Nearly a dozen years ago, my new husband and I traveled eight hundred miles for our first PCS assignment. We moved from Illinois to Maryland two weeks after we said our vows. Within two months of our arrival to the Ft. Meade area he was gone, and we spent about two hundred days of our first year of marriage apart.
As DoD civilians, we weren’t permitted to live on post. We didn’t have military ID cards granting us permission to take part in privileges like shopping at the Commissary or the PX. Business travel made it nearly impossible for us to attend various base events.
I can count on one hand the number of times I set foot on Ft. Meade and Ft. Belvoir in our ten years assigned to Maryland—including the send-off when our six-month-old daughter and I bid farewell to my husband as he deployed to Afghanistan.
It wasn’t until our overseas assignment to Wiesbaden, Germany that I fully understood the closeness of the military community.
FINDING COMMUNITY OVERSEAS
We arrived in Germany on Easter Sunday 2018. Jetlagged and shepherding our two kids, dog, and three carts of baggage, I can’t even explain how wonderful it was to be greeted by our smiling sponsors carrying two large Easter baskets for our girls—the bunny dropped them off with strict instructions.
We piled into two cars and made our way to post to check into the lodge and get a little rest before being taken out to dinner by another colleague of my husband. For the next week, we were shuttled and escorted along every step to get us into databases, housing offices, schools, and vehicle registration.
Our transition was easier because so many people were sharing this new experience at the same time. We were invited to dinners and met and built friendships with families on the hotel’s playground. I was approached to join the spouses’ club, participate in school functions, and just go out to explore and meet additional people.
Had I known it would be such a different and welcoming experience, I may have agreed to go overseas when my husband first mentioned it five years prior. Instead, I feared being abandoned in a foreign country with two small kids and left to fend for myself.
LOOKING BACK ON OUR FIRST PCS
I did not realize what was missing from our first PCS until we moved overseas. I’m pretty outgoing and extroverted. I had followed my career path to three different states before getting married. The lack of support we had during our first move didn’t even cross my mind until later on.
We arrived at the hotel in Maryland with no welcome or greeters. No one suggested taking us to get our new driver’s licenses or where the best shops and restaurants were located. I don’t remember any offers from another spouse to show me around or just have lunch. I didn’t know of any resources for me as a civilian spouse that weren’t tied to job searches, and the ones I found were basic links for online (non-personal) assistance.
About a month into our move, I found a job that provided the meaningful work and friendships I so desperately needed to feel at home, and honestly, to feel like myself. We slowly built our lives, but it was a far cry from the camaraderie my husband had always talked about when it came to the military community.
Nothing about our lives in Maryland fostered the idea that we were part of something greater. When we leave Germany, we’ll be back on American soil and therefore will lose all our base privileges. We’ll be civilians on our own again and will have to rebuild the network that makes our lives whole. But this time, I’ll be wiser.
HOW WE CAN ALL HELP
Famed poet, author, and actress Maya Angelou said it best when she said, “Now that I know better, I do better.”
I know what it’s like to be dropped into a new city, state, or country and have to start over. I know the overwhelming feeling of standing at the edge of the high-dive gathering the courage to just jump in. I know how it feels to start over with and without a support network.
With our next move, as there is always a next move, I plan to follow these steps so no one feels overlooked:
Be more aware when new families and spouses come into our community.
Extend invitations, send notes, or call on newly arrived families.
Put more effort into attending events for the military community.
Seek out programs and services that cater to new arrivals.
Volunteer with local groups and invite others to join.
There are more similarities than differences among our active duty, civilian, and contractor families. I hope we all keep in mind the challenges we all face with every PCS and remember we are always stronger together.
Melissa Bitter is a DoD Civilian spouse and mother of two daughters. She runs MB ProWriter, a freelance content writing business, and is a guest contributor for various small business sites. She’s spent her career in journalism, marketing, and community outreach within various industries. Additional time is dedicated to serving with her local spouses’ club, PTO, and church.