Note: This post is part of my Military Spouse Stories project, which will be released in book form. For now, I’m sharing these stories with you.
“We’ll be friends forever, won’t we, Pooh?” asked Piglet.
“Even longer.” Pooh answered.-A.A. Milne
My tiny baby boy lay in a crib festooned with a plastic oxygen tent. We’d spent the night at the hospital, finding simple comfort in observing his breathing, watching his little chest going up and down, up and down. Through my sleep-deprived, dazed thoughts, the beeping of the IVs and machines that monitored his breathing and heart rate kept a steady rhythm. This is good, I thought. Better than the alarms going off that sent the nearest staff member rushing into the room.
Gabriel was such a plump, happy infant, it seemed impossible that he could be this ill. The knowledge that he was getting the best care possible was a comfort, albeit a small one.
Our son was only five months old and suffering a serious case of pneumonia which, though we didn’t know at the time, would reveal ‘reactive airways’ that would require frequent breathing treatments and close monitoring of his condition for the next several years.
Hundreds of miles from our nearest family back in our home towns in New Mexico and Georgia, we were now stationed in Ohio for my husband’s latest Air Force assignment. So I now sat alone, keeping vigil over my sleeping baby. My husband had just left to run home to shower, pack me an overnight bag, and check on two-year-old son who was staying with a neighbor. As I tried to get comfortable on the unforgiving hospital chair, I watched the blinking monitors. Fear blanketed my thoughts and held my heart in a grip icier than the January winds blowing outside the hospital room. I felt helpless, like I should be doing something active to protect him—something, anything, to help my baby get well.
Into my fog of fear and exhaustion walked my friend Mabel. She lived down the street from the base hospital and had left her own small children with a neighbor so she could walk over and check on us. So Mabel found me, sitting beside Gabriel’s hospital crib.
“Ok, I’m here. How can I help?”
I looked at her stupidly. She sat down beside me, still in her woolen coat, and pressed a ziplocked peanut butter and jelly sandwich into my hands. I could still smell the cold on her from outside. How crazy to think there was life beyond this hospital room. Realizing how hungry I was underneath the fatigue, I began unwrapping the sandwich. A simple PB & J had never looked so good.
“I’m sorry. It’s all I had, and I figured you might be hungry.”
Still speechless, I took a bite and closed my eyes as I savored the homey offering. We’d been at the hospital nearly 24 hours, and Mabel was the first person who’d entered into our crisis with us. I tried to form words and tell her that she didn’t need to bring me anything, that just having someone there who cared about us was enough. Instead, I leaned my head against her shoulder. Slow sobs shuddered my body as the weight of the past hours fell off me for a brief moment.
“Oh honey, it’s gonna be ok, it’s gonna be ok….”
She put her arm around me and shushed me like a small child. I realized then how lucky I was to have a friend who was willing to sit with me in the hard moments that have no answers.
What a loaded word. Some of us have a best friend we’ve known since kindergarten, others struggle to even make or keep friends, while the lucky ones seem to make friends wherever they go.
You’ve probably seen the studies that say those with significant relationships suffer lower rates of depression and that, “to age well, you need friends.” (Psych Today) But sometimes, especially in this era of everything social media and long-distance connections, well, we’re not actually social in the truest sense of the word. Think about it— how often has your phone rang and you dropped it like it was on fire rather than answering it? (I’m guilty!)
We so often hear the message that we need to stand on our own two feet and rely on ourselves, that we come to internalize the idea that “I can get by just fine on my own.” And while we might be able to, why would we want to?
Military spouses know we don’t have the luxury to take time or ease into making friends, as we’re often in a location for only a few years. Yet sometimes it can still seem not worth it when it comes to friendships.
It’s hard to get to know someone, and even more difficult to know that even when you find a “kindred spirit” you’ll likely be saying goodbye soon. Plus, we’re independent. We have to be! But a good friend who will walk alongside you through this life is oh, so worth it.
Meet Lana Simmons
My friend Lana Simmons is self-assured, articulate, and intelligent, so you’d assume connections come easily to her. But it’s not always been that way.
I first met Lana through our shared service volunteering as military spouses when we were both stationed in Hawaii. She was the president of the base enlisted spouses’ club, ran the board, and coordinated numerous base-wide events and volunteer efforts. As I came to know her over the next couple of years, I learned more about her and how difficult the adjustment to being a military spouse had actually been for her.
Lana met her husband “Moe” (Maurice), who was serving in the Air Force, after connecting via an online dating site. At their first meeting, they enjoyed dinner together at an Italian restaurant. Their chat was comfortable enough that he broke out his Magic: The Gathering cards to show her. Later in the evening, he was game for her idea of checking out the next door bookstore, something she was worried he’d find boring. Their connection was immediate. (Hear more of their story in Milspouse Matters Episode 33- Military Love Stories: The Way We Met!)
She says of that first meeting,
“He was just who he was. And I thought, I really like this guy. And the reason I say that is because with all the other guys that I had dated, it seemed like men were always focused on impressing me or trying to be ‘the manly man’.”
After marriage, a baby, and an overseas move, Lana found herself derailed from her original plan of pursuing her master’s degree and the professional career that she figured would inevitably follow. Instead, she was a brand new mom to an infant with his own idea of what was important—namely, feeding and diaper changes—and a military spouse newly arrived in Germany. This was not what she’d envisioned her life would be as a first-time mother.
“I came from a large extended family, and people were there to help when you had a baby. Grandma or Auntie would watch your kid while you went to the store. Since we were overseas, we didn’t have that. But when I had my first child, I thought, I can do this. I don’t need help!”
She and Maurice were also finding connections difficult in the on-base housing where they lived.
“I was in my mid-twenties, and it seemed like the community we moved into always wanted to go out and party. That was not my jam. I just wanted to be quiet and alone with my baby. But I was really lonely, and I was adjusting to a new country. I couldn’t find women that had my same interests. But looking back, that was my own fault. I kept everyone at arm’s length. And I did that for four years. I’m a slow learner!”
After the military relocated them to an Air Force base in Hawaii, Lana was determined to approach things differently this time. She joined some spouses’ groups, began reaching out more, and made peace with the uncomfortable thought that rejection was a possibility.
“I kept trying to reach out. And finally, meeting a few people I felt comfortable with helped. But when I find my people, it’s hard for me to move on. And the military doesn’t really allow for that. You will move on.”
Still, in spite of the inevitable goodbyes, she found that making meaningful connections made military life so much easier. Lana says,
“I wish I could go back and tell my younger self, Get over yourself. You’re not going to like a lot of people. Deal with it! You’re not always the most pleasant person to be with, either. I wish I hadn’t wasted four years!
One thing I learned was that you have to give people grace. Also, that expectations have always gotten me into trouble. Whatever you think—how your children will be, what your marriage looks like—I think you should work towards something, but don’t be invested in how it turns out because you can’t control the outcome.”
From her small self-made bubble to becoming the elected president of a large spouses’ group, Lana had decided to try something different, and she found the relationships that followed to be worth the initial awkward discomfort.
Hear more experience and wisdom from Lana in one of the first episodes of Milspouse Matters! Episode 4: Finding Your Identity as a Military Spouse
Meet Stacy Taylor
Military Spouses Come Through!
Another military spouse who’s come to realize the importance of connections is Stacy Taylor, the mom to a “magnificent Marine” and two teenage girls. She’s an Air Force veteran herself, as well as a long time Army spouse. She spoke to me about what friendships have meant to her over her family’s years of military service. (Listen to Stacy’s interview in Milspouse Matters Episode 27: The Importance of Military Spouse Friendships.)
Stacy is a bubbly person who seems like a magnet for other people with her fun nature. Part of her draw may be the baked goods she regularly makes and shares! (She said that she offsets her love for cooking and baking with an almost equal passion for running.)
When Hurricane Florence swept through Camp Lejeune in 2018, the resulting flooded venue upended her Marine Corps son Jordan’s wedding plans. The disaster also pushed his training dates forward. After evacuating the base, he came to visit his family where they lived further south, then headed to Texas to spend time with his fiancée Jillia where she lived.
A couple of days later, Jordan called to let his mom know he’d be getting married the next day. Stacy’s reply was probably the same as any mom with such a surprise,
“No, you will not be getting married tomorrow.”
He let her know he wasn’t coming home without Jillia, and they wanted to marry before he left for training, which left them no time to prepare for the big event they’d originally planned. Stacy came to understand the reasoning and support the couple’s decision, but they needed help to make it happen.
That’s where the spouses came in where the wedding would take place at Fort Hood, Texas. Stacy reached out to her military spouse network and sent some notes through Facebook. Within hours, a photographer, wedding cake, and decorations had been arranged for the impromptu wedding. Stacy shares,
“They said, ‘We’ve got you. Don’t worry about it.’ And I don’t Facebook from work, so I really didn’t worry about it until I got home after work. And there were so many messages. So I didn’t know what was going on. But my friend Theresa had put out an all-points bulletin asking for help!”
With the family unable to attend the wedding on such short notice, the network of military moms came in and surrounded Jordan and Jillia with love, care, and all the trimmings for a wedding, reception, and even honeymoon. (In fact, you may have seen the viral coverage of the event that was shared across social media!)
Now, as a new military spouse herself, daughter-in-law Jillia recently told Stacy, “The military life is a good life.” Her first steps into military spouse life were a happy and supported journey.
But Stacy had not always necessarily been open to such help. Though she and her husband, who she refers to lovingly as “Papi,” had always been quick to offer help to others, she found it much more difficult to be on the receiving end. Another factor was the often unfortunately complicated relationships between active duty females and military spouses. The unspoken tension can stem from misguided perceptions of each other, and Stacy admits she had a sometimes unfavorable opinion of military spouses.
After suffering a stroke at a young age and needing to leave military service after 14 years in, Stacy found now herself a military spouse, no longer part of a dual active duty couple. Thinking back on that time, she says,
“The transition from active duty to being a military spouse was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I mean, I’d had a title, and that was my identity. So I had to learn how to be that wife, be that Mom, and now, wear a suit to work, not my Air Force uniform. And the whole communication is different in the civilian world, and that was quite an adjustment. But I’ve made some of my best girlfriends as a spouse.”
When I asked her if she had any preconceptions about military spouses/military wives, from her years as a service member, she is honest:
“I’m so ashamed of myself right now because I did. I honestly thought, you know, Military spouses. They’ve got the life. They sit home all day. This was before I became one. How hard could that be? And I realized, Oh, my gosh, This is tough because my husband’s gone. Especially during hurricane season where we live now. I always have to do it by myself because of his job. And I have teenagers, and that was hard for me. So any misconception about a military spouse that anyone on active duty has? No.. there’s just a lot of work to be done. You know, I have a full time job just here at my house. So, yes, I did have a misconception. And I’m totally embarrassed by that.”
But in recognizing her own mindset, she is hopeful that she can help open others’ eyes and also offer some advice to other military spouses who feel alone. She says,
“Military life for spouses is a lonely life. It really is if you don’t have a true tribe. And in Texas, when we moved back, I didn’t have a tribe at first, and I was at my loneliest point. So I decided to just go out and start meeting people and not be a hermit. And I was still trying to adjust from leaving the military. I didn’t know how to communicate with people unless we were ‘talking shop.’ So I had to learn.”
She started with her base chapel and became involved with the PWOC group (Protestant Women of the Chapel) and fell in love with the spouses there.
“I think if I could go back and tell myself anything, anything at all, when I first got out of the military and became the spouse, I think it would be, You know what? Just have a good time along the way. Make friends. Know no stranger. And be yourself. And I would go back and tell myself to bring your walls down some and let some people in.”
That’s good advice. She ends our time with more,
“You know, I always tell my kids to practice a little kindness. And as adults, sometimes we need to be reminded to practice a little kindness. And don’t go looking for dirt on people. Find the good in people, because everybody has some good in them.”
Connections and friendships are so important for military spouses.
Whether it’s an “in real life” friend, like one who will sit with you at the hospital, an acquaintance who becomes a friend as you volunteer and serve the community together, or a social network that comes together to throw your son the wedding of the year…we all need friends. I hope you’re encouraged to look around you today and try to find a new way to connect.
As one African proverb says, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”