Category Archives: Guest Posts

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!

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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?”

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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!

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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

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

Survive and Thrive in Ansbach, Germany!

Our Army life is relatively simple: it’s just my husband—a pilot, and me—an artist. Our first duty station since his graduation from flight school at Ft. Rucker, Alabama landed us smack dab in the middle of Europe. Moving here to Ansbach, Germany was a huge challenge, but I think it would be for anyone at any stage in their life! We’ve been here for two and a half years, and in five short months, we’ll be on our way to the next PCS stop.

Reflecting on my time here, I don’t think I could have spent it any better. It was important for me to be active in the Army community, but I wanted to dive into the local culture, too. Traveling and experiencing Europe was a must-do, but my primary goal was learning and devoting time to my artistic endeavors, something that would be dramatically different had we been living in the States.

So, how did I survive and thrive in Ansbach, Germany? Here are some tips:

Embrace the local culture.
The first few weeks of living in a new country feel like you’re on the best vacation ever. After the honeymoon wears off, it’s easy to find yourself lamenting life as you once knew it. The language barrier grows to the size of a beast, it’s frustrating that you have to plug your favorite appliances into a transformer, you can’t understand your phone bill and customer service is basically non-existent. Plus, you are really far away from your family. It took me quite some time to fight the urge to stay home, rather than venturing out, but eventually, after many mistakes and embarrassing moments, I became accustomed to using the German grocery store and post office. I got a German mechanic, joined an Art club in town, and even got pretty decent at reading the local newspaper, and finding fun events to attend. Small victories led to larger victories. I plugged away at learning the language as best as I could. And even though I still don’t always understand what strangers say to me; it’s amazing to realize how much I do know considering I started with zero prior knowledge of the language.

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Embrace your branch’s community.
Even though there are thousands of people at one location, the Army community can feel pretty small. For numerous reasons, Soldiers and families have a tendency to isolate themselves, doing themselves a severe disservice, especially at an OCONUS duty station. Having friends, or at least acquaintances, can help you not feel so alone. I think the easiest way to get comfortable in a new community is to join something: FRG, Spouse’s Club, Red Cross, ACS, or classes at the gym. You’re bound to eventually meet many people that are friendly and have great advice. Like it or Hate it, some of my best travel tips have been picked up at Spouse’s Club luncheons. And when you’re having a bad day (like the time I broke a bag of rice at the grocery store, spilled it all over myself, and didn’t know how to ask for help cleaning it up) it’s great to be able to go to the gym, see your friends, and tell them all about it so you can laugh together.

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Don’t let the need to travel overwhelm you.
My husband and I have seen a lot of what Europe has to offer, but we haven’t seen it all. We designed a travel budget to avoid spending our life savings we worked hard to create. We also made a priority list and a general outline of how much travel we could accomplish. Activities like snowboarding and surfing are a priority for us, so many awesome cities didn’t make the cut. Instead of focusing on all the places you haven’t been, recount the good memories from where you have been.

Set new goals and stick to them. Achievements are empowering.
I think the hardest part of being a military spouse is continuing your personal growth. Moving frequently and landing in random destinations come with a set of difficulties, and many times, new duty stations prevent us from being the achievers we used to be. Living in Germany proves very difficult for spouses who would like a career. Luckily, as an artist, I can do my job anywhere. It’s harder for the lawyers, nurses, hairdressers, and public health specialists. But I’ve met them all, and they make it work. If you’re on a base that doesn’t allow spouses to work, take the opportunity to start a new hobby, train for a 5k, or enjoy time with your kids – just don’t get down on yourself. Your job doesn’t define your self-worth! Challenge yourself with a goal and stick with it, even on the crappy days. It isn’t easy, but once you accomplish the goal, you feel stronger… like a superhero! In the time I’ve been here, my husband’s spent quite a bit of time away working. Instead of feeling lonely, I got comfortable with being solo. I learned German, but I also embraced reading, tried many new recipes, improved my cooking, and attempted things that intimidated me like learning how to meditate or do a handstand. Your goals can be any size or significance. You don’t have to move mountains to empower yourself!

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In less than six months, I’ll find myself in a whole new world: Ft. Bliss, Texas. It’ll be a far cry from this land of forests, fields, and medieval charm. But I know there are many delightful secrets and surprises to be found in the next chapter of my life. I plan to use the positivity and confidence that I built here, to give me the strength to embrace my new life there.

Posted by Sarah Geraci, Army spouse and owner of Florida Scarf, USAG Ansbach, Germany