New MacDill Air Force Base commander's family reflects on life of frequent moves
By HOWARD ALTMAN | Tampa Bay Times, St. Petersburg, Fla. | Published: August 13, 2018
TAMPA BAY, Fla. (Tribune News Service) — Alexandra Snelson sat on a brown leather couch between her younger sister and her mother and talked about what it’s like to pick up and move again and again as a military child.
In June, she was introduced to her sixth home.
She is only 10.
"Well, I do miss my friends, but when you move, you get to meet new friends," said Alexandra, who goes by AJ, and is one of the newest residents of MacDill Air Force Base. "But at least you got to see them for a while and get to hang out with them for a while and it’s fun while it lasts."
Her parents, Steve and Catherine Snelson, chuckled at their daughter’s philosophical outlook during an interview at MacDill’s Harbor Bay visitor center. Like many military families, they take their laughter where they can find it in the face of all the challenges their mobile lifestyle presents — upheaval, interrupted relationships, discarded family treasures, fitting in all over again.
Every year, from March to September, hundreds of thousands of troops and their families pull up stakes. At MacDill alone, more than 11,000 Air Force personnel are either coming or going during the period — what the military calls PCS season for "permanent change of station." Add to that the service personnel from all military branches who work in joint units such as Central Command and Special Operations Command.
For Catherine Snelson, 42, a former Air Force major, daughter of an Air Force colonel and wife of a base commander, moving is life. Her husband, an Air Force colonel, took over at MacDill on June 28.
"We talk about it a lot," she said. "We talk about how, even if it feels hard when you’re in the midst of it, that every move gives you the opportunity for the potential for a better or new school, different friends, testing out a new sport. So even though it feels challenging, there is always opportunity within that."
MacDill is Steve and Catherine Snelson’s seventh duty station in their 13 years of marriage.
They moved from Hawaii to Washington, D.C., to New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Illinois, then to Washington state. The latest move came at the end of June. That’s when the couple packed up with AJ and her little sister Caroline, 7, and moved here from Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington, where Snelson was vice commander of the 62nd Airlift Wing.
As MacDill base commander, Col. Snelson, 43, serves in many ways as the mayor of a small city, but a city where 60 percent of the personnel who report to him are either coming or going during PCS season.
After 21 years in the Air Force, Snelson is always ready with advice for those like him who are just arriving. Schools and housing, he said, are often a family’s biggest concerns. At MacDill, he said, they’re in luck.
"The schools are great, the community is super supportive," he said.
The Air Force has programs that help in the adjustment.
Every active duty airman is assigned a sponsor for the transition to a new base, typically similar in rank and job. MacDill’s Military and Family Readiness Center also offers a youth sponsorship program where a newcomer is partnered with another student in the transition to a new school.
On Friday, Alexandra, a fifth-grader, and Caroline, 7, a second-grader, attended their first classes at Tinker Elementary School on base.
"School is kind of the great equalizer," Catherine Snelson said. "Growing up as a brat, I know what it feels like to be that new girl on that first day of school and we talk about that — and maybe seeking out the other new kids and never letting the new kid eat alone."
The Snelson children learned about the move to Tampa at the family dinner table.
"Dad said he had a surprise for us after dinner," Alexandra recalled, "and he said, ‘Where is the one place you guys would like to move next?’"
Alexandra said she wanted to go back to New Jersey. There are some things she misses there, like a distinctive, twin-fuselage P-38 Lightning fighter plane from World War II that stands outside Joint Base McGuire-Dix in Lakehurst.
"Whenever we went on the base in New Jersey, there would always be this plane and its name was Pudgy."
Her little sister said she wanted to come to Florida, "because I know a lot of our family is here."
Still, as they sat with a reporter, dad dug down for a deeper motive.
"Did Disneyworld have anything to do with it?"
She smiled broadly and said, "Yes."
Try as they might to keep things positive, the Snelsons know frequent moves take a toll on their family.
The Pentagon relocates more people than any organization in the United States. It even pays for the move. But things don’t always go smoothly so some families opt out and hire their own movers.
"We have the one horror story," said Catherine Snelson, about the family’s move from Pennsylvania to Illinois in June 2014. "We outsourced the move, had a questionable crew, and I was convinced we would never see our stuff again."
They were out some money. She calls it a learning experience.
"I feel like I have a Ph.D in TMO," or Traffic Management Office — the Air Force unit that coordinates moving.
Another stresser is shedding treasured possessions.
"It’s like a perpetual garage sale," Col. Snelson said.
What do the girls miss most, "the rocking horse?" their mom asked.
"Well, we have had a couple of things — some of our toys that we’ve had to give up," Alexandra said.
Dad: "Are you going to say the Barbie van?"
Alexandra nodded her head.
"I still feel really bad about that," mom said, then asked, "And what do we say? ‘If everything is special...’"
"Then nothing is," Alexandra replied.
Civilians move around a lot these days, too, Catherine Snelson noted, and in many ways military families have an advantage.
"We are actually lucky," she said. "There are a lot of support services for us when we move."
"It’s the military lifestyle," Col. Snelson said. "Everyone is accustomed to that lifestyle and so it is not as foreign when you say to folks, ‘Yeah, we are moving next year.’"
The Snelson’s don’t know how many more moves they’ll face.
"So far, we’ve been very, very fortunate," Col. Snelson said. "Everywhere we’ve gone, the schools have been great. The locations have been wonderful. I think as the girls get a little bit older, there will be that question of what happens if we go on an assignment we’re not crazy about."
So far, though, so good.
"What was your favorite place?" Catherine Snelson asked her daughters.
"I think my favorite place is going to be here," Caroline said.
"Good answer," her dad said with a laugh. "We didn’t coach her to say that."
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