Survive and Thrive in Pensacola, Florida!

Let me start by telling you that they don’t call it “The Emerald Coast” for nothing! Before moving here, Pensacola never really showed up on my radar. I hail from Jacksonville, Florida, and went to school in Tallahassee, only 150 miles away from home. I knew of Pensacola only by way of mandatory history classes growing up. Until my husband received orders to NAS Pensacola, I had no idea how awesome this little town really is.

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You see, the survive part has been easy for me. It’s the thriving that is a challenge. Our last two duty stations were learning curves. And they weren’t all fun. I didn’t make friends easily, my expectations were out of this world, and in the beginning, I struggled to find meaningful employment.

So when it came time to pack up and go, I planned to make the best of our time here.

If you are a Navy or Marine Corps family, there’s a good chance you may land in Pensacola at some point in your career. Home to A-Schools, flight schools, training squadrons, and even the world renowned Blue Angels, Pensacola is the perfect mix of everyone…and beautiful beaches to boot.

It’s true—we live where you vacation.

But when it comes to making the best of a PCS move and thriving in your new town, I think Pensacola has been a great place for me to spread my wings, meet new people, and even find a life outside of the military. Here are some tips should you find yourself on the Emerald Coast:

Consider community service.
Weeks after moving here, I knew I wanted to get involved in a community service organization. What better way to get to know a new city, make business connections, and find some great girlfriends who like wine as much as you? I joined the Junior League of Pensacola and haven’t looked back. Aside from giving back to a community that supports the military, I’m setting myself up for success when our next PCS comes. Most cities have community service organizations; the Junior League is no exception. Once I move, I’ll be able to transfer to a new League location and boom! Like-minded, service-oriented, and wine-loving friends await!

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Become a self-proclaimed Foodie!
Arriving in Pensacola, I quickly figured out this is a food-loving town. From food festivals to a $100 burger at a local Irish watering hole, Pensacola is the perfect place to make a foodie bucket list. And ALWAYS try the hole in the wall restaurant. Most times, they don’t disappoint! One of my favorite Pensacola-area treats is The Gulf, a beachside restaurant made entirely from old shipping containers and located just 20 minutes away in Orange Beach, Alabama. Al Fresco Airstream trailer ‘food trucks’ in downtown Pensacola are perfect for a quick, fun, and relaxing sunset dinner. And you have to try the East Hill Yard Wine and Taco Hospital. Yes. You read right…built in an old hospital from 1914, The Yard now hosts a relaxed atmosphere with lawn chairs and yard games. Rumor has it: the bathrooms are in the exact spot where the morgue used to be!

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Activities on base really aren’t that bad!
You won’t find many crafting parties, or Bunco nights here. But in one day, you can become qualified to drive a boat (then rent one the very same day), run a 5k, and climb 177 steps to the top of the working lighthouse on NAS Pensacola. Surrounding bases like NAS Whiting Field, Correy Station, and Saufley Field also have similar fun events! For me, I decided to get involved with my husband’s command by volunteering to be the new Ombudsman. I knew it would be a great way to meet other families in our command (which is very small), and also be able to find out all of the services our base has to offer. In my free time, I love taking advantage of the open gym nights on base. Tuesdays and Thursdays are for volleyball, which is my stress-reliever!

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We hear it every time we PCS, “Submerse yourself in your new community!” I hated hearing that because it always seemed so hard. But not in Pensacola; it’s a relatively small town, and there is so much to do and see! Take advantage of all the opportunities around you, and don’t be afraid to drive 30 minutes for good food…it’s always worth it!

And of course, on days when you don’t want to do anything, the white sand and emerald waters are only minutes away!

Have you ever been stationed in Pensacola, Florida? What were your must-do’s?

shannonPosted by Shannon Sebastian, Content Development Manager, Pensacola, FL

The Quiet Holiday: Gold Star Mother’s Day

justin-sissonEach year, countless holidays pass with celebration and joy. We look forward to cook outs, costumes, and even gift-giving. Then there are the days, like Gold Star Mother’s Day, occurring on the fourth Sunday in September, which we remember solemnly as a sobering reminder of the ones left behind after the ultimate sacrifice is paid.

For Phyllis Sisson, today marks her second Gold Star Mother’s Day. A day, among many, spent remembering her son, 2nd Lt. Justin Sisson, who died from injuries sustained when an IED exploded during his foot patrol in Afghanistan on June 3, 2013.

To most, Gold Star Mother’s Day passes without notice. For those who have lost, it’s another heartbreaking day that passes without their child.

“As a Gold Star Mother, I know what has been lost. I know what might have been. I hope that sharing my story will let another grieving mother know she is not alone. Others have stood in her shoes. We want to be there to support and keep the memory of our children alive.”

In the time since Justin’s death, communities, families, friends, and even strangers, have joined together in Justin’s memory to remember and honor the precious life behind the uniform.

At Justin’s alma mater, Florida State University (FSU), Students for America’s Military, a registered student organization, created a 5k race in Justin’s honor, with proceeds from the race going to fund an ROTC scholarship set up in his name, to be awarded to an exemplary FSU ROTC cadet.

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“He is also being honored by his school district in Overland Park, Kansas, with a Battlefield Cross statue and memorial at his high school. This will be unveiled on Veterans’ Day, November 11, 2014,” Phyllis shared. “We are also working on a stretch of highway in Kansas to be named in his memory.”

Though Gold Star Mother’s Day is a somber one, for Phyllis, it’s a special day to talk about her son.

“We talk about [Justin] all the time. The fear for us all, and that includes all Gold Star families, is that our loved ones will be forgotten. That is unbearable.”

On such a bitter sweet day for our Nation’s Gold Star Mothers, we encourage you to reach out to those who have lost children to war. Even simply sharing gratitude and thanks can bring joy to a quiet day.

“Hardly a week goes by that we don’t hear from someone, reaching out to tell us how Justin inspired and touched their life. That is a great legacy and testament to him.”

Even though Gold Star Mother’s Day is not filled with the type of celebration and joy associated with most holidays; the remembrance, honor, and the occasional funny anecdote shared among friends allows this day to become a celebration of life, honor, and memories that will live in the hearts of loving mothers forever.

shannonPosted by Shannon Sebastian, Content Development Manager

All Roads Lead to the Pentagon…I just didn’t know I’d be Driving!

map-of-washington-dcFor many military families, a PCS to Washington, DC is an inevitable stop in a service member’s career, and from some perspectives, viewed as a necessary evil. For me, raised in DC’s military suburbs, it would have been returning home. And as a career civil servant, it represented a virtual mecca of job opportunities compared to alternatives like Fort Rucker, AL or Fort Bliss, TX.

But when my active-duty husband, an E-8 in the US Army, received a diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis (MS) in Spring of 2013, a PCS to anywhere, much less the Nation’s Capital, seemed unlikely. MS is considered a Service Connected disability, so the only trip the Army had planned for my husband was the long and winding (read: a year and four months counting) road of a medical board and an official status of “unfit for continued military service.”

I’m not going to lie, the diagnosis and its aftermath were hard. Imagine being told you have an incurable neurological condition, and are being removed from your position, becoming non-deployable persona non gratis in your unit. Then you hear, “Thank you very much, but after 22 years we no longer require your service,” all in just a few months time.

We had a rough year, but after being transferred to Fort Campbell’s Warrior in Transition Battalion (WTB), things started looking up. My husband started getting the medical treatment he needed and receiving the compassion he deserved. We started looking forward to the reality of transition from military life, with the primary wrinkle being that we weren’t sure if my husband would be able to work, or what type of work he might be able to do.

I am a planner by nature and by trade. Since childhood, in somewhat paranoid fashion, I’ve developed plans and backup plans for unforeseeable scenarios that, more often than not, never came to pass. But this time, my fastidious obsession with maintaining my own professional career, along with my husband’s, had panned out. I was ready and able to step up and support our family, even in the unexpected scenario where he might not be able to work.

About a year into the medical board, I started applying to positions, since everyone at the WTB insisted that the medical board would be completed, “any day now.” To my surprise, and in record time for a government hiring action, I was offered a position for the first job I ever seriously applied for. Great! But, now we were in the unfortunate position of me having to relocate to a position in DC, while my husband was still stuck in the quagmire of the VA disability ratings process. We didn’t want to be separated, but who knew if his ratings would come in tomorrow, or if I’d have another opportunity like this one. So I accepted the job, but delayed my start date; meanwhile, he started making pesky inquiries about his ratings status.

And then, by a benevolent force that I never knew existed within the DoD, the fine staff of Fort Campbell’s Warrior in Transition Battalion worked out a miraculous transfer for my husband to Fort Belvoir’s Warrior in Transition Battalion to “accompany me” to my new duty station. And they turned the paperwork around in about two weeks! For me, that is concrete proof the Army really does care about transitioning Soldiers and families.

So here we are in NOVA, living the dream; it’s just a dream lived in a different way than the one most military families experience. Yes, it’s a dream that involves living in a home half the size for double the price, but one with a life lived at the center of it all, in a place littered with symbols of the freedom my husband has fought for over the last two decades.

My new job isn’t actually in the Pentagon, but work requires visiting occasionally. I went last week and stood in the hallowed halls (and drank a tall iced caramel macchiato at the Starbucks), and thought about our military journey. My husband’s career didn’t end the way we thought it would, but our path still brought us here, to the center of the military world. That’s the thing about transition…you don’t know where it will lead you, but you will find your way, and there’s a whole world out there to discover.

Posted by Laura Eileen Baie Yates, National Military Association Volunteer, Fort Belvoir, VA

Fort Bliss Movie Hits Home for Military Families

“Reality is messy and people are raw, and that’s just who we are.” – Claudia Myers – Writer, Director and Producer of Fort Bliss

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I was given the amazing opportunity this week to join some of my co-workers at a special screening of the movie, Fort Bliss, this week at The Women in Military Service for America Memorial.

Michelle Monaghan plays a soldier returning from a 15-month deployment to Afghanistan, only to face new battles at home. Her 5-year-old son has all but forgotten her, and she has forgotten how to relate to him. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house as the story explored aspects of military life that we talk about at the National Military Family Association (NMFA) daily, but that are rarely portrayed in Hollywood:

  • Why would someone re-enlist after spending so much time away from their family?
  • How can someone be a good soldier and a good parent?
  • What is it really like coming back from deployment?
  • Are there different expectations for female service members than their male counterparts?
  • How to families cope with mental health challenges after deployment?

Not only was the movie incredible, the actors (including Emmanuelle Chriqui, Ron Livingston Gbenga Akinnagbe and Pablo Schreiber) developed a real passion for military families while making the movie. During the Q & A session following the screening, the actors had a lot to say about gender roles, abuse, PTSD, transitioning veterans, and more.

Not long ago I shared my thoughts as a civilian caring for military families in a blog post titled, “Military Family Support Shouldn’t Just Come From Military Families“. I love seeing others display the same passion for the families NMFA fights for every day.

“Fort Bliss is what it is. It’s a gigantic film made on a micro budget with a huge impact,” said Producer, John Sullivan.

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Where can you see this movie?

Fort Bliss won the Best Narrative Feature at the G.I. Film Festival this year and we were lucky enough to see it before it hits select theaters this weekend in New York, L.A. and El Paso.

What if I don’t live in New York, L.A. or El Paso?

You can still support this incredible movie. Help us spread the word by sharing this with your friends, buy tickets at the theaters in those cities even if you can’t attend, and call your local theater to ask if they will bring the movie to your hometown.

“Service men and women are heroes, they are strong, they are resilient, and they all face challenges of leaving pieces of them behind when they fight for our country.” – Gbenga Akinnagbe

Let’s support a movie that supports military families. Together we’re stronger.

Jordan-BarrishPosted by Jordan Barrish, Public Relations Manager

Aim High! Fly-Fight-Win! Happy Birthday Air Force!

Founded in 1947, the United States Air Force turns 67 years old today! Happy birthday Air Force! Aim High! Fly-Fight-Win!

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Permanent Change of Sanity: Our Adventures in PCSing

moving-boxes-leftWhen my Marine told me we would be PCSing to TwentyNine Palms, California in January 2015, I thought, “Nice, there is enough time to mentally prepare and work on building my network without the stress of having to do it with only 30 days’ notice.” I felt like the luckiest girl in the world! Thanks Marine Corps; thanks for giving us an opportunity to actually have a solid (and maybe stress free) move!

In my head, I was planning our “Lowes Are Moving” holiday bash, where we would invite over all of our friends for one final toast in the home we had enjoyed for the last several years. We’d have a garage sale, and get rid of all our dead weight from the last few moves…or as we like to call it: unopened boxes with TMO stickers from 10 years ago. There would be going away parties, a few farewell girls’ nights, and some final visits to some of our favorite spots.

Silly me.

My husband came home a few weeks later and said, “Hey, so…our house will be ready in about 10 days, and the movers will be here at the same time.”

I can’t remember the EXACT conversation, but all my ears heard were ten days. 10 DAYS! Just like that. No parties, no final toast, no garage sale.

PCS translated to Permanent Change of Sanity.

This little change in plans ALMOST crushed my soul. I’m not one of those people who can plan and organize a move with the greatest of ease; I need time to mentality prepare. To the spouses who can easily create neatly organized lists: I salute you! I have marveled at your skills for years.

I’m more of an adventure seeker and “I wonder what’s going to happen next?!” type of person. There’s more flying-by-the-seat-of-my-pants than I would like to admit.

If you’ve got a quick PCS coming, take some of my advice:

Don’t stress. Well, a little is okay! Moving is stressful. Try to find ways to cope with the stress. I found a little 45 minute jog does wonders for me. It’s like my reset button. I’m also a big fan of a nice, hot shower to wash off all the cleaning, box dust and stress. Just take a few minutes to decompress.

Get to know your new area…virtually. One of my favorite ways to check out a new duty station is viewing the websites of various organizations. The Marine Corps Community Service page and the Chamber of Commerce are two of my favorite places to start. Are you seeking employment? Check out local job listings and employment pages. Or, are you thinking of a career change, or unleashing your entrepreneurial side? Go ahead and do that! A new duty station is a great opportunity to explore a new career field, or take a class in something you’ve always wanted to learn more about. Look for opportunities to volunteer in that field while you’re fine tuning your skills. I had been active in our previous community, so the sleuthing began as soon as I received our new destination. Is there a local extension of the organizations I have been working with for the last few years? Where is the gym? Are there spouse groups on this base? Who do I know that’s already there? WHO IS THE LOCAL INTERNET PROVIDER?!

moving-with-soldierGet to know your new neighbors. PCS season is virtually year round, so some of your neighbors are new, too! Our new neighbors brought over a delicious homemade pie the second day we were here. When a moving van showed up at the house next to us the week after, we paid it forward. This is the perfect time to ask for referrals, and recommendations for doctors, or places to go and see.
Take care of you. Take a break when you need it and just be. That could mean doing a coffee run for an iced quad venti caramel awesome latte, or just hanging out with your kids in their new park. The boxes will be there when you get back.

Everything is temporary. You know that moment when your family is begging for food and you can’t find plates in the sea of boxes, the dog throws up on the carpet in your brand new home, the cable guy can’t find your address, and your mom is calling NON-STOP to see how things are going? Yeah, that moment is stressful. And that moment is temporary. Just go one box at a time, and one foot in front of the other.

Cleanse and discover! That military ball dress you wore six years ago, that doesn’t quite fit right anymore… get rid of it. Moving is a great opportunity to cleanse your home of things you don’t need, use, or want anymore. And it’s one less thing you have to deal with on the other side. On the flip side, going through all those old boxes gives you the chance to find things that you haven’t seen in years. I found my degrees and awards hanging out with some old papers in a box that wasn’t even opened at our last duty station. That stuff is going on the wall of our new home.

Learn the local language… and other stuff too! Some duty stations require deep learning. At other places, it’s just a matter of getting out in your local community and asking questions. Last weekend, I had dinner with a group of locals who schooled me on the language, places to see, key phrases, and great places to eat (and some to avoid). Apparently, I was interchanging some phrases that didn’t make sense to the locals, and was referring to places that didn’t exist in the context I was using. But I managed to find a great Thai place for dinner (totally picked via Yelp reviews), and it turned out to be one of the best!

One going away party at Denny’s, and four weeks later, we are settling into our new home. We picked up the “Things to Do Guide,” with at least two years’ worth of action packed adventures. So, we started going through it and put things to do in order of awesomeness – which is a great job for kids and teenagers! We found a hiking group, a yoga group, an entrepreneur group, and a pretty great deli. Outside of the new bugs, insects, and strange little footprints I am trying to identify, it’s been a pretty good experience!

I hope your PCS turns out to be a good experience, too!

Have you ever gotten orders and had no time to prepare?

Posted by Sue Lowe, Marine Corps Spouse, TwentyNine Palms Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center (MCAGG), CA

Survive and Thrive: Embassy Duty!

After almost 24 years of moving around with my husband, I didn’t think any new assignment would faze me. Then the Air Force sent us to Quito, Ecuador, an assignment without a military base. And we’re not alone—many military families live in cities around the world without the kind of support we’re used to seeing. No commissary, no base exchange, no military hospital, or community center.

Assignments like these are most common in the Army, where junior officers start off as Foreign Area Officers (FAO) and eventually end up as attachés at many US Embassies around the world. But more senior officers in other services are offered opportunities as well. And where would any good Defense Attaché Office be without support staff? Jobs for both junior and senior enlisted exist in all services in just about every location.

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If you’ve only been to large bases where there are strict rules about socializing between officers and enlisted, an Embassy assignment might come as a bit of a shock. The military is only a small portion of the Embassy whole, and part of our job is to blend with the State Department culture.

Survival tip #1. Be prepared to leave your military etiquette at the door (but don’t throw it away completely).

State Department employees and their families don’t have strict delineations between staff, so everyone socializes with everyone else. In fact, on many Friday nights, the Marine House is the go-to spot to meet everyone. And because many spouses end up employed at the Embassy, the combinations of who works in which office, and who works for whom can be rather overwhelming. But it’s also how everyone knows how to support everyone else. It may seem a little incestuous at first, but if you aren’t in the loop, support can seem lacking.

Survival tip #2: Find a way to belong to the Embassy community, whether it’s as a valued employee, volunteer, or an often seen participant in community functions.

With these two tips, you’re going to survive. But we want more than that. We want you to thrive! That sometimes means stepping outside of your comfort zone. Living overseas most often means dealing with a new language. It always means dealing with a new culture. It is possible to make a life that revolves simply around the Embassy community. In fact, I would highly recommend taking advantage of the trips offered by the Community Liaison Office (CLO), and joining the group language classes offered by the Embassy community, especially when you first arrive.

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But to thrive, you’re going to need a comfort level with the local language so you can leave that safe place and enter the world around you. You’ll want to purchase food at the local markets, speak to your neighbors in their native tongue, and have the mechanic fix your car. Waving hands and smiling can only get you so far, and after a year in country, it will be downright depressing not to be able to ask for a ripe avocado instead of the unripe ones offered.

My tips for immersing in the local culture include getting to know other foreign spouses. If the United States has an Embassy at your location, so do many other nations. Here in South America, the majority comes from Latin American countries, and the common language is Spanish. That doesn’t mean I won’t find English speakers. But in order to thrive, I’ve forced myself to speak Spanish beyond my comfort level. I make mistakes and laugh at myself when others point them out. And by doing so, I’ve learned that Spanish-speakers make mistakes, too. A common word in most of Latin America is a swear word in Argentina. It’s funny to watch the face of an Argentine when someone from Venezuela is saying the equivalent of the “F word” in the middle of a pretty mundane conversation. Moments like that happen all the time, but unless you understand what is going on, you miss out. And when you miss out, you feel like you don’t belong.

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My final tip for thriving is to make friends with the locals. Many already work at the US Embassy, so they’re easy to find, and are often very willing to share their favorite restaurant recommendations, or the best place to spend a weekend away. Your spouse will know more than a few local military because of his or her job. Getting to know those folks can be very rewarding. We found an acting coach for my son through a retired Ecuadorian officer’s wife, who also happens to be an actress. That simple introduction has made my son’s Ecuadorian experience much richer.

My example of thriving comes from friending the wife of a local military officer on Facebook. She noticed my love of photography and my love-affair with her country. This opened a new door for me – she and her husband have introduced me to people and places I would never find in a guide book. They’ve opened their hearts and minds and in return, I offer them friendship. At the end of the day, and at the end of any military tour, it’s the friendships that help us thrive.

angie-drakePosted by Angie Drake, Air Force spouse, and blogger at Not Your Average American, Quito, Ecuador