group of friends taking a selfieHello new military spouse, and welcome! 

We are at opposite ends of this military-spouse journey, you and I. You are just beginning as a new military spouse; maybe you just got your first ID card or you are headed to your first duty station. I am looking back at nearly 25 years as a soldier’s spouse and 5 years as a veteran spouse. I hope some of my experiences can help you.

You are likely going to meet a lot of spouses during your servicemember’s time, and I hope this little introduction will help you seek out some of them. Some of these spouses may become friends, and some may become examples to follow (or not). 

As much as active duty life shaped our marriage and ultimately became a part of who I was, the other spouses I met along the way were the ones who really solidified my experience.

They were the ones who I talked to the most, spent the most time with, and learned the most from. I learned so much about the military from them, but I also learned who I wanted to be, who I wanted to avoid becoming, and how to stay resilient in the face of challenges. Over time, you will likely meet all of these people and more! 

You may notice that almost all of the spouses I actually met were female. When my G was active duty, he was a tanker in the Army. There were no active duty women in his units until he took on different temporary positions. Your experience is likely to differ – my goal is to introduce you to some people and show you some strengths and vulnerabilities in the bigger military picture.

These 12 spouses are not listed in any particular order, except for the very first one. She was the first spouse I met, at the very first family event:

The Mother Hen, or One-Person Welcome Wagon:

At our first “family fun day,” I was so bewildered. We were newly married, and I had only been in the state for a matter of weeks. G was a very junior PFC (private first class), and neither of us had been adults long enough to know how to navigate being the grownups at a family event. It has been nearly 30 years, but I remember this Mother Hen. I remember her kindness. I remember her giving me phone numbers, advice, and an invitation to the family group meeting that was coming up. She explained family fun days, helped me feel more at ease when G was called off to do his shift with the setup, and was so totally nonjudgmental that she alleviated my nerves 100%. 

pins and medals in black and whiteThe Seasoned Spouse: 

This is a plumber, a phonebook, or a port in the storm. They have been through it all. Something needs fixing? This spouse knows exactly what to do because they have had it happen. Long training? Yep. Lost gear? Knows where to get it. Shoulder to cry on?  Definitely. 

This is the one who knows how bad deployments hurt and has a Kleenex for you, and she has her camera ready for homecomings. She will tell you about the types of meetings you really should attend, the types of training that will help you, and the resources you will need. This spouse knows the traditions and is the go-to before a formal event. What to wear, what to say, what to expect – this spouse knows it all, in a steadfast and ready way. She will teach you all about everything Murphy breaks and how to fix it. 

Sometimes, you meet this spouse long after the service is done, and they hold out their friendship like a gift. This is such a uniquely challenging and rewarding community, and we all have so much to offer.

The Morale and Recreation ACS/MWR Spouse:

In the Army, the program is called Army Community Service (ACS) and is part of Morale, Welfare, and Recreation (MWR) This spouse rents the popcorn machine for a birthday party, attends the installation Easter Egg hunt, and has taken every training (and taught some of them). She’s had a home-based business, she’s used the childcare, and she has volunteered. She knows all the programs available to families. It’s not just that she is tied into the installation recreation programs; she is their most steady user. If you have a question about recreation or family support programs, she is your go-to.  

The Active-Duty Spouse:

In G’s units, this was the most elusive of all the family members. They had their own field exercises, deployments, and unit information to focus on. From this spouse, you will see varying degrees of success when two people with demanding careers form a partnership. They may not be as active in traditional events, but they offer another perspective on military life. Your experience may differ but for us, the military always came first. There is a confidence and a connection between married servicemembers that I will always admire.

two female friends looking at a phoneThe Advocate Spouse:

The military has an Exceptional Family Member Program (EFMP) for each of the branches. This spouse may have special needs themselves, such as requiring accessible housing or special equipment through Tricare. They may have a child or other dependent family member who is in the program. 

In my case, I remember her because of her fierce advocacy for her daughter – and for the way she taught me how to quickly and perfectly season meat for the grill. This spouse has many layers to her or him, and it is important to remember that she or he is not the need or disability but the person behind it. Hopefully, you will learn how to advocate from this spouse. She has fought to get Tricare to approve treatments, schools to provide programs, and housing to get the accessibility her family member needs. “Welcome to Holland” may be framed in her living room, but there will also likely be unflinching honesty and clarity about her family’s situation.

Even if you never have a family member with exceptional needs, she will pop into your memories from time to time. Writing to your state representative about promises that were broken? There she is. Helping a family member through a scary medical test, or undergoing one yourself? She is there in the room with you, reminding you that she did this and you can do it too.  She will tell you that she wasn’t always this strong or this resolute in the face of challenge.  She will tell you that she grew a backbone and a fierceness she never knew she had, and she will remind you that ordinary people do extraordinary things in the face of need and love.

The Homeschool Spouse:

We sent both of our girls to public schools throughout their education, but these homeschool spouses were, somewhat ironically, the most helpful to me in terms of helping my girls thrive. They were very focused on individualized learning styles and had found many tips and tricks for help with studying, test-taking, and simply enjoying the act of learning. By definition, these parents forged their own path with their kids and helped me remember that learning is more than “keeping up.” I met both civilian-life and military-life homeschool parents and grew to admire them greatly.

The Battle Buddy: 

My battle buddy’s name is Rebecca, and at first she and I didn’t want to meet. Her husband and mine had been stationed together in Korea, and when G came home he said, “You should meet her. They’re here at our post.”  Later on, I learned that she’d had the same reaction (huge eye roll and semi-disgusted expression) because neither of us thought our husband’s would be reliable friend-makers. Then we met. And talked. And have kept talking for over a decade. 

She is funny and strong and opinionated and pragmatic. We have traveled together, with kids and without. We have spent hours shopping for odds and ends. We have shared the longest-ever deployment. We have shared the transition from active Army to retired civilian family, and we have watched our children fly from the nest. 

I have been blessed to know many strong Army spouses, but sometimes there is a link between us that goes much further than the original reason we met. And yes, our husbands still say they told us so.

The Group:

Sometimes, such as during a deployment or a big volunteer event, you will become part of a group of spouses. You will come together in a unique and sometimes magical way, and your life will be changed because of it. In my case, I have been blessed by several groups.  

One group is lovingly referred to as AWW, part of a group formed by BJ and Cindy, a retired Marine family. In the late 90s or early 00s, they started a forum for each of the military branches. Had a question? Chances were someone had an answer. Need a friend? Odds were good you would connect with them here. Facebook has groups and pages of all sorts now, and Discord and similar sites/apps help connect people as well. I have made some lifelong friendships thanks to this group.

There was another group that stands out for me, brought together by a common purpose. Our unit was deployed to a very active area in Iraq, and it got extended for a total deployment of 15 months. During this time, one spouse had a breakdown of sorts, and another spouse took in her children until CPS and the children’s father could sort things out. Jobs were lost, children needed extra support, marriages struggled to stay strong – our “Family Readiness Group” wasn’t “ready” for any of this, but we somehow came together. We had a junior lieutenant who was assigned to help us, and the more experienced spouses figured he would last a month. We were wrong – he kept us going and kept us strong the entire 15 months. We shared two Christmases, many holidays, and more birthdays than anyone wanted to count.

I hope that when the military life gets hard, you are blessed with such a group.

friends with arms around one anotherThe Civilian Spouse(s):

People who are not connected to the military will still be a part of your life. Sometimes this will be family or friends you made prior to becoming a military spouse. Sometimes this will be a parent or teacher at your child’s school, or someone you work with. Not to generalize too much, but there are two basic types to be aware of here. 

There is the civilian spouse who isn’t knowledgeable about the military but is still supportive and understanding. She helps you remember that there is a world outside of the military. She will prepare you for the costs of civilian healthcare (or help you appreciate Tricare). Her life may be very different from yours. In some ways, you will end up being an advocate for the military with this spouse. You will help her understand that there are costs to the military life and that service comes with a price tag that the whole family pays. This is a friend who wants to understand and who wants to support you.

Then there is the more frustrating clueless civilian spouse who doesn’t necessarily want to understand. They may make assumptions about your service member, you, and the military in general. Sometimes, the phrase “least said, soonest mended” applies to this spouse in particular. You can learn when to engage and when to walk away. You can learn how to approach difficult subjects. Sometimes you can reach this spouse and teach them, but not always. This is the spouse who will say how hard it is when they are alone for a night while their partner travels as you are dealing with a months-long deployment. I hope you can find a way to learn some grace from this spouse and pat yourself on the back for how well you stay resilient in your marriage and in this life.

The Working Spouse:

She may be a professional, such as a teacher or a nurse. She may also have a job at the PX or the commissary or run a business out of her home. She is busy, she is independent, and she may or may not be all that interested in the military life. She will remind the military that holding meetings in the middle of the afternoon on a Tuesday means that a great deal of spouses will be left out. She will remind you that there is a life outside of the military, and that you are a whole person separate and unique from your servicemember. 

“That” Spouse:

We all know one. We can all learn from them. They help you remember the person you do not want to be.  

I have met a few versions of this spouse. There was the one who berated her husband publicly and had him cringing during a holiday family event. There was the one who cheated on her spouse while he was deployed. There was the one whose children were temporarily placed with another spouse until her deployed Soldier could turn around and come back home to deal with child protective services. You will sometimes see “that spouse” on social media, sharing unit information until someone takes it down. Or perhaps they are causing problems for their servicemember, sometimes out of a lack of understanding of what military training is like. There are many varieties of “that spouse,” and you’ll meet more than one in your military life.

The Veteran Spouse:

Regardless of how your time with the military ends – due to an ETS/EAS, retirement, medical retirement, or some other combination of situations – you will have a lot of questions. There is a lot to unpack after military service, and I don’t mean the very last duffel bag of stuff!  Not only are there details like how Tricare works, but are you eligible? What does the VA actually do and why are so many veterans irritated while others are happy with their care?

Then there is the emotional aspect to leaving military service. I have been in this role for 5 years now, and there are still times I find myself surprised by one aspect or the other of this new role. You may be able to find help in a Facebook group, but you can also find help through the Veteran Spouse Network. This is a program through the University of Texas at Austin, but the move to virtual groups has helped their programs grow through the entire US. If you are in Texas, you can also get help with the transition process itself by utilizing their Transition Program. This can be a startlingly lonely time, especially for those have been really tied into the military family life – I hope when it is that time for you, you will reach out and feel less alone.

And Above all, Meet Yourself:

During your servicemember’s time in the military, I hope you get to know yourself most of all. You will add a little bit to yourself with every person you meet, PCS, deployment, and mandatory fun day – and with every challenge you overcome.

It can be easy to get lost in the shuffle of military life, especially with your servicemember’s obligation to their role. But you aren’t alone. And you are uniquely you.

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