My husband and I had been married for only two years when we decided to pursue a military career. At first, romantic visions of traveling to exotic places filled both of our heads. It wasn’t until the moving van workers showed up at our Provo, Utah, apartment and started packing things into boxes that the reality hit us. We were leaving home!
A few days later as we started the long drive to Rhode Island, our car packed to the roof with luggage, both of us wondered if we had made a mistake.
Six years, seven states, and many miles later, we have learned that our decision was a good one. We have adapted to life in the military, and we find that it offers many advantages that we probably could not be able to enjoy any other way. Yet we have also learned that military families face a number of challenges and difficulties, such as frequent moves, long-term separations, and adjustments to new wards, schools, and neighborhoods. Sensitive ward members who help the military family through all of these difficult situations will always be remembered with gratitude.
Being uprooted is a traumatic experience for anyone. But being uprooted every two to three years (and in some cases more frequently), as military families are, can be downright brutal. Yes, I’ve seen the poster that advises us to bloom where we’re planted. But sometimes after being replanted for the fifth time, you lose your desire to bloom. Psychologists say that moving is one of the most stressful things that can happen in a family. And driving two thousand miles in a small car with a baby, a cat, and several suitcases somehow makes that leap into the unknown a lot more frantic than romantic.
Once the move itself is completed, there’s the difficulty of finding your way around a new town. Most people might see going to the grocery store as a boring chore. But when you’re hundreds or even thousands of miles away from the nearest familiar landmark, just finding the grocery store can be a cause for celebration.
Home teachers and visiting teachers of new military families could immediately provide a great service with a list of all the important places in town—obstetricians, pediatricians, dentists, grocery stores, car repair shops, and laundromats. And directions on how to get to those places would be an added bonus.
One couple we knew who had just arrived in Connecticut mentioned to their home teachers that they were used to right-angled streets and were continually confused by the meandering streets and rolling hills of Connecticut. The next week their home teacher presented them with a compass that could be mounted to their car’s dashboard. They used it to guide them back home after family drives that invariably found them lost in an endless sea of trees.
Such geographical confusion, however, is minor compared with the more serious emotional confusion that results from being frequently uprooted. A friend of mine who found out she was possibly going to be transferred refused to let anyone in the ward know. She explained that in the past, whenever ward members found out that she was moving, they started treating her differently, as if she were already gone.
Indeed, some ward members might regard military families as “transients” and not give the sustained effort it takes to build friendships. Often members who have lived in the same area for a number of years have already completed their social circles and feel little need to welcome a new family. Military families can sometimes feel isolated, even as they are surrounded by ward members. And when ward members do invest the time in building a new friendship, they, as well as the military family, will eventually have to go through the mourning period that occurs when the military family moves and friendships are disrupted.
Although there are sometimes difficulties in coming to feel comfortable in a new ward, in most ways being an active Church member can help make the move easier. My military friends of other faiths are often surprised that within weeks of moving, we know several families in the area, have found a trustworthy baby-sitter, and have found a church to attend. Being given a ward calling quickly can also help make the military family’s transition into a new ward easier and facilitate their meeting new friends.
Of course, gospel principles can also be a comfort during the transition. Reliance on a loving Heavenly Father and daily communication with him through prayer are essential to making any adjustment a success. Daily scripture study can become a constant in a world filled with the stress of the unknown.
Frequent and long-term separations from one’s spouse (or parent) are another stress military families face. Sometimes, in order to compensate for the time apart and to reaffirm that families are top priority, military families choose to spend time together rather than to spend a lot of time on a demanding Church calling.
In such cases, ward members need to remember the admonition to “judge not.” (3 Ne. 14:1.) This is not to imply that Church responsibilities are unimportant, but the Lord has counseled us that a man should not run “faster than he has strength” (Mosiah 4:27), and for military families this can sometimes mean limiting activities, even Church ones, that take away from family time.
Separations are hard on the wives or husbands who are frequently left alone to deal with family, home, and financial worries. Even in a ward, they can feel isolated as they struggle to fit in. They are not single; therefore, attending single adult functions is not appropriate for them. Because they are temporarily separated and not part of a traditional “couple,” military spouses often feel uncomfortable attending quorum, Relief Society, or ward activities planned primarily for couples.
One ward I previously attended made an extra effort to include military wives by having their visiting teachers invite them to ward functions and even attend with them. But sometimes even well-meaning attempts can be painful. One woman, knowing a military wife was alone, invited her to a party she was planning for several friends, some of them ward members. Once the military wife arrived, she discovered she was the only guest there without a spouse. The activities for the evening included a dance and a game in which spouses revealed amusing anecdotes about each other. The motives of the sister who gave the party were good, but she did not think carefully enough about the appropriateness of her party for a wife whose husband was gone.
Another challenge for parents is struggling with small children alone during Church meetings—even one child can be a handful. Often they are too embarrassed to ask for help. However, offers of help from home or visiting teachers or other caring individuals would undoubtedly be welcome. Perhaps young women or men in a ward could help parents care for small children as a class service project.
Long separations can be made less painful by faithful home teachers and visiting teachers. A well-known axiom among military wives states that if something is going to break down, it will inevitably do so about one week after your husband has gone. While some women feel comfortable making mechanical repairs, some don’t. Thus, home teachers who volunteer to make small repairs are gratefully appreciated.
Military spouses also have their share of separation hardships. Often when they return to a ward after a long duty, they feel somewhat alienated. One insightful bishop helped include sometimes-absent brethren by assigning rotating callings. Two men would be assigned to teach a Sunday School class, for example. When one was out on assignment, the other would teach.
The stresses felt by adults are felt even more keenly at times by children and teenagers. One family, whose teenage son had been to five schools, promised the boy that they would never move again. When the father learned a short while later that he might be unexpectedly transferred, the boy refused to go with the family. Luckily, the father was not transferred.
But in the cases when one spouse must go, the other sometimes makes the difficult decision to stay behind alone with children until the school year is finished. In such situations, more compassion, as well as less critical judgment, is needed.
In the final analysis, we, along with other military families, chose this career. We chose the unique hardships and rewards of a military career. So we can’t feel too sorry for ourselves. Indeed, most of the families I know don’t want to be pitied but only better understood by the “permanently stationed” members in the ward.
In addition to welcoming military personnel and their families into their new wards, there are numerous ways to let men and women who are stationed abroad in military service feel loved and remembered. Following are a few suggestions:
—Send letters. News from home is always welcome. “Upbeat, positive news is best,” reports Ron Jones, manager of military relations for the Church. “It’s not easy for military personnel to be away from home; keep letters encouraging and informative.”
—Send photographs and audiocassettes or videocassettes. Pictures and videos of family gatherings or other activities are a favorite with military personnel who are on assignment. “Most military personnel have access to video machines,” Brother Jones explains.
—Send magazines, books, and other reading material. “Many military personnel have plenty of time to read,” explains Brother Jones. “Good, entertaining, wholesome reading material is always welcome.” However, each country has different customs regulations. For example, military personnel stationed in the Persian Gulf sometimes have a difficult time receiving material of a religious nature. “Magazines and books with pictures of the Savior and other religious art often don’t make it past customs,” notes Brother Jones.
—Send clippings from newspapers, magazines, and other publications. If you are familiar with the recipient’s interests and hobbies, articles about those topics can make interesting reading, as well as letting someone know that he or she is being remembered.
—Send care packages. Packages filled with inexpensive, small items that are hard to find in the area where the recipient is stationed are always welcome. Be mindful of items that can be damaged in very hot or cold temperatures.
—Take care of their families while they’re away. Brother Jones reports that one of the biggest concerns for military personnel on assignment is whether loved ones left behind are safe, secure, and happy. When spouses and children relate stories of being accepted, loved, and supported in their home wards and branches, it brings comfort to the men and women who are engaged in military service.