Survive and Thrive: San Diego

San Diego, California is America’s amusement park–filled with trails to hike, beaches open to camping enthusiasts, and a fun nightlife. Don’t trust anyone who said they were bored in San Diego because this city will keep you on your toes.

It is one of the few military stations where landlords are willing to negotiate the rent, and rightfully so. San Diego can be expensive, but as long as you know how to budget, this city can be yours.

san diego

Here’s a few tips  about living in San Diego:

Can’t negotiate or refuse to negotiate? I suggest you tighten your belt and ask your future landlord to negotiate the rent. You must quickly move on from landlords who refuse to budge on the rental. San Diego has a 1% sales market. This means the city has few houses available for sale, making it a rental market.

I was able to negotiate  lower rent with lawn service included! What’s the secret to negotiating? Smile when you bid low. As a renter, the options for rent can be vast, depending on what you’re looking for.

Who needs community supported agriculture when you have community conscious grocery stores like Sprouts, who support local farms with their affordable, abundant and the freshest fruits, vegetables, herbs and legumes.

For my pantry, I shop at the commissary. The commissary has the best quality and prices on their selected meats, poultry and fish. Their birthday cakes are delicious. The best part of the commissary is that they routinely offer bulk items so my pantry was always stocked with the best.

Love ethnic food? San Diego offers the best ethnic grocery stores supporting cuisines from Iran, Korea, Vietnam, India, Japan, Ethiopia, Iraq, Italy, and many more. San Diego’s international grocery stores are the the United Nations of grocery stores!

San Diego is the queen of consignment shops.
You will soon realize that most people in San Diego are fashion forward. Don’t fret if you don’t have the cash to keep up. Just graze the local thrift shops, like Amvet, Goodwill, and independent consignment shops, to see what you can find! I bought all of my swanky ball gowns at the consignment shops on Spring Street in La Mesa.

Side note: get your hair and makeup done at the many salons that cater to Quinceañeras and weddings. You’ll be the envy of the ball!

MWR is the key to the city.
Want to see a play? Concert? Ride the roller coasters? A panda is pregnant at the San Diego Zoo and you like to witness the birth? Want to take a selfie with your favorite princess at Disney? Maybe your team is playing in San Diego? A museum that needs your viewing? Want to tour the wineries in Temecula?

Visit MWR for all of your recreational activities. They have the best deals to movies, plays, concerts, museums, zoo entrance, theme parks and tours. I suggest you also cross reference with the places you like to visit to see who offers the best deal.

Don’t forget to ask everyone about their military discount. Don’t be shy!

san diego zoo

Chuck that raincoat. Break the umbrella. Pin all the ways your galoshes can be beautiful planters.

Say hello to constant sunshine. Just like winter, constant sunshine can become depressive, too. To combat depression, make sure you find a healthy activity to keep your mind and body refreshed. I suggest spinning on the beach at the Hotel Del Coronado, yoga at Mountain Hawk Park in Chula Vista, or paddle boarding around Mission Bay’s shore.

Make sure you have extra hats, sunscreen, rash guards and light long-sleeved cardigans to shield yourself and your family from the sun.

Social clubs.
San Diego is very social. Voted the best place to host conventions, San Diego thrives on all kinds of enthusiasts, from hikers, to bikers, and Comic Con cos-players. There’s a club to cater your hobby. Check to find your new best friend.


There are several beaches. The best are on the military installations in the San Diego area. My favorite beach was Breakers Beach on Coronado in the North Island Naval base. Breakers offers us a private beach, allowing my kids to roam freely without fearing strangers stealing our stuff or bothering us.

You can camp on Camp Pendleton’s beach, or rent their beach cabins. You can rent boats, paddle boards, and  kayaks at the Marine Corp Recruiting Depot in Point Loma.

I can truly go on forever about all the activities in San Diego but it’s best for me to allow you to explore for yourself. You know you’re home in San Diego when you find your favorite taco and craft beer.

Have you been stationed in San Diego? What did you love about it?

Posted by Fari Bearman, National Military Family Association Volunteer

Dear New Teacher, It’s My Military Child’s First Day of School

Dear New Teacher,

Today my child enters your classroom for the first time in a new school. It might be the first day of the school year, or it might be inconveniently smack-dab in the middle of a grading period. He likely knows no one in his homeroom class, likely no other children in the school.

Every child has a story to tell, and mine is no different. I am hoping to share a bit of his story with you since you will be with him, teaching and guiding him, this year. His story includes attending preschools in three different states. He will be in second grade next year. And he will be preparing to move again to a new school, his third elementary school since Kindergarten.

His daddy deployed to a combat zone when he was very young, and has been home for the past few years. But my son knows what soldiers do. He knows that someday his daddy will likely deploy again to a place he can’t yet find on a map for more days than he can count, for reasons nearly impossible for a child to understand.


He didn’t choose this life.

But I asked him if he ever wishes that he weren’t a military kid, and he said, “No, why? What would Daddy do if he weren’t in the Army?” You see, this is the only life he knows. He is a happy, resilient, funny, sweet kiddo. I’m so proud of each obstacle he has overcome.

We do have bad days, though. He misses his old friends, our old home, our old church, and our old routines. He occasionally asks when we can go visit our old houses, and the restaurants and parks in a town we used to live in. To be honest, military life is downright difficult sometimes. But this is one thing I’ve learned: military children are so very strong. And so very brave. Military children are resilient. They simply don’t know how to be anything less.

Please keep in contact with me and let me know if he has any difficulties in school during (and after) this transition. The purpose of this letter is not only to inform you of my son’s background but to affirm our family’s commitment to support him, and you, his teacher.

Thank you for answering the call to educate the children of our great nation. What a truly noble and worthy profession you have chosen! Thank you for loving children who aren’t your own, and shaping their lives forever. And thank you for supporting our military-connected child, during yet another transition for him. Because of your support at school and the support of our community, my spouse is able to commit fully to his own calling: serving our country.

Mama of a Military Child

What would you tell your child’s new teacher? 

teresa-bannerPosted by Teresa Banner, military spouse and NMFA Volunteer

“Go To Your Happy Place,” and Other PCS Lessons Learned Towing a Trailer

PCS season may be winding down for the majority of military families, with schools starting back, and pools getting their last straggling visitors. But for other military families, they’re still on the move! This summer, my family was one of the many leaving one community and arriving in another. We have moved a number of times, but I always learn something when we move.

This time, I learned about driving a vehicle with an attached trailer. My husband handles a majority of the move’s logistics, and this meant he was organizing our partially procured move. One day while I was really busy with a work deadline, a new recipe and maybe giving the dog a bath (not exactly all at the same time…but almost) he asked if I could drive our SUV and pull a trailer behind it during our move.

“Sure!” I said. I was obviously focused on something else. No problem! I didn’t give this another thought until my husband returned from the UHaul place with the trailer. The trailer was larger than I thought it would be. A lot larger. Uh oh!


What do you do when faced with situations like this? You ask another military spouse who has trailer-pulling experience! My good friend told me she towed a sail boat up the East Coast during one of their moves…in the middle of a hurricane! I thought she would certainly have some words of wisdom and comfort that would apply to my current situation.

“If something goes wrong on the road, just go to a happy place and don’t hit the brakes!” she shared.

I was really hoping for more substantial advice, but I honestly needed the laugh more than the actual advice. Thank goodness for good friends. She also told me I could absolutely do this.

The next morning, the trailer was attached to my vehicle and off we went. We were a two vehicle, two trailer caravan of two people and one slightly worried puppy. The dog was with me and may have sensed my “go to a happy place plan.” He is pretty smart.

Along the way I noticed something: I was not alone.

We stopped at several hotels and there were other military families all along our route. There were other military spouses with vehicles packed with children and suitcases and several of them were also driving a vehicle with a trailer. I wasn’t alone! This made me laugh. I looked around and thought, “If they can do this, I can too!

I may have been extremely careful, not ever putting myself in a position to need to go in reverse, but overall, we had a great trip. I was driving fairly intensely with no music in the vehicle, no driving too fast and I had a death grip on the steering wheel…but we arrived safely!

During our move I learned I can drive a vehicle and tow a trailer, if I need to. I absolutely learned I need to listen a bit more intently when we are dividing our move related tasks! I also learned to have a lot more respect for anyone who drives a really large vehicle for a living!

What have you learned during your recent PCS?

Ann HPosted by Ann Hamilton, Volunteer & Community Outreach Manager

Basics of Money We Can Learn From Kids

As part of becoming a personal financial counselor, I had the privilege to teach the financial literacy program, “Money Management” to the Girl Scouts of Southern Arizona Cochise County for two years. I entered this teaching opportunity naively thinking I would teach these young girls about money. Ultimately, these girls reminded me of the basics of money. A subject that we have simply forgotten.

Here are two things you can learn from them too:

What is a need versus a want?
The Girl Scout Brownie Curriculum says a need is something you must have to stay healthy and safe. A want is something you enjoy and want to have, and is not a need.

This was easy subject matter to teach children. They understand they need food to stay healthy and a home to stay warm and safe. However, according a blog called “The Secret Shame of Middle Class Americans,” adults have forgotten this over time. This blog asked individuals whether they could come up with $2,000 within 30 days for an unanticipated expense. Slightly more than one-quarter could not, and another 19% could do so only if they pawned possessions or took out payday loans.

The conclusion: Nearly half of American adults are financially fragile and living very close to the financial edge. Households are living paycheck to paycheck, or in other words, beyond their means. Have we forgotten this basic concept?

One girl scout’s solution: ask yourself when you go shopping, “Is it a need or a want?” If it’s a want, maybe it can be saved for another day, or perhaps a birthday or holiday gift of some sort. Too often, we fulfill our wants, leaving our needs to be tightly met by a small amount of remaining funds.


What is a savings account?
According to the Girl Scout Money Management program, a savings account is used to deposit money in a bank and earns interest over time. The purpose of this account is to save money that one does not need for daily use. This account is the easiest account to open because of its simplicity.

When I asked the girls if they owned a piggy bank, all the girls’ hands went up and they described their piggy banks to me. Some owned a butterfly, a frog, and one even owned a hippopotamus. While a piggy bank is not a savings account since it is not growing interest, it teaches children the importance of putting money away for use later. A recent article said 63% of Americans don’t have enough savings to cover a $500 emergency. This means that families are resorting to charging to a credit card or borrowing funds in order to meet the cost of the unexpected event.

Why do children grasp the concept of money, yet, as adults we decline to follow the very basics of money management? We are the example for our children and yet we allow instant gratification and fulfillment of our wants to get in the way of our savings. Next time you take a look at your shopping list, take a moment to take a step back to basics! We are our children’s most powerful teachers on how they will view and manage money, learn a little from them as they learn a lot from you!

Have you learned any money tips from your kids? Leave us a comment and share it!

Cynthia Giesecke is a candidate for the Association for Financial Counseling and Planning Education (AFCPE), a Girl Scout Money Management volunteer and part of the “Military Family Matters” blog team for NMFA

Soldier to Civilian: Establishing VA Benefits

My husband, Clay, recently retired after more than 20 years of service in the United States Army. Over the past 20 years of his career, his life was reminiscent to the Johnny Cash song, “I’ve been everywhere.” He has been stationed, or trained on just about every military installation in the continental United States, not to mention assignments in South Korea and Germany. Oh, and there were the deployments, training exercises and more deployments.

Our family’s transition was fairly easy. Clay has a tremendous VA staff while undergoing this process in South Korea. He was shown how to properly complete the paperwork and they handled his case with the utmost importance. Unfortunately, not all service members receive the same care in this process.

Are you a military family nearing retirement and transition? Do you know a family who is transitioning from active duty to civilian? One thing that can be difficult for some is healthcare in the VA system. So, to help, I wanted to share a list of helpful information for you prior to your transition from the military to civilian life in regards to VA Benefits. Here is my checklist that helped our family:


  • Document EVERYTHING! I don’t care how minor the issue, go to sick call and get it documented. When you begin your transition, the VA requires a copy (digital or hard copy) of your medical records. It’s difficult to claim a disability when you’ve never gone to a doctor or physician and had it documented.  You must approach the VA as if you are the person scrutinizing your own claim.
  • Make copies.  The VA requires a copy of your medical records. If you’ve served one day in the military, you already know paperwork gets lost. Don’t be a statistic. Do yourself a favor by making copies. In the event you need to file an appeal with the VA, you will need those records. Never give your only copy away. When the military medical system went online, your medical records went digital are are now kept on a secure server. If you’re like my husband and enlisted prior to 2005 (and when medical records went digital), part of your records are hard copies. Worse yet, he spent four years of his military career as a recruiter. That means he had medical records from a civilian doctor. What we found out was that the military medical system frowned upon civilian records. For example, he was stationed at Fort Bliss, TX, after recruiting. When we left Fort Bliss, all Clay’s civilian medical records were missing. Luckily, he had made copies and inserted them back into the medical records we were keeping. However, every time we PCS’d, the same happened to his civilian medical records. If you remember nothing else from reading this, remember this: MAKE COPIES!
  • E-Benefits. Each branch of the military as some sort of class that help the service member transition back into civilian life. Part of the Army Career Alumni Program process is establishing an account on E-Benefits. This website allows the service member to track and manage your benefits. You can also establish care at the closest VA medical center through this website. Take time to navigate through the website and familiarize yourself with the information provided – there’s a lot of info!
  • Disability claims. Claim everything. Sore knees? Claim it. Injured your wrist in training? Claim it. Do not be shy, timid, or think the claim “isn’t that bad.” If you have had an issue with your health (physical or mental) caused by your service, or the underlying condition could become worse as time goes along, claim the disability. Your VA representative can help you fill out the paperwork.
  • Service Officer. The Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) offers assistance when filing VA claims. The claims process can be confusing and one that service members and veterans shouldn’t try to navigate alone.  VFW Service Officers are trained experts, helping veterans develop their case with ease by reviewing and applying current law, pertinent legislation, regulations and medical histories. As skilled professionals, they assist in filing for disability compensation, rehabilitation and education programs, pension and death benefits, and employment and training programs. And they won’t hesitate to request hearings before the VA and the Board of Veterans Appeals to present oral arguments when needed. This is a service the VFW is proud to offer–free of charge–to anyone seeking assistance with the claims process.
  • Do not waitGet your medical documents together as soon as possible. When Clay retired, he retired from an assignment in South Korea. The wait time to obtain a copy of his records was about a month. If you wait until the last minute, there could be a delay, or worse, a denial of benefits. Get seen by medical professionals, get your concerns documented and request the records.
  • Be prepared. I wish I could tell you why the VA approves and denies claims. I’m as confused concerning the approvals and denials of benefits, too. Having said that, be prepared to appeal. Chances are, you may not have to appeal; however, be prepared to appeal. It’s always better to have it and not need it, than to need it and not have it. Keep copies of your medical records secure. The copies that will be provided to you will more than likely be digital copies. Continue to monitor, manage and track the VA claims process through E-Benefits. Don’t hesitate to contact a VFW Service Officer to assist you in the claims process. Continue to ask questions as they arise and research on your own.
  • Be patient. The process could take up to 6 months before you receive your disability rating. There is absolutely nothing you can do to speed along the process. Every VA area is different in regards to timing. We decided to retire in Tennessee. The wait time for Clay’s disability rating was a lot quicker than most of our friends who retired in other states, yet slower in a few other states. The point I’m trying to make is to be patient. Monitor the process through E-Benefits. You can call the VA everyday, but it makes no difference. When the VA gets to you, they will get to you. Remember there are hundreds of other service members who are going through the same process as you. Be patient.
  • VA Appointments. When your service member is retiring, they will receive a call from the VA to schedule their VA appointment prior to their official retirement date. Ensure the service member’s information is up-to-date with the VA through the E-Benefits website. Whatever phone number you designate as your point of contact, try to keep it until your appointments are complete. The last thing you want is a missed call or missed appointment. These appointments will take place at the nearest VA medical facility. You will also receive a small travel reimbursement for the mileage it takes to drive there. Be prepared for the appointment to last at least 2 hours. Your service member will be asked a plethora of questions and will be checked physically from head to toe. If your service member is claiming a mental disability claim, they will also be seen by a psychologist or licensed therapist. If a service member is not retiring, the process is the same, but the appointments may or may not occur prior to your official retirement date.

I hope this list assists your family during the transition process. Reach out to other veterans to learn from their experiences and visit your local VFW. The guys and gals in the VFW are loaded with helpful information.

Do you have any helpful tips for other transitioning military families? Share them with us!

laura-prater-headshotPosted by Laura Prater, National Military Family Association Volunteer and blogger at Raising Soldiers 4 Christ

Why Military Spouses Should Consider a STEM Profession

STEM = science, technology, engineering and mathematics

I am a chemical engineer and my heart belongs to my husband, who is serving our country as an active duty Airman. Yes, I just included both of those huge, seemingly conflicting, pieces of my life in a single sentence; being a career-minded STEM professional and a military spouse, simultaneously, is possible and can be absolutely amazing and fulfilling!

What Makes STEM So Great?

If you are looking for a career with the perfect Trifecta—in demand, financially sound and portable—a STEM career may fit the bill!

Most people don’t go into STEM solely for the money. Although the money is far from shabby…

According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, the May 2013 annual average wage for all the STEM occupations was $79,640, roughly 1.7 times the national annual average wage for all occupations ($46,440).


The decision to go STEM usually starts when we act on that little fire inside: a burning desire to solve problems; a craving for knowledge; an interest in finding a better way; a yearning to make our world a better place. STEM is a calling. If you have even a little spark inside of you for STEM, I encourage you to consider the following:

Jobs are out there! According to 2014 reports from the United States Chamber of Commerce Foundation and the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2013, STEM jobs accounted for 5-10% of all jobs across our nation. The top three states with the highest distribution of STEM jobs were Maryland 7.7%, Virginia 7.5%, Washington 7.4%.

There will be even more out there soon! STEM jobs are projected to grow by one million between 2012 and 2022. Baby boomers are retiring in droves and a talent gap is growing. Just in Washington state alone, 50,000 jobs will go unfilled by 2017 because there aren’t enough skilled workers.

The STEM field is growing! You can get started on your STEM education right now! Scholarships are available for military spouses. Overall, STEM occupations are projected to grow faster than the average for all occupations yet, of the recent NMFA scholarship applicants, only 5.8% were seeking STEM degrees. Military spouses are missing out on these fulfilling and rewarding careers!

What About the Downsides?

Let’s be real—there are challenges and there are many opportunities to improve the career horizon for military spouses in STEM. Here are a couple to consider:

Portability is questionable. There are many opportunities where remote work arrangements are possible. I know a few spouses who successfully negotiated this arrangement with their employer upon a move. Not every employer is willing, and not every job is capable of being remote. If seeking new employment after a move, many STEM industries vary by region as well so the likelihood of finding a similar job in a new area is hit or miss. The sunny side of this is that big-name STEM employers are starting to recognize military spouses as a high-value talent pool and are starting to develop solutions to attract, retain, and support the development and transition of military spouses in STEM professions.

Education is challenging. If you are worried that the education piece may be too difficult or too demanding, a little bit of love and geeky excitement is enough to give you the endurance and the resiliency needed for the rigors of a STEM education.

Work of love. I must caution you though, STEM can be rather addicting. When you discover the awesomeness of it, you may feel the calling to apply your passion and skills to every opportunity and you may feel a strong sense of loss and frustration if you run into challenges pursuing your career goals.

A Special Consideration for Military Spouses

Upwards of 95% of military spouses are female, and females are significantly underrepresented in STEM. This is important because our world needs better diversity representation in STEM professions because diversity leads to diverse thinking which leads to innovation. Regardless of your gender, your experience as a military spouse, and the breadth of your professional experiences, is extremely valuable in STEM. Beyond technical skills, the top-rated skills are thinking and communication—we are talking about some of the super strengths of military spouses right there!

What’s Next?

You decide! This is your career. Do the pros outweigh the cons? If you decide a STEM career is right for you…

We invite you to join the Society of Military Spouses in STEM (SMSS), where you will connect with an extremely passionate and supportive group of people determined to overcome the challenges of maintaining a career with the military lifestyle and to support fellow active and retired military spouses in STEM fields reach their full potential.

Society of Military Spouses in STEM (SMSS) is a member-driven 501(c)(3) organization. For more information, visit

Are you a military spouse in the STEM field? What do you love about it?

Posted by Michelle Aikman, military spouse and NMFA Scholarship Recipient

The Magic of Operation Purple Camp

I’m not what you’d call an “outdoorsy person.” Hailing from the armpit of the country (Florida), I’ll do some water sports, but mostly live and die by good AC. So it’s a wonder I didn’t think spending a week camping in Tennessee might be my undoing until I was on the plane.

Prior to my flight, the idea of spending time with military kids and seeing our Association’s vision in action outweighed any doubts. Cue Camp Widjiwagan, which is just outside of Nashville. The site for this Operation Purple® Camp reminded me of the residential summer camp from The Parent Trap.


We spent a ton of time in humidity that might rival the Sunshine State’s but camp was everything a child could want (it even had AC). From The Blob in Heavy Weights, to zip lining, and a pretty fabulous water slide situation. Camp itself was phenomenal, but what was most interesting to me was how much these kids are able to completely let go.

About 100 Operation Purple campers came from all walks of military life— kids of veterans and active duty. The kids were instantly connected through those affiliations, but spent their week at camp being just kids. There were awkward teen moments, crushes and even a breakup or two.

I spent most of my time with the Operation Purple group of 11 to 16 year old girls. I think one of their counselors, Ronni, put it best when she told me that even though the girls followed orders better than any of her other campers this summer, she knew what they really wanted from this experience was to feel normal. Away from thoughts of deployments, PCS’s and screens, they thrived, relishing one last taste of everything summer should be.


I didn’t get to be as unplugged as I wanted, but this city girl might have gone through a transformation of her own. I did check work emails and dragged my camera all through the woods. But I also pet two adorable baby pigs, hung out with donkeys, goats and horses and saw wild turtles and deer while running paths in the woods.

These things are unremarkable for most people, but refreshing for me, and absolute magic for all of the military kids involved. And in the end, that is exactly what the camp experience we’re able to offer these kids…absolute magic.

Would your military child love a week at Operation Purple Camp? Check out the locations around the US!

margaritaPosted by Margarita Cambest, Staff Writer