This Army Life
On a steamy, muggy morning in late July, Will and I stepped off the airplane stairway into the terminal at Frankfurt International Airport. Both of us were exhausted, not having slept a wink on the flight over from Cincinnati. We were sweating, and our clothes were sticking to our bodies. I was lugging around my handbag, which was stuffed to the brim, and my violin. I also felt queasy, a result of the suspicious-smelling coffee creamer on the plane, too many emotions swirling around in my head as the plane pulled away from the gate eight hours earlier, and nerves. Will and I were 23. This was our very first duty station, one where I was listed on his orders. It was Will's second tour of Germany, so he was slightly more experienced than I was, but it was his first job as a dog handler, not a line unit MP.
"Sergeant Tenney? Mrs. Tenney? We're going to grab your bags, please make sure you have everything, because we need to get back and start in-processing as soon as possible, and we don't want to have to turn around and head back to the airport." Two soldiers from Will's new unit in Hanau were there to meet us. Hasty introductions were made, our luggage was loaded into the military vehicle, and before I knew it, we were leaving the airport and headed to what would be our new home. Hanau, Germany, home of the Grimm Brothers. I gaped out the window, taking in the spectacular scenery, marveling over the ruins of a castle ("you'll get used to it," one of the soldiers remarked after he heard my exclamations). We were brought to the kennels right away, as it was too early to in-process and the Army hotels weren't accepting check-ins until noon. Will was immediately whisked off to begin filling out paperwork, and he was introduced to his new dog. I was left standing in the office, clutching my violin (I had no intention of leaving it in the hot car), not quite sure what to do. There was no air conditioning anywhere, and I felt sweaty and disgusting. I had the beginnings of a headache, as I was exhausted and in desperate need of either sleep or a strong cup of coffee. I was confused, and ashamed to admit, nervous. I had no idea what was going on. I had no idea what I should do. Should I go around and introduce myself? I didn't want to interrupt anyone while they were working, but I didn't want to come off as a snob who was too good to talk to anyone. Could I find a place to sit and try to catch a quick nap? Would that be tacky? I was getting hungry, but I didn't know where or when we could find food.
The hours dragged on. As soon as the offices opened at 9am, both Will and I were dragged from building to building, signing papers, given a laundry list of instructions that promptly flew out of my head, and we were told no less than six times that we would leave Germany in three years with four children. When the clock struck noon, I turned to one of the soldiers and asked if they needed me for the rest of the day. She gave me a bewildered look and said, "Why would we need YOU?" (She and I never did end up getting along, but that's a story for another day). Since that was the case, I asked if someone could bring me and my luggage to our hotel across the street, and have Will join me later when he was done in-processing for the day. I desperately needed a shower and I wanted to grab a few hours of sleep. I was told no, that it was very important to get my body used to European time. "Why?" I asked. "I don't have to be up at 6am for work tomorrow. If it takes a little longer for me to get my body used to the time change, I'm okay with that." I was still told no.
FIVE hours later, I was...not my best self. If I'm being completely honest, I was in royal bitch mode. We hadn't had anything to eat all day long, we were still sweaty and disgusting (we didn't even get a chance to brush our teeth), and I was so exhausted I was starting to sway back and forth on my feet. We were finally allowed to check in to our hotel, one of the soldiers loaned Will forty euros so we could order dinner from the pizza joint down the street, and for the first time since 7am, we were alone. Will hauled our luggage into the teeny tiny hotel room, and both of us just collapsed onto the bed and stared at the ceiling. I had no idea what to make of our first day (other than some very choice words running through my mind), and I was already feeling very apprehensive about the upcoming week. What, exactly, was I supposed to do while Will was at work all week long? Where would I buy groceries? How could I call my parents back in Wisconsin? What would our life overseas look like for the next three years? I was so overwhelmed, jet-lagged, and feeling very emotional. I brushed my teeth and took a long, cool shower (the hotel, like absolutely everything else in Germany, was un-air conditioned), while Will ordered pizza for us. Both of us ate a quiet dinner at the little table in our room, unsure of what to say or do. Both of us had literally screamed with excitement when he received orders to Germany four months back, but this day had proved to be far from the European adventure we were anticipating. Not only was it a lot to take in, living in a foreign country and not speaking the language, but what would Army life be like? I had a little bit of an idea, after spending time at his base in Fort Riley, KS, but this was an entirely different ballgame. I really had no idea what to expect.
And that was just my first day.
Years later, I found out that a new family arriving to their next duty assignment should be welcomed appropriately, given every accommodation, and be made to feel as comfortable as possible in their new home. They should receive a list of names and numbers of who to call if they needed help, area guides, guides to the new military base, directions to the commissary and PX, information about schools for parents of school-aged children, and introductions from other spouses. Everyone knows that permanent change of stations (PCS) are very stressful, but the goal is to make sure the new family's arrival is as pleasant as can be.
This...was not our experience.
I won't re-hash every reason as to why we were given the cold shoulder from everyone right off the bat, but I will say that we were made to feel like intruders in an already well-established group. None of the wives reached out to me. We were never invited to any informal get-togethers. I felt extremely isolated, as our car didn't arrive for another month, and I wasn't confident enough in my extremely elementary German to navigate the bus system. I mostly hung around our new Army quarters, which was a two-bedroom apartment in stairwell housing. We were a young couple with hardly any money, so we relied on government-issued furniture to fill our apartment.
*One of the few pictures I have from our first few months in Germany. Will took this picture of me just as I was waking up from a nap. If you look closely, you can see the sweet, sweet Army couch. ;)
Eventually, things got better. After our car arrived, we spent every weekend exploring a new town. Will's driver's license and registration was still valid from his tour of Germany 2 years earlier, so he drove us around the country every chance he got. I got my driver's license shortly afterward, and I became more confident going downtown, shopping in the open air market on Saturday mornings, and ordering in restaurants.
*Exploring Frankfurt on a weekend
Will and I knew that we wanted to make the most of our time in Europe, so we sat down one night after dinner and made a list of all the countries we wanted to visit. The next day, I began my job search. We decided we would get used to living off of Will's paycheck alone, and put whatever money I made towards our travel wish list. A month or two later, I finally landed a job as an Education Counselor at the Pioneer Education Center at the smaller base across the street from our housing area. It was perfect; I could walk there everyday, so Will could take the car to work. I genuinely liked my bosses and co-workers, and I found that I truly enjoyed working in the education field. Most of the soldiers who came to speak with me wanted to work towards a degree while they were still active duty, so that by the time they separated from the Army, they either had their Bachelor's degree or at least had enough credits so that they wouldn't have to start at the bottom.
Even so, quite a few years passed before I finally felt comfortable as an Army wife. For a long time, I never really felt like I fit in. And I can't lie; part of that was on me. After our first few uncomfortable months in Germany, I was very bitter towards most of the people in the kennels (soldiers and their wives) and I didn't exactly go out of my way to participate in the unit-sponsored events. However, I eventually came out of my shell, and I managed to find quite a few positives about life as a military spouse. The educational opportunities that are available for spouses (if you know where to look for them). All of the family-sponsored events that take place on the military base. The Family Readiness Group (FRG) that exists to help out the families of soldiers, during and after deployments. The wonderful Army wife friends I made, who after some time felt like family to me. The Catholic Women of the Chapel (CWOC) group I joined at Fort Carson. So much of military life is what you make of it, but it's not something you can do on your own, especially as a new wife.
My advice for the new military wife? Give it a chance. Everything. Your husband's job, and his unit. The other wives. Your neighbors, whether you live on or off post. The FRG. The coffee get-togethers with the other wives, even if they're held at an inconvenient time for you. The religious services and groups that are available. Both CWOC and PWOC (Protestant) offer free childcare during the weekly meetings. Check out the classes at the gym. Even if they aren't free, most are heavily discounted. Explore the area in your new town. Set aside a little bit of money each pay period to have a date night with your husband at a new restaurant. Join Facebook groups for your new military base. There are many ladies who form morning exercise groups, weekly prayer meetings, wine and painting nights, teenagers offering their services for childcare, lawn care, pet sitting...you name it. If you have a bad experience at first, don't write the whole base off. If you aren't hitting it off with a wife in the unit, don't badmouth her to everyone else. Aside from that being unkind, it does NOT do you any favors, or win you any brownie points with the other wives. No one likes a gossip.
My advice for the longtime military wife? When a new family joins the unit, welcome them. Let the wife know that you're there if she has any questions (especially if she's a brand new military spouse). Invite them over for dinner. Invite the wife over for coffee one morning, or wine one night. Avoid being that seasoned, bitter, "been there, done that" Army wife. You know, the one who puts down every.single.little.thing about military life. The one who has to make a snarky remark about absolutely everything? Don't be that woman. Remember that time when you were brand new to the Army life, and how you desperately needed someone to gently show you the ropes? It's perfectly fine to be there to listen if she needs to gripe about her husband's incredibly long hours, or to be a shoulder to cry on if she just found out he's deploying in a few months. Absolutely. But if you trash talk every possible angle of life as an Army wife, it's pretty much a guarantee that she'll quickly turn the other way if you see her walking down the street. I was fortunate in that I met some truly wonderful wives while I was working at the education center in Hanau. They had been a part of this whole military life thing for awhile, and they patiently answered every little question I could think of, they gave me practical advice, and my co-worker/friend Dana held me while I sobbed hysterically in the bathroom at work, the day Will left for his deployment to Iraq in 2006. Because of these wonderful women, I was able to roll with the punches when the Army decided to dropkick all of our plans into the nearest wastebasket. As an anally retentive organized woman, I gritted my teeth through the unbelievable disorganization of pretty much every unit Will has ever been in (don't try to fight it, trust me. It's a losing battle. All you'll end up with is a migraine the size of Texas and your hair falling out in clumps). I was able to throw together an amazing Baltic cruise in a matter of hours, after Will got last minute orders to deploy and we had to cancel our original vacation plans. I've been known to navigate my way around The PCS From Hell. I once organized a Thanksgiving dinner at our house; I invited Will's K-9 unit and their families, and made an entire dinner by myself for 25 people.
The Army has dominated our lives ever since the beginning of our marriage, and even though I didn't grow up as a military brat, I have to say that this life has really kind of grown on me. It's given me a lot of confidence, in both my ability to break out of my shell and make new friends, and get used to a new home/state every couple of years. Moving cross country with small children no longer fazes me. I can smile brightly at military balls while being introduced to colonels and even a general, then quietly fade into the background while Will schmoozes and gets his name out there. At times, I want to scream, stomp my foot and throw an epic temper tantrum at the unfairness of it all. WHY does my husband have to show up to work tomorrow? He just got home-late-after being in the stupid field for a month. Our kids have been driving me crazy because they miss their papa. Housing once again screwed up our request form, and we aren't at the top of the waitlist like they promised. And why have we still not been paid the $300 that the military owes us for family separation pay? They should have paid us 10 months ago. What do you mean, they lost the certified copy of our marriage certificate again? We only have one left, because these fools keep misplacing it!
I could go on for a long time. But for every bad experience we've had, I can think of 7 good ones. The friendships I've made over the years...they're unlike anything I've ever experienced. Because they aren't "just" friends; they're your partners. They're the ones who you cling to when your husband isn't physically there, and everything around you is falling apart. Will and I invited a lovely family to our home for Christmas dinner one year, because they had just arrived in Germany a few days before and had absolutely nothing with them. We didn't want them to have to spend Christmas alone eating fast food, and I was more than happy to open up our home to them. We had no way of knowing that less than two years later, that nice man who said grace at our table that night would be killed by a sniper in Afghanistan. I remember hugging his wife at the funeral, thinking, "...how could this have happened? This wasn't the way it was supposed to turn out." I never imagined that I would have been there for the birth of my dear friend Maureen's daughter, Claire, because her husband was deployed to Afghanistan and had to miss her birth. It was almost surreal; wiping Maureen's forehead with a cool cloth and letting her squeeze my shoulders as she fought through a long, painful contraction, while I held up her cell phone in the other hand with James on Skype. These are situations I never imagined myself to be in, but for better or worse, I was. What I do know, is that these women, these amazing, beautiful, strong-as-any-warrior Army wives have changed me. This life, this crazy, unpredictable, sometimes tragic, life has shaken me to my core. I'm not the woman I was when I first came to Germany, and I'm no longer the shy, quiet woman who is unsure of saying the wrong thing. This life has given me a confidence I never imagined I would possess, and for that, I will be forever grateful.