Note: This post is part of my Milspouse Stories project, which will be released in book form. For now, I’m sharing some of these stories with you.
Alice Coffman has brought me a gift. When I later fill the mug she’s given me with hot water and watch the brown surface melt into bright blue flowers and multicolored leaves, the color-changing mug reminds me of the preceding days I’d spent at the Bob Hope Village: vibrant, full of life and surprises.
While you might expect a retirement home to be subdued or sad, that’s not the case here. Life abounds. These Bob Hope Village residents and friends gently—and sometimes not so gently—give each other a hard time about each others’ habits and quirks. There are lots of inside jokes, laughter, and yes, there are tears.
The Bob Hope Village, part of the Air Force Enlisted Village, is nestled in the quiet outskirts of Shalimar, Florida. It’s a retirement community and assisted living facility that was opened in 1985 for widows of retired Air Force enlisted personnel. It has since gone on to accept some couples, widows from other service branches, and officer spouses on a space-available basis.
At first glance, the Bob Hope Village seems much like any other retirement home or perhaps even a small military base with its chapel, community center, cafeteria, and cute apartments. But there’s a difference.
Many of the residents were married to those who served (and some of them are also veterans) during the Vietnam War, Korean War, and beyond. Back when they were young military spouses, they were scattered around the world, living like nomads with their families at a time when there was not much in the way of military family support. They lived out the whole mindset of, “If the military wanted you to have a wife, they’d have issued you one.”
One widow speaks of her family camping out in their station wagon during a cross-country move in the 1960s, remembering how they’d take turns sleeping on the ground with little ones resting on a crib mattress in the back of the car… as if it was an adventure and not an inconvenience!
These women went through the wrenching separations with their husbands again and again as they were shipped off to war…not knowing when or even if they’d hear from them again.
Their stories are endless and fascinating.
And when they talk of their husbands who’ve now passed on? Along with a faraway look comes a glow of love remembered across their faces. You can’t fake that. These couples were in it for the long haul. It’s worth sitting with them for a few moments and taking in their lessons about falling in love, creating marriages that spanned decades, raising children without the conveniences we take for granted, reinventing themselves repeatedly, and finding a strength and resilience they didn’t realize they had until the hardships of life called it forth.
In 2017, my then active duty husband and I were privileged to spend several days at the Bob Hope Village, learning more about the residents and this vibrant community, which provides both independent and assisted living. The residents are active: walking laps around the lush grounds, swimming and taking water aerobics classes, attending chapel services, eating at the café, and driving over to nearby Eglin Air Force Base to visit the commissary and Exchange. This is not a community of shrinking violets, refusing to join in life. They were military spouses, after all!
And they’re funny—ready with a quick joke and smile. Life is not to be taken too seriously. Donna Forget, who’s in her 70s, has me rolling as she quips about her latest medical appointment:
“When you go to the doctor and they say ‘do you feel safe in your relationship?’ and I think what relationship?? It’s like the line that says, Is there a chance you could be pregnant? And I check Yes, it’s possible, every time! For sex: yes, Hair: beautiful.”
They also take time to reminisce.
“He was my one and only,” Alice Coffman says softly as she shows me a photo of her lifelong love, Stan. The smiling, beautiful, young Alice and Stan look like movie stars in the photos she shares with me.
Rosetta Morrow, widowed 17 years when we spoke, shows me a framed photo of her family from the 1950s and talk about how she and her husband Al met on a blind date. My husband comments, “He was a lucky guy!” to which she responds quietly,
“No…I was the lucky one.”
After falling in love, she rarely called Al by name, but simply referred to him as Honey.
Ampy Waterman was married for over 50 years. We spent an afternoon together during which she shared mounds of newspaper clippings, photo books, and papers spanning the years of their marriage. She described some of the horrors she lived through as a child in the Philippines during World War II, including fleeing Manila on foot with her family as the Japanese army approached. Yet she became quiet when discussing her beloved husband Bud’s final illness and death, saying,
“I can’t talk about this. It’s too sad.”
During their courtship, Bud left a love letter on her desk every day for two years before she agreed to marry him.
Delores, a spry woman with a musical accent, talks about her early life in Hawaii and her later move to the mainland and marriage to her husband James. After he retired from a long military career, they traveled and continued seeking out new adventures, including trips to Europe. We both get teary when she recounts James’ last words to her before he died,
“Think of me in all your travels.”
Foley and Mary Wood, true loves since kindergarten, are dressed in similar shades of khaki and peach the day we met, cute as buttons. They have a habit of matching their clothes on a daily basis so that, as Foley tells me in his charming Southern drawl, “If I get lost, she can find me!”
Much more than simply history, theirs are the stories of love, loss, pain, and unimaginable circumstances…the stories of real people, people with so much to teach us if we only have ears to hear.
And yet, as I spent time gathering—and later going through—some of the stories from my time there, I couldn’t help but thinking how much they have in common with many of the modern day military spouses I know. How what they went through back then mirrors what military families experience today.
At first glance, it can seem that our lives are similar in only a surface way, not much beyond the brand of military. They wrote letters by hand when separated and waited long weeks for word back; we Facetime or Skype, text, email, or make a quick call to keep connections alive when our loved one is away due to military life.
They took a family photo together when the service member happened to be home for the holidays or the family was able to take a rare vacation together, sent off the negatives to be developed, and hoped for the best as to how the images would turn out. We modern day military families snap a photo on our smart phone and edit it, likely retaking it until we get just the right frame-worthy image or vibe that will fit our social media feed.
When the military handed down orders to a new location, families ‘back in the day’ wouldn’t actually know what the place was like until they arrived. Would their furniture fit in the new home? What were the schools like?
There were no base housing floor plans to view ahead of time so a spouse could envision where the couch would fit or a school liaison officer available to make the transition easier for military kids back then.
Maybe, if they were lucky, the family might know a friend or friend of a friend who’d been stationed there and could fill them in with a few details. Military families today pull up information about a military installation right on their phones and research a new assignment down to possible neighborhoods to live in (and housing floor plans!), without a thought and without leaving our chairs.
But so many of our experiences are still the same.
Just like they did, we move our families across the world and worry about how our children will cope, fret that this life will leave them scarred and resentful later on. We hope our kids’ new teacher will understand the stresses they face, wonder if high school credits will transfer, or if our child will find a new friend or sit alone during lunch.
Like they once did, we too spend sleepless nights while our loved one is deployed, staring at the dark ceiling through the lonely hours that aren’t made less lonely no matter how much easier it is to communicate. Because we are still missing our person.
We start over again and again and look for a friendly face, a potential friend. Social media hasn’t actually made connecting in real life any easier.
But, just like the spouses that went before us, through all the worries and changes, we become stronger.
We find a resolve we didn’t know was there, learn coping mechanisms and skills, and one day, we too can look back at our strength and courage…marveling that we survived it all and crafted an amazing life. We’re so much more alike than we realize.
And, as I discovered during my time with the older widows’ roundtable discussion, they’re glad that modern military families are afforded more conveniences and information. They’ve been through the hard times, and like any survivor, they only wish for it to be easier for others going through the same situation.
As I’ve interviewed numerous military spouses for my podcast, Milspouse Matters, over the past few years, I grew to understand how much the stories resonated across these generations of military spouses. The idea of putting their stories together in a book format began to make sense. I’m sharing some of these incredible stories here on my blog as I continue working on this project! Please know that, wherever there is a failed attempt at making a point clear, that is solely on me. I’m so thankful that these spouses and couples were vulnerable and opened up their hearts to share the lessons they’ve learned.
My hope is that, through these stories of military spouses both old and new, we can see the common ground and learn from each other. But mostly, I hope their stories inspire you and help you believe in your own courage, strength, and resilience.
Never forget that you’re amazing.
More stories are coming! Click here to see them all, and thank you for your patience as it all unfolds!