by Katie Caruso, Guest Contributor
When my husband was assigned an exchange position with the Royal Canadian Air Force, I was thrilled. My imagination exploded with the possibilities of attending fancy balls at the Embassy with the President, becoming a graceful figure skater and having beautiful conversations in French.
So maybe those things didn’t happen.
Instead, we moved to a small town with no American base.
All of the infrastructure like commissaries, spouse liaisons, relocation assistance and MWR activities were slim or nonexistent. I quickly started to realize I took all of those support structures for granted in the U.S. Air Force and I missed my military community. I talked to other spouses in the States and felt like I was missing out.
Here were my 3 main challenges moving away from the U.S. Air Force and the positives I gained through each one.
Making the Most of Your Experience When You Are Stationed Outside Your Military Community
Missing Military Fellowship
I didn’t realize my attachment to the fellowship of other military spouses and families. I often longed for the instant connections. At our previous base in California, I was involved in squadron and base level events on an almost daily basis.
The military was my lifestyle. I shopped on base, went to the library and post office on base. I even got my Starbucks on base. My main circles of friends were military members and their spouses.
In my first year in Canada, I remember feeling odd at times; a sense of boredom and emptiness that I finally realized was loneliness.
I had never felt lonely in my life until then. There’s a sense of security and reassurance that comes in military affiliation, which is unmatched in the civilian world. But I realized this closeness came at a price. I was mainly united to my military friends out of necessity. The endless TDY and deployments forced me to rely on my military family for support.
In Canada where my husband’s schedule was much less demanding by comparison, the need for that close bond was less. The military was not our lifestyle; it was just his job. I eventually learned to appreciate the freedom that came with not over-extending my schedule and all of the extra time with my husband home more.
Making Civilian Friends
Without the comfort of an American base, we were forced to make civilian friends. Many people had little experience with the military, much less the American military. I felt like I was rushing a sorority all over again. I relearned how to connect with someone about aspects of my life that had nothing to do with the military.
After I got over the initial hump, I felt refreshed. I enjoyed conversations that didn’t involve acronyms. My new friends weren’t jaded about the military lifestyle and were intrigued by my experiences. They appreciated me for my strengths and individuality, separate from my husband’s achievements.
I consider the friendships made with my Canadian friends to be unique and lifelong, something I thought could only be true in the military.
Becoming a Local
Maybe it’s obvious that living in another country allows for travel and exploration. That’s why people always say they join the military right? I loved seeing the sights and crossing locations off my bucket list. But I think there’s more than just hitting the highlights of the big cities and top attractions.
We went to family farms, volunteered at charity events and met with the mayors and local political leadership. I loved taking tours and meeting small business owners. I discovered hidden gems in each place we visited.
At my previous U.S. bases, I did not have to be a local. I always felt accepted in the community, but I wore the military spouse scarlet letter.
In Canada, I felt like I was part of my neighborhood and the town. I became invested in local interests and became an ambassador of sorts on all things American. I could choose to blend in (as much as my Southern accent would allow) or I could proudly be an American military spouse. There was a choice and that gave me a sense of independence.
Now that we’ve returned back to the states, I am grateful for the access to programs the U.S. Air Force provides to my family. I am more confident in my ability to not only make new friends, but also how to bridge the gap between the military and civilian worlds. I have a new perspective on living the military lifestyle and I know it doesn’t have to be woven into every tiny detail of my life.
While we experienced one of a kind Canadian things like eating beaver tails (don’t worry it’s like a doughnut) and ice skating on our neighborhood streets, I think any opportunity abroad can give you a wider outlook on military service and lifestyle.
Would I go abroad again? Absolutely! Just let me stock up at the commissary first!
Have you lived overseas? What challenges did you overcome through this experience? What were the positive lessons you learned?
Katie is an educator and political junkie, with a BA in Political Science and MA in Teaching. She is a military spouse of 9 years to an Air Force pilot and mother to a curious and adventurous little boy. When not teaching or juggling military spouse commitments, Katie loves reading, traveling and watching college football. You can follow Katie on Twitter at @katiecaruso.