Tag Archives: guest post

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!

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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

Survive and Thrive: Twentynine Palms, CA!

Honey – we have orders . . . to Twentynine Palms, CA.

While the thought of being stationed in the California desert may feel like the middle of nowhere – there are several hidden gems in this desert oasis to keep you and your family busy.

Here are my top 9 tips for things to do around Twentynine Palms:

1. Joshua Tree National Park: One of the best national parks our country has to offer! Be sure to check out the Joshua Tree Ranger Programs that offers guided hikes, patio talks with rangers, and an evening program to introduce visitors to various aspects of the park. Pro tip: Check the weather report available on the parks website. Some days you’ll need to bring a jacket and other days, you’ll need sunscreen and plenty of water. Wear comfortable shoes and bring a camera. Bonus pro tip: Show your military ID and you’ll receive a National Parks and Federal Recreation Annual Lands Pass for FREE!

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2. Earn your two year degree or take a class for fun at Copper Mountain College: In addition to two year Associates of Arts or Associates of Science degrees, CMC offers a variety of certificate, guest speakers, and community education classes. Pro tip: AS and AA degrees transfer from CMC to the California State University system and guarantee your admission with junior standing.

3. Music Festivals: So many music festivals! From the Joshua Tree Music Festival to the Spring Concert Series and Yucca Valley Summer Music Festival, if you’re in to music, you’ll find plenty of it here. Pro tip: Wear comfortable shoes, bring a folding chair, drinks, and snacks. Check out festival website’s for any specific details.

4. Theater 29: Check out the local theater productions! This fall/winter, Theater 29 will be featuring the comedies Shakespeare in Hollywood and Young Frankenstein. For curtain times, check out their website. And if you have the acting bug, check out their website for information on auditions. Pro tip: this is a casual community theater, no need to dress up and be all fancy, unless you want to.

5. Smiths Ranch Drive-In: One of the last remaining drive-in theaters in the US, the Smiths Ranch Drive-In is a ton of fun. It can be a great date night destination or fun for the whole family. And it’s $5.00 for two movies, you can’t beat that! They also offer all the normal movie food and snack options (soda, popcorn, candy). Pro tip: bring your own snacks or set up dinner at the drive in! Let the kids play and enjoy watching a movie under the stars.

6. Pioneer Days Celebration: October 16th-19th. Held annually the 3rd weekend in October this family-friendly event includes a parade, carnival rides, games, Lego design challenge. Pro tip: For the ultimate family bonding experience, consider entering some of the events, such as the Outhouse race.

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7. HWY 62 Open Studio Art Tours: Over 140 artists with 95 studio locations make this event a win for any art lover. Sponsored by the Morongo Basin Cultural Arts Council, tour dates are October 25-26 and November 1-2 each year. Pro tip: Grab your friends, water, and road snacks because this tour takes you through the Morongo Basin on Highway 62.

8. Run for your life: So many great runs and walks to participate in! Whether you’re a seasoned runner or just want to participate in community fun runs and walks, there are plenty of opportunities to trail run, join a running group or support your community though a fun run. My favorites are the Tram Road Challenge 6K and the Think Pink Challenge at Felix Field hosted by the OSC of Twentynine Palms. Pro tip: New to the area? Take some time before you charge the trails and running courses. With the elevation changes, it usually takes the seasoned runner a few weeks to adjust. But you’ll be a ROCKSTAR runner at lower elevations.

9. Go down the hill: Otherwise known to locals as the “low desert” be sure to visit the Palm Springs area in the Coachella value for a host of seasonal events, dining, shopping and activities. From the annual Stagecoach country music festival to a trip to a local zoo there’s something for everyone here. Pro tip: Please sure to attend a local brief about desert survival tips. From extreme highs during the day to low temperatures at night – desert living is an adjustment.

Have you been stationed at Twentynine Palms? What are your must-not-miss events?

sue-lowePosted by Sue Lowe, NMFA Volunteer and Marine Corps Spouse

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

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