Category Archives: Guest Posts

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

Shanghai Breezes: The Ultimate Deployment Song

Letters-5Twenty five years ago, this country girl from Eastern Washington State met a surfer, ROTC student from Torrance, California. Despite the distance and challenges we faced while dating, we got married and have spent a lifetime together raising two great boys. But that doesn’t mean we haven’t faced every obstacle the Air Force has thrown at us. During those tough times, we found solace in the sage words of John Denver.

Back in the day, lyrics weren’t printed on cassette jackets. So if you wanted to be sappy, you had to painstakingly hand-write the lyrics by playing the song over and over to make sure you heard each word. That’s exactly what I did. While my husband, Jay, and I were in college in separate states, I painstakingly transcribed the lyrics to one of John Denver’s iconic songs, “Shanghai Breezes.”  I rewound and played my way through the process. Then I mailed those lyrics off to Jay in a letter. One we still have today.

Recently, as I was on my morning walk, “Shanghai Breezes” came on, and it made me think of all of the military families in the middle of the challenging deployment/re-deployment exchange. Like many of you, music marks the milestones in my life, like the number one song my senior year, the song we danced to at our wedding, the music my boys blared through their teen years in our homes around the globe.

“Shanghai Breezes” got me through deployments, TDY’s and separations.

Lyrics like, the moon and the stars are the same ones I see, became a reminder no distance apart will change the commitment we made to each other. It reminds me of the trust we place in each other, and the agreement we made to be there for one another through it all.

Letters-1As you face any deployment, I encourage you to find your strength. And find something that will remind you of it!  I challenge you to write letters, and have your families do the same. Today, along with the letter of lyrics I wrote to Jay so long ago, are letters from Jay’s parents, friends, and mentors wishing him well, as well as pictures and cards from our boys, all sending him their best wishes and recounting the joys in their lives.

Accompanying them are the cards and letters Jay sent back to our boys. They come with us every time we PCS, and are treasured reminders of our lives together. There’s just something about the act of putting pen (or crayon) to paper that emphasizes the words, the care, and the love of the writer.

My wish for all of you is peace through any deployment, and every separation to come. Find the best ways for your family to express yourselves and build strong lines of communication. Find your strength when the days are long, and try to focus on the positive things that inevitably happen during the chaos.

Finally, always remember the greatest act of strength is asking for help.

How did you build strong lines of communication in your family?

Posted by Karla Bickley, Air Force Spouse, Tinker Air Force Base

 

Don’t Give Up Your Gym Membership Just Yet!

spin-classIt was a typical stressful morning getting the kids out the door in time for school. In the back of my mind, I was already feeling anxious about our upcoming cross-country PCS and a new challenge of completing my last two graduate school classes in the middle of the road trip. I dropped my older kids off at school, and took my 2 year old with me to the gym. As I opened the door to the gym, I almost walked right into a giant dry erase board where someone had written, “You are only one workout away from a good mood.”

I knew in an hour, I would be just fine.

For years, I have been relying on exercise to combat stress and negative emotions. It’s kept me balanced and helped me work through the most challenging problems. Even if I walk into a workout full of negativity and stress, I will always come out feeling calm and clear-headed.

Part of me believed this calming effect that exercise brought was because it felt like I was regaining a sense of control that I felt I had lost as a military spouse. I also believed I was “toughening up” through physical stressors in order to handle the emotional stressors.

I read some research done on the effects of exercise on anxiety, depression and sensitivity to stress. Most of the current research in the field of mental health supports physical activity to boost one’s mood, fight depression and build tolerance to stress.

Unfortunately, as a personal trainer, I’ve heard many people say beginning an exercise program is a stressor. It’s tough to start something new, but if someone dives into an exercise program that is too intense, he or she will most likely experience an increase in stress. This can be why so many people walk away from gym memberships.

There are two easy ways to start your journey towards healthy, effective stress management through exercise:

  1. Change your perception of exercise. It doesn’t have to be an hour long, drag-yourself-off-the-floor workout. There are incredible calming, meditative workouts like Tai Chi or yoga. I believe if we all started at a comfortable level, we can quickly adapt and feel positive about increasing the difficulty.
  2. Set a few small fitness goals. As we accomplish each goal, we develop a sense of empowerment and confidence. It’s this empowerment that lets us handle new challenges thrown our way, whether it’s a fitness challenge or surprise orders. It is also the repeated exposure to the good, controllable stress of exercise that increases our resistance to the negative, uncontrolled stress of a military lifestyle.

Military spouses provide emotional stability in a family. We have to take care of ourselves, physically and emotionally, so we can take care of our families in the best way possible. Every day I walk into that gym, or lace up my running shoes, with the goal of looking for a healthy way to combat the stress in my life. And every day I walk out in a good mood, ready to take on whatever life (and the military!) wants to throw my way.

What activities or forms of exercise help you deal with stress? Share it with us!

MelissaPosted by Melissa Wilkerson, Joanne Holbrook Patton Military Spouse Scholarship Recipient

Orders? Check. Map? Check. Engagement Ring? WHAT!

moving-boxesWhile a permanent change of station (PCS) might not be the most glamorous aspect of military life, it does offer a unique opportunity to explore new parts of the world. Before we were married, my husband and I took advantage of a cross country PCS as a chance for an epic road trip.

We met just as he was re-deploying from a year tour in Afghanistan back to Fort Drum, so we spent the year traveling back and forth between where I was living in New York City and upstate New York, where he was stationed… all the while falling in love.

I knew it was only a matter of time until the Army would throw a curveball our way.

When orders came down for him to go to Korea, my heart sank. Because he was changing to a different military occupation specialty (MOS), he would need to first PCS from Fort Drum to Fort Huachuca for schooling before going to Korea.

We saw this pending PCS as an amazing opportunity to road trip across the country.

The quickest route from New York to Arizona was 2,381 miles with an authorized 7 days to travel (350 miles a day). We based our route on two important stops to visit family and picked interesting places in between. To keep on schedule, we used Google Maps to drop ‘pins’ at the 350-mile markers, making sure to drop pins at places we wanted to see. We also booked our hotel stays ahead of time. That saved us from having to depend on the area to find lodging, and gave us the opportunity to bank on hotel rewards points.

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On the way to Gulfport, Mississippi, we saw the sites in Chattanooga, Tennessee and Birmingham, Alabama. After three days in Gulfport visiting family, we were on the road again. Our next stop was Austin, Texas, my home city. It was a quick trip because we had big plans to drive to the Grand Canyon from there, but during our stop at Albuquerque, we ate some bad New Mexican food and spent an extra day recovering at our hotel room. We adapted quickly, and rerouted our path to go straight to Sierra Vista, Arizona. Without a willingness to adjust based on travel luck and circumstances, any PCS road trip would be incredibly stressful!

Seeing the scenery and landscape change from each region of the country was by far the best experience of our trip. I loved seeing the Smoky Mountains in Tennessee, and then driving through the swampy Gulf Coast. The dessert area of West Texas, New Mexico and Arizona were amazing to see, too.

At the very end of our road trip, in our hotel room in Sierra Vista, my boyfriend proposed to me!

Little did I know, during our visit to see family, he asked for their approval. My entire family knew his proposal was nearing, and were in on the secret! He planned to propose during our day at the Grand Canyon, but in typical Army fashion, he improvised!

We were married in a courthouse during his leave to Korea, and had a church wedding when he arrived back. Although life in the military can be unpredictable, it opens up new opportunities around every corner. It’s up to us to seize the moment!

Do you have a fun PCS story? Send it to us at Blog@MilitaryFamily.org to have it featured here on Branching Out!

rachel-marstenPosted by Rachel Tringali Marston, Army Spouse

#tbt: PTSD Can Be Quiet

ptsd-soldierJune 27th is PTSD Awareness Day. We are sharing Annie’s journey of readjusting to life with her husband’s PTSD diagnosis. Signs and symptoms of PTSD can vary, but one thing is clear: getting help is within reach and all it takes is the first step. Below is Annies story, written in October 2013:

Prior to my husband’s last deployment, I had no direct contact with anyone who came home with PTSD. At least no one who was open about it, or even acted how I thought someone with PTSD would act.

That’s one of the troubles with PTSD. It’s not how someone acts in public or controlled situations; it’s how they act when no one else is around.

I had known from telephone and email conversations that something wasn’t right with my own husband. He would call and make wild, angry statements because I forgot to close the garage door. When he actually returned home from deployment, the problems became worse. He began not sleeping at all, and then slept for days. The anger, outbursts, and sullen behavior all reached epic levels. It nearly toppled our marriage over into a hole that it could never crawl out of.

You see, my husband denied he had PTSD, as many do. Because I was largely uneducated, with the exception of knowing PTSD wasn’t what the media portrayed, I didn’t really know what to do. I couldn’t fully see the tell-tale signs in my husband until it was almost too late.

He doesn’t have flashbacks in the “traditional” sense. Instead, his PTSD is quiet, it’s withdrawn, and it’s mean.

I wish I had known all of the ways PTSD can manifest itself. I wish I had known PTSD isn’t always yelling, fighting, and violent. I wish I had known that many of the things we often associate with PTSD are just a very small sampling of what can really be happening in your home.

My husband is withdrawn. He can go months without really speaking to me about anything. This started immediately after he returned, but being his wife, I became a great excuse maker. We never want to think PTSD has touched our life and our spouse. So I made excuse after excuse.

“He’s withdrawn because he’s adjusting.”
“He’s not sleeping because of the time difference.”
“He’s sleeping all the time because of the stress.”

But what it all added up to was a giant elephant in the room, one that he refused to talk about. An elephant that I was scared to bring up.

Sometimes, his posture changes, and I can tell that he is not in the moment with me anymore, but somewhere else entirely. Those times can be followed by silence, or an escalation of anger, but I know it’s not me he is angry at.

When he does have angry outbursts, it’s often at times when I least expect it. He once became angry with me when I asked him to bring me ketchup from the kitchen.

We are shown, and told, that PTSD is loud; that it is crazy, emotional, and intense. There can be violence, drinking, and wild behavior, but that isn’t always the case, and I truly wish I had known that. Maybe we wouldn’t have gotten to the brink of divorce.

I would tell any spouse, any family member or friend: Watch.

Simply watch your loved one. Has their sleep pattern changed? Are they sullen or withdrawn? Have they refused to see friends since their return? Are they having memory issues? All of those things, simple as they sound, can be warning signs.

PTSD can be the silent secret that you aren’t even sure is really there. It can be a quiet ordeal your spouse may be living with every day, but not saying anything about. It can be new behaviors you’ve never seen before, or old behaviors that you haven’t seen in a while.

If you suspect anything might be wrong, talk to them. Don’t ask what they did or saw, just talk to them about your concerns. Don’t let it become the elephant in the room and the secret you keep because they don’t want to talk about it. Angry or not, it’s so important that you urge them to seek help. I was lucky that I managed to get my husband into treatment, but others are not as lucky.

Because PTSD can be quiet.

Posted by Annie Mously, military spouse blogger at Our Before and After

Point. Click. PCS: House Hunting Just Got Easier!

House-for-saleRachel Marston is a military spouse and is the Public Relations and Communications Manager for the Red Door Group based out of the Washington, D.C. area. Eager to share a great resource, Rachel has laid out some of the awesome features of The Automated Housing Referral Network, a tool for military families to use when house hunting!

Orders are coming down quickly and military families are preparing for their upcoming Permanent Change of Station (PCS). With so many details to look after, it can be difficult to know where to start.

What are the good neighborhoods?

What is there to do?

Where are the schools?

Finding the perfect home is more than just answering those questions, it’s also finding a home that fits within your budget. There are many great resources out there, but The Automated Housing Referral Network (AHRN.com) is one resource that has proven to be a great asset for military families in all aspects of the PCS process.

As a housing referral website for the military community around the world, AHRN.com provides a list of relevant homes at a designated location. It also breaks down your BAH to assess the expected costs for rent and utilities, which can be really helpful when working through your budget.

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The amount of BAH given to a family is the driving force for any housing decision. Your BAH rate is probably the first thing you look at when receiving orders. AHRN.com creates a special search with homes that fit within 25% (higher or lower) of your BAH budget taking into consideration the cost for rent and utilities. It compiles a list of homes and identifies how far they are from your installation, which can be really helpful to see all in one place before making the move.

Another great resource is the ability for military families to personalize their housing profile, enabling AHRN.com to match preferences and the listing that best fit your needs. The profile works by asking what type of home is best for you. Whether that’san off-base house, community rental, for sale by owner, etc., and the, number of bedrooms, budget range and much more!

The ability to search for housing online by using AHRN.com’s BAH tools helps families execute the ideal budget plan for their next station. By determining costs ahead of time, you can prepare for out-of-pocket expenses. From sharing tips for a smooth transition on our blog to the live support chat rooms, AHRN.com is committing to assisting families in all aspects of the PCS process.

Register now and start house hunting and you can also take part in AHRN.com’s 10 Year Anniversary Giveaway Celebration, which is going on now through June 27!