Our Wilmington area community is not just home to some of the most beautiful beaches on the east coast, it is also the home to many active duty military families. Some of these families love the area so much that they decide to make it their permanent home upon retirement.
When men and women choose to serve their country, this decision involves commitment, sacrifice, service, and resiliency. While only the active duty member may wear the uniform, it is the entire family that serves. Spouses and children are frequently left stateside to maintain the home while the active duty member leaves for weeks or months at a time in order to protect and serve. Spouses are left to take on the role of both parents, and often times this is juggled alongside of their own education or work commitments. Children also sacrifice time with their absent parent, and this may mean holidays, birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, vacations and other special events are missed due to trainings or deployments. The emotional toll that these long absences can have on families is significant. Over the past 19 years, many military families have experienced multiple long separations. Any military family will acknowledge that memories are cherished, and time together is something that should never be taken for granted.
In addition to these long absences, military families also must be resilient and resourceful. Many families are required to move every 2-3 years (sometimes even more frequently) due to transfer orders. Moving frequently is exhausting. If the military packs and moves their belongings for them, there is the risk of beloved possessions being damaged or lost. If the family chooses to pack and move themselves, the task can feel daunting. When moving so frequently, no place may feel like it’s really home. Buying furniture for one home, only to have it damaged in the moving process or not fit into the next house, can drive one mad! Many working military spouses have to sacrifice their own careers because they cant get licensed in their field when moving from one state to another. Employers may be hesitant to hire a military spouse because of the likelihood of another move at some point in the future. Spouses may have to postpone their higher education pursuits because a move requires them to transfer to another educational institution and possibly lose worked for credit hours. In addition to the logistical nightmare this can turn into, the financial expenses can mount quickly as spouses are required to pay for lost educational credits or additional certifications/licensures. If a move is shorter in duration or involves transitioning to a state where the spouse is unable to secure an income, this can put a significant financial strain on the family. In addition, many spouses are left feeling as though their own ambitions, purpose, and identity are put on hold for the betterment of the military.
Children raised in military families have tenacity and grit. They are required to leave everything they have come to know as comfortable and secure and start over time after time. I can recall when my youngest daughter came home from school shocked to find out that one of her friends has lived in the same home for her entire life. She commented about how she couldn’t even remember all the houses she has lived in (for the record, she is 10, and her total addresses have been 7). Military kids have to learn how to make new friends, and then ultimately say good-bye. Many struggle with feeling a sense of belonging, and they may have difficulty allowing themselves to get close to others because they know that another move is on the horizon. Hearing our children cry because they are leaving a place and people they have grown to love, only to have to move to a new place and do it all over again, can be heartbreaking for both the children and the parents. Often times, our kids miss out on typical experiences because of this military life. They may miss try-outs for the sport or activity they have committed to and practiced for most of their lives. My own daughter had to give up activities and coaches she loved to move and start from scratch. This can be devastating for kids who feel that much of their identity hinges on these things. As educational requirements for graduation and college admissions become more competitive, military kids may be forced to accept a decreased GPA or class ranking because of state and district differences. They may have to repeat courses in order to get credit at their new school. Some of our high school students spend their 4 years of high school in 2, 3, or 4 schools. Things like class rings, letterman jackets, proms, playing varsity, getting college recommendation letters, applying to colleges and much more can feel like overwhelming challenges. Many of our college aged kids come ‘home’ from college only to be in a different state altogether. Home never quite feels like home.
With all of these challenges, it is not surprising that the military divorce rate is as high as it is. The financial strains, long separations, frequent moves, loss of supports, and pressures of having to create a new identity every few years can take their toll. When you add the stress of combat deployments, injuries, PTSD, and TBI, the strain can feel like the family is being pulled apart at the seams.
Despite the focus of this blog thus far, there are also many benefits to being a military family. We don’t take time together for granted. Holidays and special occasions where we are all together are cherished, and home isn’t the house your family lives in, rather it is where your family is together. We develop resilience and flexibility. As a military spouse, I can pack up a house and downsize our belongings in no time. I can gather medical records, academic records, and veterinary records with my eyes closed. Researching new communities, houses, schools, doctors and more has become a pastime. I have learned to develop my own interests and hobbies, and this has proven to be useful during those challenging moves where you cant work in the field you were educated and trained in due to licensure restrictions. It can be fun to reinvent yourself. I love being a therapist, but I also love being a personal trainer and professional organizer. This lifestyle forces you to learn how to be creative in how you make friends, earn an income, and manage your home.
My daughters have both shown me what resiliency really is. Watching them leave friends, coaches, teachers, teammates, and neighbors only to have to rebuild it all again gives me confidence in their ability to not just survive, but thrive and overcome. When I left my oldest daughter at college, I was sad, but I knew she would be ok. She had already moved and started over before, and she could do it again. And during this last move, I watched with pride as my youngest daughter knocked on our new neighbors doors so that she could introduce herself (with me at a non-embarrassing distance, of course!). Being able to see new places, live in different communities, and make new friends is pretty cool if you go into it with an open mind. Military families have to learn how to see the silver lining in less than desirable circumstances. We learn that not much in life is permanent. The good thing about this is that if we end up in a place we don’t like, we know that in matter of time, we will be off on another adventure again.
The last thing I want to address in this blog is what our civilian friends and neighbors can do to help us. If a military family moves into your neighborhood, please introduce yourselves. Come knock on our door and say hello. If you have kids, bring them over too! Our kids are probably still wiping away tears from recent good-byes and starving to make new connections. We love recommendations for good doctors, restaurants, babysitters, Churches, and more. If a military spouse you know is flying solo while his or her active duty spouse is away…feel free to offer an invite for a glass of wine, movie night, or adult/kid playdate. During my last 4+ years as a military spouse, I have endured multiple medical complications. The support I got from gym friends, Church life groups, and neighbors was priceless. During some very scary times for my family, meals were made, my kids were picked up and taken where they needed to go, and they were loved on. I will never be able to fully express the gratitude I felt then, and still do today. While many of us get pretty good at looking like we have it altogether, trust me, that isn’t always the case. Some of us really struggle with asking for help, so feel free to jump in and offer from time to time. Most of us are not lucky enough to live near family, so you all become our family. You all become our emergency contacts on our kids’ school paperwork. You all become our lifelines.
It is my hope that this blog gives a bit of insight into what it means to be part of a military family. While there are challenges to this life, it is one that also comes with many blessings and opportunities. As my own family completes this twilight tour, there are many mixed emotions. Much of this life we have known for all these years will be missed dearly. It’s been a wild ride, and it’s made my family who we are today.
The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement.