A new family has moved onto the street followed closely by a huge moving truck. The family is a young one, the parents probably no more than 28, the kiddos no more than 7 or 6. The house they are moving into is a simple one, situated right in the middle of a six-or five- plex. The husband is dressed in his ACUs as though he is readying to report to work for at least a few hours, or maybe perhaps he’s just getting home. His wife, sandwiched between two young children, and a dog, puts her hand to her brow to take a better look around. There’s evidence of children who live throughout the neighborhood so she knows that means for every child, there is a mother and a possibility for a new friend. She’s worried about making friends. This isn’t her first permanent change of station move, but she’s found it difficult to maintain the relationships she’s made in prior duty stations. This is a new start, a new beginning, and a new land. Her outlook is realistic; she’ll find women of similar interest to hang out with but she’ll learn not to get too attached. Besides, sooner or later, she would be packing up her house to go on another adventure with her family. This is the cycle. Move, unpack, live, pack, move again.
If you are, or have been, in military life, you know this scene all too well. It is a unique experience, moving with the military. Not one that most people can really understand. In 2007, the attempt to describe military life for spouses was made. Based on a book written by Tanya Biank, Army Wives set out to explore the dynamic of friendships made among Army spouses. All women in the show came from various backgrounds and who’s spouse’s were of different rank. In the duration of the show, we see this diverse group of women and their token guy friend deal with various issues that is not only common in military life, but also within the civilian sector as well. And the script does an excellent job at exploring how their friendship helps them handle life’s toughest experiences, such as abuse, infidelity, financial issues, childrearing, and spousal separation. The script, however, fails to explore the number one thing that threatens friendships made in the military- the eventual move. In fact, it wasn’t until season 5 or 6, equivalent to about 4 to 6 years, that a single move even happens. This is a highly unlikely scenario for a group of 5 friends. In reality, moves in the military, especially among members of lower ranking families, can happen much more frequently. Try every 2 to 3 years.
So how difficult is it to make and then maintain friendships while in the military? How does the military affect the longevity of those relationships, especially on the civilian side? We know that moving in and of itself registers as one of the most stressful events a person can experience. Some of that stress can probably lie in the fact that we will have to develop new connections in our new home, which is more than likely in a location where we’ve never lived before. I’ve been a military spouse for over 5 years now. In those years, I have made a few lasting friendships within the military, but mostly fleeting contacts that stay for a time and then gradually dissipate. It was at my first duty station that I had my first experiences with making friends on a military installation. We were stationed in Hawaii, a long ways away from New Jersey, and for the first time since college, I had to step out of my comfort zone to find friends. It was different from college though. In college, it was just me, and I had the freedom to go and do what I so chose. Here, however, I had two small children, so I limited my pool of applicants to women who mirrored the same lifestyle. The friendships I made in Hawaii were many; these women mostly stayed home and raised their small children. They were from different backgrounds and came from all over the United States. We shared in the hard times that the Army brought, and we shared in the once-in-a-lifetime experiences that only Hawaii could offer. But just as quickly as those friends came about, the Army took them away just as quickly. In the time since my husband joined up, I have met many people, but I can honestly say that most of those friendships made have since dwindled down to mere acquaintances.
I think the hardest part about making friends in the military is the “making” part. What I mean by that is often when you move to a new duty station for the first time, you often have to go out of your way to find friends. Social media has made this a little less awkward, as most installations have a “spouse” page on such mediums as Facebook. But many times, making friends means having to step out of your comfort zone. There have been on occasion, times wherein I’ve gone onto a spouse page and asked to meet people. I mean, how more awkward can you get? Once you make the request, you wait for responses and sometimes you get something and sometimes, the request can go overlooked. I’ve known some women who have planned play dates in an effort to meet other spouses. Using kids can be effective because you often meet other mothers who can share in the same experiences as you.
“I get by with a little help from my friends”- The Beatles
I have also experienced living on post and living off post, which both affects the general making friends experiences. It was easier to make friends while living on post because I lived in a neighborhood that consisted of 3-and 4-bedroom homes. In order to even qualify for these rooms, you had to have at least 2 children. So on my street alone, there were ten homes, meaning that there were at least 20 children who lived on my street. 20 kiddos. On post, you also have easy access to family-friendly amenities. During our tour in Hawaii, we lived right across the street from the community center, splash pad, and playground. In fact, that area had the biggest splash pad and playground throughout the entire installation. As such, it was a popular meeting area and at any given time throughout the day, there were moms with kids descending upon the favored hang-out spot.
When we decided to live off-post at our next duty station in Colorado, we did so for economic reasons more so than for social reasons. I reasoned that because I had made friends so easily in Hawaii, I wouldn’t struggle in Colorado. I mean, I was a likeable person. I would be living right across from an elementary school so there were obviously children all around. And I had plans to return to the workforce. So there would be plenty of opportunities to meet people, I figured. I. Was. Wrong. Making friends off post was a lot more tricky than I expected. Many times, I felt like a stranger in my own neighborhood and even when I did meet someone who’s daughter was close to my own, that relationship quickly faded. When I started work, it became even more complicated. Working a full-time job required me to be at my job for most of my day. And because I was in a management position, I was forbidden to have any social relationships with my employees. The sucky part was, most of those employees would have otherwise been “friendship material.” Most of them were military spouses and most of them were moms. Some of them lived on post, and some lived off. The majority of the people who were managers alongside me were older women with older or grown-up children. So the idea of work bringing people together just wasn’t true for me, at least not until my final months. And even then, those relationships were simply a matter of convenience. We worked together and shared alot of the same experiences and struggles with the organization for which we worked. Once I left my position, those relationships faded as well.
And then there are those relationships from before we became a military family. I have missed years of college reunions, family get-togethers, and major life events in my friends’ lives. Alot can happen in 5 years and life certainly did not pause because I was gone. There has been this unspoken guilt I have felt for failing to be a part of those occasions. I have watched from a distance as the lives of those whom I considered friends go on- marriages, job promotions, childbirths, homeownership- and felt simultaneously that life was passing me by as though I was on pause. I had left the real world and moved into a place where life is so different that it feels as though sometimes it cannot be real. My friendships on the civilian took a hit as a result. I felt so separated from them and the lives they were living. I felt as though I had nothing I could possibly talk about that they’d understand and vice versa. Silly, I know. Emotional, I definitely know. But feelings are strong and sometimes they can be very persuasive.
I have a point to this. In my experience, friendships are tricky in military life and look very different from what most might experience in the civilian world. Our friendships thrive online and via telephone conversations, although those might only occur maybe twice a month. Friendships may not last past the length of an assignment as constant PCS moves often separate compadres by multiple states, if not entire oceans. Friendships in the military often happen as a way to replicate the family support that most people ont he civilian side have. Friends are a means of survival, especially during times of deployment. Military friendships can be seen a contractual. We are together for a time and then when that contract is up, we separate. Sometimes we are blessed to find friends who regardless of where the military sends us, they stick around. But for the most part, life and distance take too much of a toll and those relationships slowly fade away.
I don’t want to end on a sad note so I won’t. Relationships are what the people in them put into them. If two or more people are not dedicated to making something work, it simply won’t. When people have made a deep connection then they are more liely to putting the time and effort into preserving what they have developed, regardless of time and space. And it takes, many times, a lot of effort and understanding when the odds are against you. Military friendships have the odds against them. Those are just the facts. They are not like regular friendships that grow from the school yard in Kindergarten and stay with you throughout college. Some of us military spouses are lucky enough to have those relationships too. But it is our military friendships that are at the forefront of our lives as they happen everyday. It’s those women with whom we spend the most of our time, who understand what are we going through, and who can physically be there with us. And in my experience, the further away you are from home, the closer those friendships become. If not for common interest, than simply for the common need to survive.