As my hands nervously clean up the few dishes I had used for breakfast I go through a mental checklist. Animals are in their kennels – check. I have a pen and something for notes – check. I used the bathroom a million, zillion freakin’ times this morning – check. With google map directions faithfully replaying in my head, I was hopefully going to a training offered by ACS – Army Community Services – by the way, welcome to acronym hell. In my infinite wisdom I decided to call ACS and confirm that the training was still a go. Easy enough, right? The representative on the phone was friendly, but wait – there’s a problem. Training isn’t at the Soldier Support Center on Fort Bragg anymore. It was moved to the FRG Center on Pope AFB. What?!? oh – Air Force Base and Family Readiness Group Center. The room began to fade – you know that feeling – all you hear is your heart beat growing louder as the google map that was going to rescue you from loneliness dissolves from memory. The voice on the phone brings me back, giving me directions to the new location.
“Oh, it’s easy,” she said. “Just go straight through the gate and it will be on your left,” she explained.
GATE?!? As a brand new Fort Bragg resident that means ID CHECK which in the new resident realm equates to full body cavity check and OMG I promise I am a good citizen!
And then that funny feeling creeps up – not funny as in “ha, ha” but funny as in “this would be funny if it was a sitcom but only it’s not” type funny – and the tears burst out in an anguished flow. Good old-fashioned anxiety. I know anxiety. I know tears. These I embrace and then the tears come full force. That poor representative on the phone. Somehow I managed to tell her that I had only been on base for what? A week? And the only thing I had memorized so far was making my way from the temporary lodgings to the Soldier Support Center – NOT the FRG Center. And then I hung up.
I was devastated. Where were all these welcoming wives I had been told of? Where was my call asking me if I needed anything? I can’t remember any other time in my life when I have felt so alone. I’ve been alone before – because of my own choosing. That’s a different alone. I can get along with that alone. The alone I experienced when we landed at Fort Bragg was different. I thought I had chosen to join an extended family as an Army Wife. I read tales online. I looked at pictures of cute sayings, embracing friendships across miles of ocean. I was excited – I was going to be a part of this. I had been CHOSEN to be a part of this when my husband asked me to marry him. But I cried and cried and cried and cried. About a year later, during a chance conversation with another military wife, I found out she experienced the same thing – not knowing how to get anywhere on base and dissolving into tears of frustration and loneliness. I wasn’t alone in what I was feeling. I had laid so much blame on my own shoulders for my tears. I was supposed to be Army Strong for my husband. As I looked at all of the Army Wives seemingly functioning, I pulled inward on myself, swam in my tears, drowning in my loneliness. What was I missing? I had opened all my doors – I know Craig had shared my phone number; my email address. I know I had greeted all of the new faces with smiles. I know I had reached out to other wives on social media. Where had this great expanse come from? This was not what I had signed up for.
My first month at Fort Bragg was dark. I was teaching in Virginia prior to moving to Fort Bragg. I worked up until the day before Craig’s Change of Command ceremony. I had one day. One day to move to NC. One day to prep the COC reception. One day to acquaint myself with the base. I was hoping some Army Wives would magically swoop in and rescue me. Boy, was I ever naïve! Craig wrangled up some soldiers who helped set up our reception tables. While still in VA, I had bought all of the decorative supplies for the reception. I taped out an equivalent rectangle on my kitchen floor to match the tables that were available for the reception and arranged each one, taking pictures so that set up at the ceremony would be easier. I ordered the cupcakes and cake by phone; another soldier was awesome enough to pick them up for us before the reception. Craig and I had loaded up on supplies the day before the COC – drinks, pastries, muffins. We took everything to the reception site the morning of the ceremony. After setting up, we raced back to the room so we could finish getting ready. And then more blur – marching, saluting, flowers, hand shaking, smiling. And by the time we made it over to the food, all of the cupcakes and cake were gone. Go figure.
I’m sorry – can I read this contract again? There is a 3-day clause, right? A lemon policy?
So began Craig’s command. And my isolation. In my faltering attempts to belong, I tried organizing our FRG Steering Committee. Wrong. In my stress to transfer my certification as a special education teacher to North Carolina, I pounded the email system hoping to flush out good news. Wrong. In my frantic search for a job, I accepted a special education position with Fort Bragg schools only later to learn that no one else wanted it. Wrong. In my isolation and loneliness, I relied on my husband to be my sounding board while he was maneuvering through his first Battalion command. Wrong.
And so began our life at Fort Bragg.
An entire school year condensed – after no welcome from the unit, a huge fight with my husband, a rocky start with my new teaching position and a son that was battling a mental illness, I walked away from the unofficially official volunteer activities as the senior spouse of the unit. My mantra at that time?
“But this is not what they told me to expect at the command team spouse training in Ft. Leavenworth!”
My heart was broken. Where were my instant friends? Where was the spouse welcome? Where was the closeness that I saw among other wives? Where were the dinner invitations? The “come spend time with our family during the summer” invitations? The “you are new to town let’s show you around” invitations? The “do you need help finding anything around base” invitations? The “you are new to the Army, let’s take you around your husband’s unit and the Brigade to help you become familiar with it” invitations?
Even now, the pain is still fresh. It’s still here in my chest. Why is it that when you are upset – surely it stems from your brain, right? The nerves firing off emotional charges. Why is it that when you are upset, the heart literally aches?
My teaching position was the hardest one I’ve ever held. I held. Every day. I held my students in therapeutic holds when necessary. I held myself together. I held my home together. I kept holding myself together – barely – when matters of the unit popped up at home. I held my breath because I felt like I was losing myself. And my husband. That’s me. I always hold on.
So I started letting go. First my righteousness – I needed to make amends with my husband. He needed to make amends with me. Second my anger – I could not possibly participate with the unit productively if my actions stemmed from anger. There are mean girls within the Army. But that I will share later. Third my loneliness – the only person I can control is myself. My new mantra.
“The only person I can control is myself.”
The fourth – is hurt. That one I am still working on. It gets easier with time; it really does. Cue the violin music.
So I rededicated myself to the unit. I turned in my two week notice at work. I embraced my husband and myself. This is who I am and my way will always be forward. I marvel at what I can see now that the darkness is seeping away. To quote a current pop sensation, “Haters will always hate.” My start at this Army life was rocky. But unlike someone at the start of an adult life, having freshly graduated high school or college – I have experience. And the wisdom to share this experience. With fresh eyes, I am taking in all that I see and searching my purpose. I believe that all things happen for reasons that we sometimes learn and sometimes will never know. I am here for a reason; I am here to serve. Instead of fighting who I am, I will embrace it. And who am I?
A new Army Wife but not new. An older version of a young Army Spouse. I don’t fit the neat categories comprised of Army Wives. I have not “grown up” with other wives during my husband’s career. I do not have stories of living overseas to swap or of reuniting with families once stateside again. I have not lived in numerous bases with my collection of local area trinkets built over the years. So where do I fit in?
Apparently it’s not with the older spouses who have “grown up” together. No invites from that population even though I made tons of effort. And it’s not with the younger generation – who wants to hang out with the commander’s wife lol? So I stand in the valley with a few other spouses I can see on the horizon sharing the expanse with me. Occasionally I delight when wives from either mountain venture down to speak with me or spend time with me. I am not looking to climb either mountain. I am looking to build a bridge. My bridge will hold others and encourage cooperation, participation, and support. This is what I want to share. Thank you for taking this journey with me.
~This chapter of my life began December 19, 2011, on the day I married my husband, Craig C. Smith, an active duty soldier with 29 years of serving in the Army under his belt at that time. Three years later I jokingly and naïvely announced my official title of “Army Wife” on Facebook when I received a used copy of “The Army Wife Handbook” by Ann Crossley and Carol A. Keller only to be told by one of Craig’s longtime friends that apparently I married Craig for his social security check. I am so glad that was cleared up for me! I thought I had married Craig because I love him. Even though I can seem tough, I am an extremely kind-hearted and introverted person. Comments like the social security check really hurt even though it may seem otherwise. I have forever been told that I think outside-of-the-box and it’s helped me on many occasions, this being one. As a child, mother and wife I have been molded to be a caretaker. 3 ½ years of marriage and a rocky introduction into Army life, I have found my purpose; to take care of others. To use my creativity and empathy to share experiences, encourage others to share experiences; to knock down some walls or at the very least, to pick at the cracks. Thank you for taking this journey with me to find and share my voice. I hope to help others find theirs.
Join Jennifer Smith over the next six weeks as she shares her personal journey, “Learning as I Go”.