There are so many challenges for military families. Moves, separations, that low level of constant anxiety that randomly shoots sky-high — it all wears on you. Fortunately though, along the way we meet others riding the rollercoaster with us, and they became our shoulders to cry on, laugh on and hold onto for dear life. They are more than friends; they’re family.
This is my love letter to those military friends.
The one that learns with you. When you first dip a toe into military life, you find yourself wanting to talk to people at the same stage. Whether it’s the spouse of your service member’s co-worker or someone you connect with through an online group, the two of you are learning and making mistakes and figuring things out together. Having someone who I knew was in my shoes made it easier to try things for the first time. The first FRG meeting I went to, the first pre-deployment meeting I attended, and the first deployment drop-off at the buses all happened with her by my side.
The one that doesn’t dig it. At some point, no matter how “HOOAH!” you may be, you’ll be over the military. It might only be for an hour, or a day or a week, but it will happen. I hit my wall after back-to-back Special Forces and schoolhouse assignments meant four years of very long days and frequent TDYs. I needed someone I trusted to tell me it was ok to step away. I struggled with feeling that I wasn’t being supportive when I was so frustrated with the Army. I needed someone there to tell me to take time off from anything military-related.
The one with more experience. Sometimes, as we deal with all the challenges that are thrown at us, we get so bogged down in the details that any sense of perspective is lost. A friend with more experience is just the person to gently remind you that any number of spouses have gone before you and dealt with same challenges. They might remind you of the available resources, that you’re not alone, or it might be a little shake to remind you just how capable you are. I was unbelievably fortunate to meet this friend at a particularly low point: in the middle of a period of 18 months where my husband was more gone than home. With a spouse a couple ranks ahead of my husband and in the same branch, we had lived in many of the same places and experienced the same things. We were actually friends because of something completely non-military, but her advice and perspective proved to be a treasure.
The one that picks up the pieces. We all fall apart now and then. It’s not unique to the military community, but some of our struggles are so bewildering that civilian friends may not know where to start when we need help. I found myself with a newborn, a TDY husband and a monster stomach bug that had me camped out in my living room with the pack and play. Fortunately, I had that friend – the only one that realizes you haven’t posted on social media in 12 hours since mentioning you thought you were getting sick, and comes over to check on you. In my case, she held my munchkin while I took a (desperately needed!) shower, made me some food and picked up my living room. She did the kind of thing that my family would have done if we lived close enough. But we don’t, so she filled in that gap.
Looking back after 12 years of being an Army spouse, that day is the story I tell to explain to people what my experience as a military spouse has been like, because it so perfectly showcases what it means to be there for each other in this lifestyle.
The one that lets you teach. As the months and years go by, you learn. You begin to speak in acronym. You learn to navigate Tricare. You learn enough about ranks and uniforms to figure out ways to navigate social events. And, eventually, you meet someone who hasn’t learned those things and needs help figuring out the ropes. So you pass on your experience. This friend is just as valuable as the others – even if she is only in your life a short time. For me, learning how much knowledge and experience I had to pass on was a turning point where I also began to acknowledge how far I had come. The things that were such a challenge in the beginning are now just part of life. While I still have plenty to learn, I can teach, too. That’s a confidence that I never would have discovered if someone hadn’t been willing to learn.
Like with Thanksgiving, my Valentine’s Days as a military spouse have been unpredictable. I’ve spent as many with my friends as I have with my husband. We’ve gone out to eat, had potlucks, had a “wine tasting” that looked more like a tailgate and watched sappy movies we KNEW would make everyone pretend not to be crying. As much as I enjoy a day dedicated to loving the husband, Valentine’s Day is just as much about loving the friends who got me through the hardships when he was away.
Maybe this year, I’ll send them chocolates, too.