Life on the outside
Published: February 7, 2012
When we first moved back to the States from overseas, I thought my biggest adjustment would be rejoining American life and culture.
That turned out to be the easy part.
It’s wonderful to be on the same continent and near the same time zone as the rest of my family. Although I miss the charm of living abroad, I appreciate American appliances, directions in English, bigger parking spaces and more choices.
Recession concerns aside, life is pretty good here in the U.S. of A. However, seven months into our latest transition, I still feel out of my element.
Turning the corner into my suburban neighborhood the other day, I reached automatically for my ID card, then realized no one wanted to see it. My civilian neighborhood has better landscaping, and our house offers much more closet space than our military stairwell, but I felt a pang of homesickness for a life I no longer live.
In this move, the biggest adjustment for me was not the change from one nation to another. It was the cold shock of resurfacing in the civilian world after five years of near-immersion in military culture.
During our five years overseas, we lived in both military and civilian housing, but at both locations, most of our friends and neighbors were American military families. We visited local bakeries and stores regularly, but the majority of our household and grocery needs came from the commissary or exchange.
We lived a Mayberry life of sorts. The schools, the exchange, post office, USO, bank and library were close to home — and all connected to the U.S. military.
I could take a short walk from my stairwell neighborhood to mail packages, deposit checks, pick up school supplies for the kids at the PX and meet friends for coffee at the food court.
Our church was a military chapel. Our children attended Department of Defense schools.
Our vehicle license plates, safety inspections and driving permits came through the military. We bought most of our gasoline from AAFES.
Favorite TV shows were brought to us, not by Madison Avenue, but by American Forces Network. Quirky AFN commercials punctuated the programming with military-flavored advice on everything from recycling to obtaining citizenship. Stars and Stripes showed up on my doorstep each morning.
This is not a sad song about the good old days. I do have fond memories of overseas life, but I also remember that I grew tired of exchange and commissary shopping, the extra time it takes to send and receive packages via the APO and yes, even AFN infommercials about OPSEC.
This is not a sad story about a family isolated on American soil in a foreign land, either. We did not hunker down in our gated military community. We traveled as much as we could, became regulars at local restaurants and made some attempts at the language. Our children were the most successful at that part.
Wherever we traveled, though, at journey's end our home base was more or less on base. Get those ID cards ready, kids. We're almost to the gate.
Now, we live near Washington, D.C., surrounded by 20 or so military installations representing every service branch. We don't live on any of them.
My husband commutes daily into the military world, but I feel somewhat on the fringe. The 10-mile drive to the nearest commissary and exchange is negligible on the map, but significant to me. An environment that used to be home to me is now just a place I visit a couple of times a month.
Here, a short walk takes me to a regular grocery store, hair salon, dry cleaners and Starbucks. We get cable TV and the Washington Post. Nothing to complain about, but my daily life feels so … civilian. I'm just not used to that yet.
And yet, this too is part of my military life, another adjustment to another culture, even one so close to home. Maybe what feels like detachment to military life is a new chapter where my attachment is by choice rather than by default. Even after a lifetime in the military, I’m learning a new way live my military life — intentionally.