide..., confessional memoirs, Biblical Strategies to Help the Military Spouse Thrive, and even Chicken Soup for my MilSpouse soul. Some offered practical advice on how to read a Leave and Earning Statement (LES) while others had pink covers and barftastic titles like Married to the Military. Still more promised to school me on manners and protocol. I chuckle to myself. No thanks.

But maybe this one…

Following the Flag: Marriage and the Modern Military
Based on personal interviews with military spouses, as well as current articles and statistics and studies from the Department of Defense and Rand National Defense Research Institute. 

Still sweaty from spin class, I hit download and make myself comfortable on the couch for an afternoon of reading.

The parco below is quiet. It must be late afternoon now and I’m still exploring the history of military spouses. The book explores themes like prolonged periods of separation, single parenting, and the chronic under- or unemployment of spouses. It also attempts to explain several outdated social norms that dictate some of today’s lingering expectations. (Ahem, white glove tea parties and bunco nights!). I love seeing the evolving – and expanding! – role of women in the home, the workplace, the military.

Things are going well until I come across this gem:

…the Commanding Officer’s Wife or COW…

I look up from the page with a grimace. Oh no they didn’t.

*Note: This has since been changed to Commanding Officer’s Spouse (COS) since not all Commanders are men (or straight) these days. Booyah!

An Education – Spouse School
Before we even land in Georgia, Billy and I have a week-long stopover at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio. It’s now summer of 2016 and Billy needs to attend Squadron Leader Orientation before assuming command in Georgia. I’m taking the corresponding Spouse Course.

“Like Spouse School?” my girlfriend from Boston scoffs into the phone. “What, are they going to teach you how to fetch him a drink? To talk to him in soothing tones when he comes home?”

We both laugh but I suspect that is, in part, the gist of the training.

Certainly, the last thing I want to do in the midst of an international move (the second in 12 months mind you) is sit around with a bunch of COWs all week. According to the agenda, our days begin at oh-six-hundred-fifty-five each morning. All I can think is: oh-you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me. But here we are, bright and early, all 18 of us not including Mentor Spouses. (Yeah, it’a real thing. Just let it go).

Our training begins with a video. It shows emotional couples reuniting in front of airplanes, handsome young men in uniform (with women and minorities sprinkled in for good measure), “community” themed montages, and lots of American flags billowing in the background. The voice-over claims the men and women of our armed forces feel more intensely, love more deeply, and overcome insurmountable odds. The music swells.

“Propaganda,” the woman next to me whispers.

I nod. We both have tears in our eyes anyway. (What? It was well executed propaganda).

In general, I found the training to be well-organized, informative, and, in my humble opinion, equal parts stuff and fluff.

Perhaps most importantly, it gave me a firmer grasp of what this position means for my husband – and it is kind of a big deal, guys. We also learned how to harness various resources – childcare, mental health, medical, social – and how to connect others with those important resources. Plus, I did meet some cool ladies.

Other parts of the training didn’t go over so well…. Being forced to color a mandala in a stress-busting session had the opposite effect – I felt infantilized and sulky. A short segment about protocol left a bad taste in my mouth. I know which fork to use at a formal dinner, thankyouverymuch.

Yet, through it all, I was plagued by one nagging question: why am I here?

After all, I don’t work for the Air Force. I’m not on its payroll. There’s no superior I can call to say, “Dude. This Georgia thing… just no.”

The gentleman who organized our training shared that sometimes they begin these sessions by asking the spouses to arrange themselves according to rank. And so the spouses do… (“Okay, if your husband is a Lieutenant Colonel and mine is a… well then I should stand here….”)

“The big joke being,” the gentleman reveals, “you have no rank! Ha ha! Only your spouse has rank!”

tenor

My worst fears have been confirmed; military spouses are a joke.

However, there’s an important point being made here: Don’t go bossing people around. You ain’t shit. Indeed, we were repeatedly told that nothing we did would influence our Active Duty Member’s career.

Which brings us back to the haunting question: why am I here? As a Commanding Officer’s Spouse, I have no official authority. No power of the pin, as they say. And yet…. I’m being asked to play den mother to an entire squadron of my husband’s employees. Hosting parties, offering counsel. Taking care not to wear pajamas to the commissary in order to maintain a refined – though approachable! – persona.

It’s confusing, no? I didn’t grow up in a military family or even live in proximity to a military community. Back in the corporate world, I’d never heard of any similar CEO Spouse School. So what is this?

Suspicious by nature, I begin to wonder…. is the Air Force attempting to placate us with “opportunities” so we feel less like furniture and more like influencers? Am I being gratified because the Air Force knows it’s the spouses who keep our Active Duty Members afloat (and in clean uniforms)? Are they looking for free labor?

More importantly, does this mean I’m not allowed to write blogs about my Air Force experience anymore? You know, now that I’m a COW? It gave me much to think about, dear Reader.

yay

Yay Air Force! (A gift from Billy. Obvi).

Current Feels
So, The Great MilSpouse Experiment continues! Mine is an uneasy alliance with the Air Force, recognizing its ability to both giveth and taketh away. Threats of deployments and crap locations loom large. Until Billy retires, I’ll probably wear my Air Force swag with some ambivalence. You likely won’t see me on the cover of Military Spouse Magazine anytime soon but, ultimately, I believe I’ll look back on these years as a period of adventure.

As a outsider to the services, I admit to being impressed by the USAF during my short stint “in the fold.” (USAF: United States Air Force. You at least guessed that one, right?). The Air Force takes tremendous pride in what it does, but it also remains thoughtful about its failings and eagerly offers a new course of action when necessary. I’ve also seen it strive (however imperfectly) to care for its people. Although, if you’ve ever been to a food court on base you might disagree. Someone please write the D.O.D and tell them their military families deserve a Starbucks and a Sweetgreen!

Apparently there is, in fact, much to say about this MilSpouse experience. I look forward to writing more about it and, hopefully, hearing more from other spouses. Oh, and fear not…

This message has been approved by The Commander.

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Coming to (Middle) America

Georgia-Home-Sweet-Home-White

…or something.

I’ve been staring down the barrel of rural Georgia for months now, dear Reader, and the day has finally come. The miles accumulate behind us as Billy and I drive further from Atlanta, our Thrifty rental car smelling vaguely of stale fast food. Billy mans the tunes while I babble about potential weekend trips (“…I’m thinking Savannah in September and maybe…”). Surprisingly, I feel optimistic about our new home, the traveler in me delighting in a new location. What will I find there? What will I learn?

Almost two hours and a hundred miles later, the plot twists. Blown tires litter I-75 and the road is lined with dilapidated buildings and abandoned gas stations. Billy and I fall quiet as we near Warner Robins Air Force Base.

“Maybe we’re coming in the back way? Like, if you approach the base from the south it’s probably way nicer,” I offer cheerily.

Billy nods almost imperceptibly, his eyes fixed on the road ahead.

Clouds hang dark and heavy over the base as we offer our IDs and enter the gate. Thunder rolls faintly in the distance. Outside my car window is one squat, sterile military building after another. The woman at the Air Force Inn reservation desk inquires about our time overseas and kindly welcomes us “home.” But this doesn’t feel like home. Not even a little bit.

Our hotel room offers a bleak view of the oncoming storm and a looming water tower. I sigh quietly. We live in an industrial park.

Good Morning, Warner Robins!
I am jerked from sleep by the raucous trumpeting of horns. Not the car horns of Napoli, but actual horns. With my heart racing, I nudge Billy, “What is that?!”

Reveille,” he mutters, turning away from me and back to his dreams.

“Reveille?” The frenzied tune continues to play… doot doot doo-doo-doot doot-DOO-DOO!…

“They’re raising the flag. The work day started,” my husband explains sleepily.

Well. It certainly was rousing. Leaving Billy to his slumber, I head into our suite’s living room. I turn on the news, eager to see what’s headlining in the Home of the Brave. People run panicked across the screen. Another shooting. On the next channel a red-faced Trump defends the journalistic integrity of The National Enquirer (“…we should be giving these guys a Pulitzer…”). Click. That’s enough America for now. Hungry, I drive to the commissary to do some shopping.

Land of Plenty
The American supermarket is a modern marvel! I wander the aisles slowly, pausing not always to buy a beloved product so much as to simply be near it. I rejoice in out-of-season produce and do weird things like exclaim, “There you are!” to my preferred brand of flaxseed. I’m standing in awe of the natural peanut butter options when I notice an older gentleman nearby looking distressed.

“Good morning,” I venture, catching his attention.

“Mornin’ ma’am. Well now, they gon’ went an’ moved everything around in here. Can’t find a thing I need!” he says, throwing his arms up in exasperation.

“Hmm. That is frustrating. Wish I could help. Today is my first day at Warner Robins so I don’t know where anything is either.”

“Yer first day. Is that right? Isn’t that somethin’…” and then, perhaps sensing my ambivalence, the man says, “Y’all will be fine. Just fiiiiiine!” He pauses thoughtfully for a moment before adding, “Unless yer one of them high falutin’ cityfolks!!”

He erupts into laughter. I laugh along uneasily, knowing full well I’ve been known to be “high falutin’” on occasion. We bid each other good luck and farewell. I turn my cart down the next aisle and think: I’m fucked.

I load an armful of grocery bags into the trunk and begin to feel hopeful again, my spirits lifted by the acquisition of my favorite foods. I turn on the radio and let a country song play. It’s not my usual fare but the storytelling aspect of it appeals to me. Not knowing the words, I nod my head to the beat, happily immersing myself in this new culture.

…You uppity women I don’t understand, Why you gotta go and try to act like a man, But before you make your weekly visit to the shrink, You’d better occupy the kitchen, liberate the sink….

Whaaaaaat?

“… Annnnd that was Kinky Friedman with Get Your Biscuits In The Oven And Your Buns In The Bed!…”

Oh no. Hell no, I think while changing the station. That was too much, too soon.

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Platitudes and Pity Parties
William and I are heading to “downtown” Warner Robins (the actual town) to run the terrifically dull errands plaguing suburbanites everywhere. You know, things like buying a car and purchasing a washer/dryer. As we cruise along the busy four-lane thoroughfare, I am visually assaulted by the fluorescent signage of fast food joints, car dealerships, and big-box retailers. An issue of Garden & Gun (yes, a real magazine) describes the area as “the seventh circle of franchise hell.” Basically, it’s everything I hate about America.

Determined not to give voice to my negativity, I remain silent. A decent enough plan, no? But my husband is an insightful and empathetic man, so when nearly six hours pass without me so much as making a peep, I suspect he knows something is amiss.

It’s raining again as we approach the base and there, soaring over the metal hangars and industrial sprawl, is the full, uninterrupted arch of a rainbow. Quite frankly, dear Reader, it irritates me. I interpret it as a direct message from the Universe telling me to buck up right in the middle of my pity party. I contemplate taking a photo of it. I could turn it into a military spouse meme by adding one of the many platitudes bestowed upon us at every challenging turn: Think Positive, Make The Best Of It, or (worst of all) Bloom Where You’re Planted. Within moments the sky darkens and I take comfort in the thunder and lightning once more.

A Lil’ Southern Comfort
But! Here’s some good news… After nearly two months of sleeping in hotels or on government-issued loaner furniture, William and I are finally in our new home! Sure, it’s on base and it was assigned to us, but it’s ours. In the past few days I’ve come to realize just how large Warner Robins AFB is; yes, parts of it lack ambiance (for lack of a better phrase), but so much of it is green! There’s a fitness trail, a golf course, a small lake, and a quiet, tidy cluster of modern homes.

We enter our single-story, ranch-style house and I make a mental note that we’ll need rocking chairs for the porch. After sweltering in Italy, I’m ecstatic about the central air conditioning. Billy runs from room to room testing each outlet and, eventually, triumphantly proclaims, “They all work!” We marvel at the miracle. (Excuse us, our Naples is showing)! There are closets and cabinets. A dining room and a patio. The house would be formidably priced in New England and utterly impossible in Napoli. It’s one block from my office, two blocks from the Fitness Center, and down the road are stables where people board their horses. Yes, yes, yes!

I place a magnet on the fridge, a small purchase made recently in nearby Perry. It reads: Together is my favorite place to be. Cliché? Maybe. But a necessary reminder in my new, transient military life.

We’re backing out of the driveway when – there it is again!

“The horns!” I shout. Billy brings the car to a complete stop.

“Retreat,” he laughs. “It signals the end of the work day. Vehicles are supposed to stop and if you’re walking home from work when it sounds, you should stop too.”

The horns quiet and the national anthem begins to play. I lower the window and stick my head out.

“Where’s it coming from?” I demand. I glance up into the trees, the sky. “I feel like I’m trapped on The Truman Show set or in The Hunger Games’ Arena.”

Billy points to a small speaker box attached to a telephone pole. I scowl at it distrustfully. The anthem is fine but I don’t like when speakers tell me what to do.

“Well, it’s a good thing you told me about it. Especially after the disaster at the movies,” I quip, bringing up an unpleasant gaffe during my first month as a military spouse. Billy shakes his head and smiles.

Unbeknownst to me, dear Reader, people stand for the national anthem before every movie shown on any military base. So it was that I sat shoving my face, oblivious to the national anthem, as everyone rose to honor our country. An unwitting defector with a mouthful of movie nachos, I finally stood and faced the dilemma of whether to chew quietly or not at all. There were no good options; I was a national embarrassment!

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Anyway… Georgia is growing on us (slowly, but surely). After all, we are in the South, home of hospitality and mindin’ manners. There’s something endearing about the way people politely address me as “Ms. Malia” – not to mention those tasty biscuits on the menu everywhere! Or how about the guards at the gate who wish me “a blessed day” as I come and go? (Some people take issue with this, dear Reader, but not me! I never turn down a blessing). Sometimes I rack up as many as three drive-by-blessings a day! Woop! You don’t get that in New England.

 

The Next Chapter: A Military Spouse Edition

tumblr_static_6gpu12epdoso8oowks4scg08sA (mostly) light-hearted look at my transition from Working Girl to Military Spouse. And why GEORGIA is on my mind…

Regular readers know that the past year was a flurry of change: I quit my job, got married, moved to Italy, learned another language, and assumed the role of military spouse. Conversely, 2016 was slated to be all kinds of laid back – travel, visits with friends, Saturday nights eating pizza on the couch. But these dreams were dashed when (dun dun dun!) Billy received an “exciting” leadership position in rural Georgia. Beginning in three months.

My reaction was nothing short of shock and awe. And anger. Definitely anger.

Welcome to the Family
In order to understand this reaction, dear Reader, we need to back up a bit. The Italian culture isn’t the only one I’ve been submerged in these many months; I’ve also been navigating (ever so tentatively) the terrain of my new military community.

Initially, it didn’t feel like my community at all. The self-important acronyms, the uniforms, the armed guards on my way to yoga – not really my scene. People were friendly though, often declaring, “Welcome to the family!” I responded as I do to all organizations that tout their mission or recruit too enthusiastically: with suspicion. But I had nothing against the military per se and, in my defense, I show the same ambivalence towards organized religion, political camps, and anyone who subscribes too fervently to the Paleo diet. The people were kind, the base was adequate… but it was Billy’s domain. Not mine.

Come to think of it… everything was Billy’s. The coworkers were Billy’s, the promotions were Billy’s, even the social security number given at my medical appointments was Billy’s! When asked to confirm my place in the organization, I routinely checked the box marked Dependent. Gross. Not that I didn’t have “opportunities” too – going to spouse luncheons or maybe taking an entry level job for a third of my normal pay… Ugh. Where was Independent Malia? I missed her.

Then, I decided to roll with it – we were only abroad for a year or so right? When we returned to the States, Billy would work on base and I’d be back in the office. Life would resume normally. So what if I was a housewife for now? It meant every moment William was home, the chores were done and all of our time was quality time. I made dinner every night (even though I hate cooking). I brought side dishes to the Air Force Family picnics (more cooking). I went to International Spouse Club luncheons (yes, that’s a real thing). I cleaned the house (laaaaaame!). I wrote blogs (is anyone reading?). I booked trips (okay, no complaints with this one).

But I did it all, assuming it was temporary. Sure, I was baking casseroles and being spousey, but I was doing it ironically. Like, “Hey guys, watch me wife so hard right now! Ha ha! Can you believe this shit? HILARIOUS!”

Living in rural Georgia made it…. real.

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A Fact Finding Mission
So, dear Reader, I was angry. I felt duped, if by no one else than by myself. This new position requires Billy and I to live on base, placing my professional contacts an ambitious commute away in Atlanta. To make matters worse, everyone was trying to make me feel good about it! They said it wasn’t only an opportunity for Billy, it was an opportunity for me too – for me to support him and inspire other spouses by leading by example. Huh? Nice try.

But I didn’t need to be placated, what I needed was information. So I did what anyone scoping out a new love interest or job would do: I cyberstalked. First, I consult a map. Yup, social Siberia. But! The base housing looks nice – that’s a start. Okay, what about the local Spouse Facebook page (every base has one), surely they have some events going on. Let’s see there’s the…

  • Crazy Hat Luncheon – The First Of Its Kind!   (Mmm, no thanks.) 
  • Knutty Knitters Meet Up   (Tempting… but I’d rather be Netflixing.)
  • All Natural Household Cleaner Class   (That sounds so boring I might die.)

<<Scrolling… scrolling…>>  Ah! Job Opportunities. Here we go!

  • Frito-Lay’s now hiring warehouse workers  (What’s warehouse work?)
  • Looking for volunteers to work the upcoming dog show… on POOP PATROL!!   (Sweet mother of god. Am I being Punk’d?!)

I needed help. I couldn’t talk to Billy, after all it was his overachieving that got us into this Middle (of nowhere) Georgia pickle, was it not? No, I needed someone else. And that’s when I did something drastic (for me) – I reached out. I messaged the Spouse Facebook page, explaining our upcoming move and inquiring about the area.

To my surprise, I had a response within minutes: “I read your message. It would be best to talk on the phone.” Signed, Hope.

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Then There Was Hope…
Hope introduces herself as a long time Georgia resident and military spouse. For no reason I can pinpoint, I like her immediately. And I’ll say this for the woman: she made me no promises, she told me no lies.

“Listen. I’m not gonna blow smoke up your butt. You asked about restaurants and fun and I thought, oh no! I need to talk to this woman. Bless your heart honey, we don’t really have any of that here!” she chuckles. “Don’t get me wrong though. Georgia livin’ is pleasant, but sloooowwwww. The good news is, it’s a great place to raise a family. My kids can’t fart in this town without me knowing about it.”

………. a long, pregnant pause falls over the line (if you will)……

Ignoring that comment, I tell Hope this is Billy’s first command position. When she asks which squadron he will be commanding,  I venture, “Umm… the finance one?” The 78th Squadron, she informs me (glad someone knows what’s going on).

“So… this means you’ll be a Commander’s Wife!” she says, sounding almost amused.

Yes, I concede. But with no official authority to exact change, I admit I’m not sure what the role entails.

“Well, people may come to you for emotional support. And you need to show face for your husband’s sake but, honey, you don’t need to be one of those wives.”

<<Let’s sidebar, dear Reader… The military takes – and needs – all types. From postal workers to biochemical engineers, every kind of educational and socioeconomic background is present in this community. The same, honestly, can be said of military spouses. But what Hope is referring to here is the occasional spouse who hits the Kool-Aid too hard.

I once heard a woman expound that by doing dishes and folding her husband’s underwear she was allowing him to focus solely on work, thereby protecting our American freedoms and allowing millions to sleep at night knowing they are safe from terrorism. (Is that the national anthem playing in the background?). What in the amber-waves-of-grain was this woman talking about?>>

I tell Hope about this conversation and she laughs.

“Folding undies for freedom? Bless her heart!” (It’s at this point I realize the phrase ‘bless your heart’ can be used as a polite, Southern way to call someone a stupid mother fucker). “Here’s the deal,” she continues, “Be yourself, okay? You might need to host the occasional white glove tea party, but BE. YOURSELF.”

White glove tea party? I change the subject, “What about working in Atlanta? I have some contacts there.”

Hope says it’s a haul while stressing, “But you can do it.” I inquire about Macon, a city closer by, and she asks if I carry. A moment passes before I realize she means a gun. 

“…Because I do. I do carry. We’re off the map here but you never know with all this ISIS stuff going on,” she confides.

Judging by everything I’d learned thus far, an appearance by ISIS seemed too much to hope for.  But I did enjoy the idea of Hope and I attending white glove tea parties and strolling under dogwoods while packing heat in our handbags. I smile in spite of myself.

“Hope….what time is it there?” I ask, realizing it was early afternoon in Italy.

“Oh, it’s around 6AM. But never you mind, I saw your message and figured you needed to talk.”

This was a woman I had never met, with whom I shared nearly nothing in common, and she took my call at six in the morning? A small voice in the back of my brain whispers, Welcome to the family. I thank her profusely but Pistol Packing Hope waves me off, insisting I save her number because, “Girl! You’re gonna need it when you get here!”

I hang up the phone and sit quietly for a few minutes. Hope confirmed my small town fears, but I begin to think about why I’m going to Georgia – and it sure as heck isn’t for you, America! It’s for my William. Because, unlike other men before him, he isn’t put off by my independent streak. He never asks me to be a little less so he can feel like he’s a bit more. And because we both know, without question, that the two of us are simply better together.

So now, dear Reader, there’s nothing left to do but get excited about Georgia. In the meantime, I’ll be here – making America great – one load of laundry at a time. USA! USA!