Category Archives: Guest Posts

Letters of War: Hope in a Cedar Chest

love-lettersYears ago, we inherited a cedar chest from one of our adopted Marines. I didn’t think much of it. Honestly, it was just another thing I had no use for, but it was an interesting piece of furniture, nonetheless.

Naturally, as a military spouse, I made it a point to give it a purpose, in order to justify dragging this thing around from move to move. I filled it with deployment memorabilia I would come across.

While doing so, I began to notice through the years of things, email began to dominate most of our communication. Something about the convenience of instantly being able to communicate the thoughts and feelings that overcome and overwhelm you when the love of your life is miles away, is a blessing and impossible to resist. However, out of habit l would still write letters on paper. Even when he would insist it was no longer a necessity, I would still write to him.

My husband is not the type that shows excitement easily, but the bounce in his voice when he would tell me he got a letter has always been addicting. I loved hearing his plans for the pictures, how he planned to keep some in his wallet, versus the pictures he planned to pin to his wall. It was a brief moment of reprieve from the distance. I loved soaking in every bit of this happiness as he was holding something from home; a serendipitous moment for me. For a second, it almost felt like he was much closer to home.

I am not sure how most families do it, but in our family, we describe time by its location before, during, or after deployments. Stretching time, slowing it down, and filling it with a lifetime of memories become the most important orders of the day. That “Welcome Home” moment is one where space, time, and distance collide, and produce a most surreal reality. It’s the moment where our deepest thoughts and feelings are conveyed within that long powerful grip of our initial embrace. At home, his laughter finally echoes and booms down the hall, as if he never left.

Fast forward several deployments later, and we now have three beautiful children. Duty stations have come and gone. The treasure chest has been moved more times, and to more houses, than most people live in through two lifetimes. But as I like to whisper to my children, “Adventure is what we do for a living, baby.”

It was not until our most recent move to the opposite coast that anyone really paid attention to the treasure chest. Truth be told, I was busy battling the humid, fly-filled Carolina heat, helping my husband carry furniture into our new home, when I noticed the girls huddled in a corner of the garage going through the many contents of the aging cedar treasure chest.

My heart could not have been more delighted. Our children, marveling at prom corsages, the dried flower I picked for my hair at his boot camp graduation–which my husband completely freaked about, because of course: it was government property! Photos collected of our first car together, our first dogs, teenage pictures of us in our first home in base housing.

However, the letters stole the show— 18 & 19 year-old Mommy and Daddy–back when we were just Tim and Aliyah. Teenagers madly in love, writing boot camp letters to Recruit Meehan, and making the most incredible plans that turned out to be an even more incredible life.

I suppose I must have known this day would come, because I separated the risqué ‘love note stack’ from the more ‘PG’ love letters. It was endearing throughout. As we stopped and listened to our kids read some of the letters aloud, I felt every inch of the distance that these letters have traveled, only serving as fuel meant to relight our passion for one another till the end of time.

As our children continued to read our story, it became their story. The fiery flame of the young warrior (Tim) and the nurse (me) liquefied into a placid existence. The story solidified into the concrete joys of our first baby. A few deployments later, we were on our third baby. Ultrasound photos with the nickname ‘Peanut’ on the back, with holes were they were once pinned on his Iraq wall.
Sitting over the treasure chest with our not-so-little ‘Peanut’ in my lap, we spent the next few hours laughing, sometimes crying, remembering and reliving magical moments captured, and forever encased, in words we once lovingly shared.

I am sure I could probably pull up emails of that same time in our lives at any time. However, personally, the romance in this kind of beautiful life can only be told and truly appreciated sitting on a dusty garage floor with my family, sifting through our aging cedar treasure chest, and reading out loud our letters of war.

Posted by Aliyah Meehan, USMC Spouse, Director of Family Engagement, Sandboxx

A Full Home and a Full Heart, Thanks to 3 Midshipmen

macy-comes-home-087It’s just before Thanksgiving and our house is abuzz with excitement. You can feel it; the anticipation of days off from school, delicious food, and decorating for the upcoming Christmas holiday. You know–it’s that cozy, warm, fullness in your heart feeling. The holidays. Friends, family, and magical moments with the people you love.

But every now and again, for us military families, you get hit with an intense moment of loneliness. I felt it the other day when I was walking through the parking lot on the way home from running some errands. The wind blew and made the air chilly for Southern California… and I felt it. The need for my family. For the traditions from home. And for those friends who’ve known me since I was young. I feel it at least once every year during the holiday season and this year is no different.

Our assignments with the Air Force have all been full with new experiences and adventures, and amazing people who I am so grateful to know. I have loved all of our assignments, but the one I hold on extra tight to is our time in Annapolis, Maryland when my husband (remember, he’s Air Force) was a professor of Engineering at The United States Naval Academy.

This assignment was special for many reasons, but what made it extra special was our experience as a Sponsor Family for several young Midshipmen from The Naval Academy. We signed up to be a sponsor family within days of arriving in Annapolis, and I was so eager for the experience. Little did I know, these three particular young men would end up meaning so much to all of us.

Weekend after weekend, we would drive to the Academy promptly at 12 noon, and our 3 Plebes (freshman) would pile into the minivan, crisp in their uniforms, sitting among the car seats. Duffle bags of laundry in hand, we would drive home, and for the next 12 hours (they had to be back no later than 12 midnight) our home was their home. They would sleep, eat (oh, they ate so much), play with the kids, help around the house, do their laundry, study, and watch A LOT of TV.

These boys became like my sons–my kids’ older brothers. They were at our house the day we brought our 3rd child, Macy, home from the hospital. I will never forget taking pictures of these boys holding 2 day old Macy. They were at our house just days after my own father unexpectedly passed away. We always did our best to be there for them; break ups with girlfriends, failed tests, and when one of them also unexpectedly lost his father. Three years of ups and downs.

I loved having them around the most during the holidays, when the semester was winding down for them, and the buzz of going home to family and friends occupied their thoughts. That feeling of loneliness, longing for family and old friends, wasn’t as strong. My home was full, and my heart, fuller.

Cooking and decorating was more enjoyable knowing it was going to be enjoyed by, not only by us, but our “Mids,” as well. Those three young men, although they had no idea, were giving our family an extra purpose, an extra drive to make our house feel warm and welcome. They made our time in Annapolis meaningful. Although we opened our home and time to them, they gave us so much more.

Being a sponsor family is an experience I will always look back on with a grateful heart. Sadly, we weren’t in Annapolis for their entire four years at the Academy because the Air Force moved us to Los Angeles at the end of their junior year. Text messages and emails show up often, with updates from life in the Navy and Marine Corps.

I hope they will always know how special they were to our family, how often they cross our hearts, and even though they are no longer students, we are always here for them. And nothing will change that.

Jenny-ZollarsPosted by Jenny Zollars, Air Force Spouse

Our First Duty Station: Making a House a Home on a Newlywed Budget

rachel-marston-dityFort Belvoir, in Alexandria, Virginia has been the first official duty station for my husband and I since getting married. Before he received orders to Fort Belvoir, he’d never heard of the installation, and honestly, it wasn’t one we were expecting. Despite not knowing much about Fort Belvoir, I was just excited to put together a home with my husband, so the unknown wasn’t much of a concern for me.

Getting married was the easy decision for us, but deciding to live on-post or off-post took a bit more consideration. Searching for housing was an emotional rollercoaster for me. After all, I was planning my wedding AND a Permanent Change of Station (PCS) at the same time. I saw my husband’s leave time between an overseas tour and a stateside move as the perfect opportunity to get both done.

Eventually, we decided living off-post in an apartment would be an advantage to us. Right now, it’s only my husband and I, and between the two of us, we don’t really have many belongings. He was coming from barracks life, and I had been living with roommates. Our goal was to get the most out of our Basic Housing Allowance (BAH) straight out of the gate, so to speak. One of our favorite tools for accessing the housing market and staying in budget was AHRN.com. It allowed us to use our BAH rate to find a home off-post that fit our needs.

AssemblingFurnitureOnce we moved my belongings to Fort Belvoir, we realized we didn’t come close to filling our two bedroom apartment. We knew we didn’t have much, but we didn’t anticipate an empty living room! (All the living room furniture in my previous apartment belonged to my roommates.) Whoops!

It was important for me to have things from everywhere my husband and I have traveled and lived, so I brought a little Texas flair, and he brought a little Boston. We met while we were both in New York, so we have many decor items from there, too.

Finally, after a year of planning and lots of agonizing PCS details, we began putting together our first home. Not only did we incorporate where we came from, but we also had to be mindful of our budget. We created the home of our dreams on a very tight (and newlywed) budget using these tips:

IKEA for the win! I know, I know. The furniture isn’t really built to last forever, but it’s great to have as temporary starter furniture. We bought our couch, coffee table, side table, entertainment center, DVD case, curio cabinet, and tall lamps there. We plan to get more ‘durable’ items in the future.

Give the thrift store a try, too. Our installation has a thrift store on-post and there are also several other stores in our area we visited to pick up some items. You can land a deal on some great designer home goods and art work for your brand-new home at a steal of a price!

Scope out your options online. Practically everything in my home office was acquired online and shipped to my home. That made it easier for the bigger items because it came straight to our door. There are websites out there offering free shipping, which came in handy for us! Overstock.com offers their Club O program to military members for free, which includes a 5% discount and free shipping, too. Be sure to read the reviews on items online. We bought our futon bed online on Target.com, but we were able to see it in store, too. So if you have the luxury to go to a brick and mortar store to see it in person, do it!

Do you have any tips for newlyweds on putting together their first home?

rachel-marstenPosted by Rachel Tringali Marston, Army Spouse, Ft. Belvoir, Virginia

Grateful for the Journey I’m On: Why I Stopped Complaining About Military Life

laying-in-the-grassWhen people ask me how I am, I try to respond with, “I can’t complain.” Because really, I can’t.

Complaining has become a mode of conversation; a way of commiserating with, and relating to each other, especially in the military lifestyle. We complain about the rain, the heat, the slow lady at the commissary, our duty station, or the line at the gate while the guards check IDs. Even drill weekend makes the list. I am guilty of complaining, too. Did I mention I walk 18 blocks to get to work every day?

We all have those “pity parties” sometimes, but lately I’ve been trying to catch myself and quit all my complaining. Before another complaint escapes my mouth, I try and remember my dear friend and ex- coworker, Trang.
I met Trang when we both started working for Conroe Independent School District in 2009. She is from Vietnam, and came to the United States when she was 5. Her story escaping from Vietnam is truly amazing. Have you ever read the book, Escape from Saigon? Well, Trang’s journey is something like that.

In 2011, we started working with the same group of students. Lucky for me, Trang is exceedingly bright and the very best Life Skills teacher I know. She has one of the most beautiful families I have ever met, and was a main reason why leaving Texas because of a PCS move was so hard. We worked together, ate together, camped together with our families, and ate beef jerky together.

Then came our military orders. In a blink of the eye, I was packed and ready to move to New York. I left her healthy, and with a full passion for life. She loves to hunt, camp, and fish. Her kids are involved in sports, and her husband is just amazing. A few months after my move, I received the devastating news—she was diagnosed with Stage 3 colon cancer. No way! It hurt being far from someone who made my military life much easier. Right now, she is going thru chemotherapy. She is a fighter. It breaks my heart when she tells me she can’t be there with her children while they are practicing their sports. She has always been there for them.

Trang always has a smile on her face, despite circumstances, and reminds me to be mindful of what I say.

Whenever I am having a not-so-good day, I think of Trang. When my alarm goes off in the morning and I want to push snooze, I think of Trang and how she would happily trade places with me. She misses many camping trips with her family because her time off from chemotherapy is used to recover, only to prepare herself for the next round of treatment.

There is also a worker at the PX of our duty station that I can’t help but think of during “pity parties.” Each time I ask him how he’s doing, his response is always, “I’m alive!” We both joke about life in the military – he is a retired Veteran. Always with a bright smile on his face, he loves his job at the PX. I have learned so much from Ernest. And he is right, we are alive! And healthy! And with food on the table! And with a bed to sleep in!

We are living the life my friend Trang, and many others, are not living. So if you ask me how I’m doing in my military life today, I will respond, “I’m alive! I can’t complain.”

jennifer-cPosted by Jennifer Colon-Marin, Assistant Program Director for NIA Community Services, Ft. Hamilton, Brooklyn New York

Got Some Free Time? Write for Us!

write-for-us-1

Our blog is quickly becoming a place for military spouses and family members to share their experiences, tips, tricks of the trade, and best of all: their influence. And now, we need you.

Contributing to our blog is a great way to broaden your network, and can even spice up your resume! So what do you say?

October is a great month to focus on family bonds, building strong relationships, and thriving as a military family. What do you think makes a strong family bond? We want to hear your story! How to do you thrive during long deployments, or geo-bachelor orders? Tell us!

Send us your blog posts and join our team of awesome contributors! We’re looking for blog posts between 200-400 words, easy to read, and all around awesome! And don’t forget about your photos – if you’ve got some pictures that go perfectly with your blog post, we want to see them!

Now, what are you waiting for? Get typing and send your blog post to us, here: Blog@MilitaryFamily.org!

shannonPosted by Shannon Sebastian, Content Development Manager

Exiting Gracefully by Finding ‘The Life You Want!’

Winning a ticket to Oprah’s “Life you Want Weekend” from the National Military Family Association and Discovery became a momentous event for me. As an Army brat/Army wife, military life is the only life I know and the Army did a great job equipping me for it. But my husband recently retired after 28 years and is in school on his GI Bill. What I didn’t learn is how to exit gracefully. One day you’re the spouse of a Soldier and the next day you aren’t. What now?

The “Life You Want Weekend” was a time of exciting music, dancing, speakers, vendors, conversations, and of course OPRAH! Before she came out, the air was electric with anticipation. Oprah did not disappoint! She talked for two hours straight about how she got where she is today, how she overcame obstacles, and how she’s reinvented herself…and how we could too, saying, “Create the highest, grandest vision for your life. Then let every step move you in that direction.” As a fellow Mississippi gal, I thought if she could do it, I could too! I realized I could find the answer to “What now?”

life-you-want-dc-1

image: Harpo, Inc./George Burns

We all left saying, “WOW!”

Oprah was so stimulating; I stayed up late blowing up the Twitter feed with other pumped up attendees. Saturday session came early! Walking from the Metro, we were still in awe, swapping stories and business cards. Since I left Army life kicking and screaming, it was helpful to see there is sisterhood outside the Army and it is intriguing!

The session started with poet/philosopher Mark Nepo, who led us in a meditation of thankfulness for our life. Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love, took us on a quest – a hero’s journey -toward the life we want. Rob Bell taught us to see the miraculous in the everyday and embrace the life we have, even in struggles. And through humorous, but serious stories, Iyanla Vanzant told us unless we heal the wounds of the past they bleed into the future.

Trust me, I have pages of motivating notes from the presenters!

Between speakers, Oprah led us in practical workbook exercises to capture our vision. For me, the ‘Ah ha!’ moment was the life circle where we sliced up and assessed areas of importance in our lives. My Army Family Programs volunteer trainer work used to fill half my circle… and it had lots of smiley faces! Choosing my new areas of focus was difficult, but I was beginning to define my vision. What now? Well, I always wanted to volunteer with an adult literacy organization. I can focus on that next! Oprah says, “What you focus on expands.”

To further inspire us, we met Jas Boothe, founder of Final Salute, Inc. who received a check and standing O’vation from Oprah and Toyota for her work with homeless women veterans. The check was presented by the amazing Amy Purdy…double amputee, snowboarder, and Dancing with the Stars runner up!

life-you-want-dc-2

image: Harpo, Inc./George Burns

As I went into the weekend, I just wanted my Army life back. The “Life You Want Weekend” challenged me to appreciate my past Army life, since it made me who I am, embrace this retiree life I have here and now, and create a vision for the life I want.

To echo Oprah, “…my heart is filled with gratitude for yet another day to live on purpose.”

Oh, you’ll still see me around the Commissary…I’ll be the retiree blocking the aisle and talking about how I exited gracefully…thanks to Oprah, NMFA, and Discovery!

Posted by Mary Ward, Army (R) Spouse, Williamsburg, Virginia

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