Survive and Thrive: Great Lakes


When we first moved to the suburbs of Chicago we didn’t quite know what to expect. We had heard rumors from people we knew in “Chicagoland,” but we really had no context for what a military lifestyle would look like here. The only thing we knew is that we were a train ride away from downtown and this is where the Navy’s boot camp is located. We were clueless!

So, you may ask, “What’s it like in Great Lakes?” Here are my thoughts and observations after living in the Great Lakes area for about three years:

Everyone is really young!
This was very strange to me and to my husband when we first arrived. The average age of the base population is twenty. Great Lakes is staffed by young instructors and the base serves as a training site for sailors who are coming right out of basic training. Rules are important here so everyone is always paying attention and the uniforms always look sharp!

Morale, Wellness, and Readiness (MWR) is SUPER active.
The MWR team is really engaged and works hard to host events and activities on base and in the Chicagoland region. They offer multiple workout classes, recreational trainings, social nights (like karaoke, games, picnics, etc.), and trips to amusement parks, sporting events, and museums. My husband and I have been to a few Cubs games, a Bears game, Six Flags, and taken sailing lessons–all with MWR. They also host multiple dinners/events every month associated with the bowling alley and movie theatre on base. One final bonus, Naval Station Great Lakes also has hands down the best fireworks show for 4th of July that I have ever seen.

You will never have to worry about having access to health care!
Unlike some of the TRICARE nightmares I have heard from a number of my milspouse friends, the access to health case here is easy! Active duty members have access to on-base facilities, but family members don’t. However, right down the road–less than a mile–there is a giant hospital that is the only joint DoD/VA hospital in the country. That means if you are an active duty dependent, you have the option of just hopping down the road and receiving any kind of care that you like/need at Lovell Federal Health Care Center. You can, of course, go to an in-network provider as well, if that suites your needs. It is just nice to know that the hospital and outpatient clinics are just right around the corner.

The surrounding communities are incredible!
When we first got here, I kept hearing rumors that the northern suburbs (directly south of Great Lakes) were snobby and unfriendly. Those rumors couldn’t have been more wrong! As a graduate student, I am always looking for new and interesting places to study and write papers. The northern suburbs of Chicago definitely are affluent, but the people there are welcoming and very hospitable! There are so many amenities, cultural and community events, beautiful parks, and incredible libraries. Each town also has really good public (and private) school systems, a high investment in the arts, and countless fitness/sporting activities. Our paycheck definitely doesn’t fit in there, but I absolutely love spending time in those communities.

There’s so much to do!
Six Flags is about 15 miles from the naval station. Wonderful park, great roller coasters, and a family friendly environment. There are also nature preserves, boating, running/bike paths in Lake County (which contains Great Lakes) are gorgeous! It is routinely voted the most scenic county in Illinois. I am telling you, if you want to take a walk in the woods, go bike riding with the kids, go fishing or kayaking/canoeing, or some other form of an outdoorsy activity, Lake County has what you are looking for.

If you like festivals, you’re in the right place. When we first moved here, I signed up to be on an email list for local festivals. After living here for about 2 months I had to categorize those messages as spam, because I was easily getting 5-10 emails about local festivals A DAY! Also, Ravinia is about a 15 minute drive or a 13.5 minute train ride away, and is worth the visit if you’ve never heard of it (I hadn’t) and love a good festival.

Local eateries seem endless. Confession: I love eating. Whenever we move, I become very concerned that we are going to live somewhere with bad restaurants and grocery stores with gross produce and meat sections. Oh man, not here! The northern suburbs can look a bit “high class” from the outside, but we have really been able to find amazing places to eat that don’t break the bank. Extra bonus, there are very few chain restaurants in the northern suburbs outside of malls or shopping plazas.

Chicago. Enough said.
You’re close enough to the Windy City to be able to take it all in. And where to even begin with all there is to do in Chicago?! Here is a list of the big things/tourist/must try activities in Chicago:

  • The Willis Tower and/or the John Hancock Building observation deck. You will not get a better or more beautiful view of the city than this. The JH building offers gorgeous views of the lakeshore whereas the Willis gives splendid views of Chicago’s city center.
  • The river walk. Definitely grab a bite to eat on the river walk in the summer. This makes for a really nice, but still casual date night in the city!
  • Architectural or shoreline tour. Multiple companies do these and they’re pretty inexpensive on Groupon. Even if architecture isn’t your thing, these boat tours are a fun way to get to know more about the city.
  • See a show. Chicago has a very large performing arts “district” which is constantly putting on new and classical works. Also, in the summer, a number of theatre companies and musical groups do concerts, performances, and movies in Millennium Park.
  • Speaking of Millennium Park, you should go! This is an absolutely classic Chicago site. If you haven’t taken a picture with “the bean” (which is actually supposed to be a bead of mercury), you really haven’t been to Chicago.
  • Deep dish pizza (aka: Chicago pizza). Depending on who you talk to, you will get a different answer for THE place to go. The classics are Lou Malanti’s, Uno’s, Gino’s, and Giordano’s. Most people have a very strong preference and opinion on whose pizza is the best and who did it first, but as a non-native, I’d say they are all incredible.
  • Navy Pier. Another touristy place, but it is truly fun. If you go, definitely ride the newly renovated Ferris wheel. The benches are fully enclosed and climate controlled. Also, you cannot get a better view, especially at sunset.

When you first get here, Great Lakes may feel sort of out of the way and a bit disconnected from “normal” military life. But it has its own culture and odd little flair. Some parts have definitely taken some getting used to, while others made us feel welcome and at home right away. Regardless, Great Lakes is a wonderful place to live!

Have you ever been stationed at Great Lakes? What would you tell someone who’s never been?

Posted by Michelle Koster, military spouse and NMFA Volunteer

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