Military


Hurricane Michael scoured Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida. The base had survived severe weather in the past, but Michael destroyed the livability of the quarters (ca. 600) and many of the dorms. The storm out and out destroyed the flight line and severely damaged the BX, commissary, and the elementary school.

The good news is, the families and many personnel evacuated the base and the base listed no fatalities. The evacuation kept the personnel and families safe, but couldn’t have been a picnic.

Even evacuations that were picnics, were difficult for families. I have the memory of a mid-1950s Cold War practice evacuation at Ellsworth AFB in South Dakota. Enough chatter went on among the adults that even though I was only five years old, the event imprinted in my mind the word “evacuation.”

Our evacuation was supposed to get us away from ground zero in case of an attack by the Russians on the local base, a Strategic Air Command base where the B-52 bombers were stationed. Or, maybe the evacuation practice was just to convince the families that an attack would be survivable (it wouldn’t have been).

In any case, the sirens went off and the moms packed up their cars with kids and picnic baskets and headed into the Black Hills. We stayed there most of the day, us kids running amok in the woods. We returned to the base probably during local rush hour. If it wasn’t Rapid City’s actual rush hour, the return of an entire base worth of families made it that way. The reason I think the evacuation wasn’t the success it was meant to be is because I don’t remember another one and we lived at Ellsworth for another anomalous six years (Air Force reorganization; Dad’s AFSC being downgraded; he was shuffled around for ages until things sort themselves out and we were transferred like normal people).

Other, later evacuations were more drills than actual practices. The residents of the entire community would be picked up by shuttle bus and delivered to a central point for ‘processing.’ The processing consisted of having our evacuation papers checked, showing a bored clerk our computer punch cards that we’d surrender one by one during our journey back to the US so our service member could be informed of our whereabouts, and filling out emergency pay transfers so that, at some point, we’d have some money wherever we wound up.

We were lucky during our evacuations — they were practices. We went out, we came back, all our household goods were where we left them, we slept in our own beds that night. The adults in our evacuation didn’t have to gather all their necessary papers, clothing, food, and portable valuables. For us, pets (if any) were probably left home for the day.

The personnel and family members at Tyndall, as well as the surrounding civilian communities have no such comfort. Their entire lives are disrupted. They can’t even return to see what they can salvage. To make things more difficult for some of them, the pilots of the planes that were able to be relocated aren’t with their families. The ‘other parent’ in those families is now effectively a single parent. This probably also goes for the families of personnel who have returned to the base for emergency operations.

13 Tyndall AFB

Tyndall AFB, Florida — damage by Hurricane Michael. Photo: screenshot from DoD video on Facebook.

Life in a military family is always on an edge even if the moment is presently calm. You know you won’t be staying wherever you presently live. If you don’t move, then your friends do. You rarely, if ever, live near family. You know there’s always a possibility of the service member leaving at the drop of a phone call. Alerts are a way of life. Training accidents happen. Combat fatalities happen. Usually, though, the life has a rhythm. Hurricane Michael destroyed that rhythm for the families and personnel at Tyndall. My heart goes out to them, and to all their civilian neighbors.

One of the nearly universal emotions expressed by military brats is homesickness. Given our nomadic early lives, we have many homes for which we feel a longing. Yes, military brats aren’t the only kids who move and times change for everyone. I know of local Facebook groups whose topic is “remember when” with entries about landmarks and businesses that are long gone. Children of foreign service officers (the staff in embassies and consulates), missionary kids, and corporate kids all move, too, but my tribe are the military kids who were bounced around the country and the world like Bingo balls on a Friday night.

I think much of our longing is for “halcyon days,” those years before we realize that life is complicated and messy. These years can be from whichever decade we spent our childhood, the swinging ’40s, the rocking and rolling ’50s, the psychedelic ’60s, staying alive during the ’70s, doing our hair during the ’80s, kicking it through the ’90s in our Doc Martens, and doing whatever happened after Y2K. We remember sights, sounds, and smells that evoke the relative simplicity of childhood and the adventure of where we lived.

One problem for us is that so many of our former homes no longer exist. Yes, the places we lived are still on the map, but our homes, unsere Häuser, onze huizen, nos maisons, nuestros hogares, nossas casas, le nostre case, 私たちの家, ang aming mga tahanan, 우리 집, ko mākou mau hale, منازلنا, heimili okkar or evlerimiz, are gone. Installations are closed, host nations have demolished buildings, the places where we ate, bathed, slept, and woke up on Christmas morning are no more. One thing that we can sometimes carry with us is food.

 

Birthday pzza

Birthday pizza specifically from Freddie’s, near Gibbs Kaserne, Frankfurt, Germany. (he was happy; I just caught him in mid-chew)

 

Some of the most poignant memories are of local dishes, pantry items, and candies. I know that one memory from my early childhood in England is of Peek Freans cookies, either the custard creams or the similar cookie with the jelly dot on top. I think I must have had them frequently.

While I was still a kid, I had forgotten the cookies by the time my pre-teen years arrived. Then, the Air Force stationed my dad in Bermuda and I tasted one of the locally purchased Peek Freans custard creams. A taste revelation! I remembered the forgetting. The times in my elementary school years when I knew there was something I missed from when I was younger, but I couldn’t remember what came back to me. Then we left Bermuda. I lost them again.

Skip forward decades. This time, the exposure to local food wasn’t as a brat. Now I was the mom of brats. Our family spent most of our twenty years of life overseas in Germany. My youngest arrived at the age of four and left at fifteen. She spent her next two years in Belgium, so we weren’t that far from Germany and could return when the longing became too great. She arrived in the US calling both the heating and cooling system “air conditioning.” To her radiator-trained mind, both functions conditioned the air.

When we arrived in the States, I had cookbooks, but not (I thought) ingredients. Ingredients from different countries have their own flavors. It might be a surprise to some that bottled Mexican Coca Cola from the grocery store tastes like the Coca Cola we drank in German restaurants.

With the rise of the Internet and online shopping, I could soon buy German ingredients from my dealer-of-choice, GermanDeli.com. The loss, though, strikes again. The outlet is closing tomorrow and has ceased all online orders. The homesickness continues.

I have pictures of our homes. I have some foods (World Market). I have YouTube videos. Still, I miss my old homes. The sound of tires on rain-wet streets sounds like England. Cool summer nights are from South Dakota. The sound of waves is Bermuda. The smell of wine and beer (I was an adult by then) is Germany. The most delicious cheese and bread I’ve ever eaten is Belgium. I love my life, but I still miss my homes. If it weren’t for grandchildren, I’d be in the wind.

Army Lt. Col. Tandy Brown, center, commander of the 7th Special Forces Group, serves a soldier and his daughters during a Thanksgiving Day meal on Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., Nov. 24, 2014.

 

Many families celebrate Thanksgiving with their extended families. Airports and highways are so crowded that a video of Thanksgiving traffic on a Los Angeles freeway makes an iconic picture of the trek to go home. The song Over the River and Through the Woods vies for top Thanksgiving honors with We Gather Together.

Where do you go, though, when you’ve only been “home” for a few months, or for a couple of years at most? Whose food reminds you of Thanksgiving when Grandma is across an ocean? Where do you make memories if all your dishes are still in transit, wrapped in packing paper, and (the gods willing) unbroken?

If your family is a military family, you may go to the dining facility (DFAC), formerly known as the chow hall, mess hall, or mess deck. What you call where you eat depends on the service to which you (or more likely, your parent) belong.

 

ARABIAN SEA (Nov. 22, 2012) Culinary Specialist 3rd Class Job David Santiago, from Manila, Philippines, frosts a cake aboard the guided-missile destroyer USS Jason Dunham (DDG 109) on Thanksgiving. Jason Dunham is deployed to the U.S. 5th Fleet area of responsibility conducting maritime security operations, theater security cooperation efforts and support missions for Operation Enduring Freedom. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Deven B. King/Released)

 

Usually, dining facilities are reserved for service members on active duty. Their primary purpose is to feed the Army that, in the words of Napoleon Bonaparte (or Frederick the Great, depending on your source), marches on its stomach. On Thanksgiving (and sometimes on Christmas), the dining facility is open to family members. This is a treat that many military Brats look forward to when they are children, and reminisce about when they are grown. My sister and I recently rhapsodized about the shrimp cocktails we remember setting on our trays as we moved through the dining facility line.

In Facebook groups for Brats, the talk in this week leading up to Thanksgiving has been about eating at the dining facility. Among the comments were those about tables full of fruit and candy, how the cooks decorated the dining facility even up to ice sculptures, and food that included roast turkey or ham, mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie, in addition to fancy food such as that delicious shrimp cocktail, crab legs, and prime rib. My own favorite memory (in addition to the shrimp) was going to the milk dispenser and lifting the heavy weighted handle so that the milk shot into my glass with enough force to produce bubbles. I must say that, as a basic trainee pulling KP in the mess hall, I wasn’t quite as thrilled to heft the five gallon cartons of milk into the dispenser cabinet — those suckers weigh over 40 pounds.

 

Army Spc. Matt Squairs shears off a corner from a block of ice he is sculpting into a pumpkin on Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., Nov. 21, 2014. Squairs, a culinary specialist assigned to the 7th Special Forces Group Airborne’s Group Support Battalion, and other cooks spent more than two weeks preparing a Thanksgiving meal held in the unit’s dining facility.

 

We Brats doted on being allowed into the dining facilities for holidays, but I don’t know that we fully appreciated the work that went into feeding people their daily three square meals, seven days a week, plus holidays — way more people (and food) on the holidays. As someone who has seen both sides of the serving line, I’d like to give all the cooks a rousing cheer, despite the cadence songs we sang about the food. After a day of KP, I felt as if I’d been pulled backwards through a keyhole and my feet …, oh my poor feet how they ached.  I can’t imagine the endurance it takes to be a cook.

 

Army Spc. Trinh Tran, a cook with the Operation Iraqi Freedom Dining Facility at Fort Hood, Texas, covers prepared salads and dressings for the evening meal service, Nov. 21, 2013. Trinh is on a team to assist in preparation of the upcoming Thanksgiving Day dinner. U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Kim Browne

 

Hooray for the dining facilities and all the cooks in all the services.

I hope they have a restful day-after-Thanksgiving.

 

All photos are released from the DoD photo archive.

The Veterans Writing Project picked up my story “Beer Here” for their publication, O-Dark-Thirty.

Procession from the Kreuzberg monastery up to the crosses on the mountain.   Picture courtesy of Wikpedia.

Procession from the Kreuzberg monastery up to the crosses on the mountain. Picture courtesy of Wikpedia.

Beer Here

Barb Hoskins, a Cold War-era CI investigator runs into a platoon-mate from Basic who is on her way back to the Land of the Round Doorknob. They go out for a last-minute fling at a monastery, famed for its beer, and wind up with more action than they bargained for.

The story is one of a series that will be part of a book, Culture Shock.

Yesterday evening was a sad time. It’s difficult to feel particularly useful while sitting in an unremarkable place, and with no talent that is productive during a tragedy. It’s hard to even express a public feeling of sorrow when whether you do or not has little immediate effect.

Still, not expressing sorrow feels callous, and Paris does have meaning for me.  I lived in Europe, off and on, for over twenty years. My first memories are of England (which isn’t Paris, but is close enough for a Chunnel day trip from Brussels), and my husband’s final assignment with the U.S. Army was at Daumerie Kaserne by Chièvres, Belgium (still not Paris, but again, close enough for day trips with the kids).  A friend lives in Paris. Although I’ve never lived in Paris, I’ve strolled there, avoided rivers of traffic, ridden le Métro, sipped hot chocolate (I’m not a coffee drinker), done the tourist routine, and eaten prix fixe meals. The attack happened someplace that was, for me, working on becoming an everyday place.

One of my favorite pictures isn’t of an instantly recognizable landmark. The one I like is a sign for a picnic area.  It still makes me laugh.

Roadside sign in France designating a picnic area.

Roadside sign in France designating a picnic area.

Despite the feeling of immediacy concerning the shootings, explosions, and dread execution of concert-goers, I’m also saddened by the attack in Beirut. By the downing of the Russian plane. By the refugees fleeing these bastards who’ll kill anyone, anywhere, and use anyone to do it. I’m sickened by the deaths of innocent people who are near the combatants of our self-appointed enemy who choose to hide in hospitals, and our myopia in attacking such a place. It’s all so desperately tragic and all I can do is say I’m heartsick.

The only cold encouragement is remembering that London wasn’t beaten by the Irish Republican Army bombings in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. London was changed — and I can’t see an unattended bag without thinking about it — but it’s still there. Paris will still be there, too.

I hope the terror abates soon.

In a Facebook group for women veterans, I recently saw a recommendation for a book on American women veterans of the Vietnam war: Women Vietnam Veterans: Our Untold Storiescollected by Donna A. Lowery (Sergeant Major [Ret.] ).

Right now, I’m working on short stories for a book whose main character is a woman who is a Cold War era soldier. Instead of being assigned to Vietnam, she is stationed in West Germany, which is where I lived for eighteen years. I served in the Army during the Vietnam era, but my time was short and my experience limited.

Although my main character didn’t serve in Vietnam, she will know women who did. My stories are genre fiction, suspense/mysteries, and are meant to be entertaining. I’m not trying to write definitive histories.

Despite having the aim of writing entertainingly, I do want the stories to be as accurate in their details as I can make them. Because my active duty experience was limited, I wanted to read the viewpoints of other women so I could develop characters with individual voices and outlooks. Fidelity to time and to the broader experience of women in the Army is also important to me. Accuracy was the main reason I bought the Women Vietnam Veterans.

What I didn’t expect was to know anyone mentioned.

Boy was I wrong.

After I opened the shipping box and while I was flipping through the 700+ pages, I stopped and exclaimed to my husband.

There on the page was a photo I recognized. The picture was of an NCO assigned to the WAC Detachment at Aberdeen Proving Ground at the same time as my husband and I had both served there. The sergeant is listed as having worked at Kirk Army Hospital at Aberdeen, but neither I (in Personnel) nor my husband (a calibration student) were acquainted with her. In our after-duty-hours lives, though, picking up mail and so forth, I had passed her many times walking along the WAC Detachment’s company street. Maybe it was the unit patch worn on her right shoulder, designating an assignment to a combat area, that made her so memorable.

My memory jogged, I wondered if the book listed another woman whom I knew had volunteered for duty in Vietnam. I checked the index, and there she was.

Thinking I’d maxed out the coincidences, but curious in a hopeful way, I scanned the index. Altogether, I found nine names I knew. Nine. One of them was the name of my Basic Training company commander. Another name was of an office supervisor, my NCOIC in the permanent party personnel section at Aberdeen. A third worked in the student section of the Personnel complex.

Even more surprising, three of the names I recognized were my barracks-mates at Aberdeen. One woman I shared a cubicle wall with. A second shared a cubicle wall with the woman across from me (and asked me to turn down my record player when I was playing The Doors). The woman across from me was the third.

I was certain, though, that my First Sergeant had also worn a combat patch on the right shoulder of her uniform, so I dug out a group photo of the WAC Detachment and checked the names on the photo against the book’s index. I added three to the count, and one, indeed, was our First Sergeant.

02 WAC Det

I’m looking forward to reading the accounts of all the women who served from the Army, Navy, Marines, and Air Force.

I’m still surprised that, out of the approximately 1200 military women assigned to units in Vietnam, I knew twelve. Even more amazing (to me) is that about 1/10th of the women in the Aberdeen Proving Ground WAC Detachment from 1969 served in Vietnam.

Old fashioned calling cards

On an email list, a recent topic was business cards, with a diversion into Victorian calling cards. Since the list’s purpose is discussion between authors, and since some of them write historical books, Victorian calling cards is a logical topic.

 

Stuffy women and diplomatic realities

During the discussion, someone mentioned the calling cards of the wives of foreign service officers with the U.S. State Department. That led to a comment about how military wives traditionally called on each other and left calling cards.

That practice must have been only among officers as I don’t remember my mom ever having calling cards (Dad was career Army/Air Force enlisted with a short stint during WWII as a warrant officer), and I know I didn’t have cards (my husband was career Army, also enlisted).

The development of the ritual of calling on other wives may have been due, in part, to older social patterns that hadn’t yet disappeared. I remember my dad saying that when he joined the Army, enlisted men had to live in the barracks, married or not. In the 1930s, the Army still had horse cavalry, even though we now think of the cavalry as only something in the wild, wild West.

1939  Dad on Warwhoop at the Presidio of Monterey.

1939 Dad on Warwhoop at the Presidio of Monterey.

Another possibility is that the social events provided the women with a purpose other than staying home with the kids. Women did work, but in a transient environment, employment can be a tricky business.

Even when I was a kid in the 1950s, some of the moms in the States worked outside the home. Among my civilian relatives my godmother was a nurse and instructor in a teaching hospital. Other aunts who were the wives of farmers stayed very busy with the work of chickens, eggs, gardens, and being the support staff for field workers during harvests.

The problem for wives of military servicemembers was, and is, a restriction on job availability.

I imagine State Department wives had the same difficulty as overseas military wives in not being able to find jobs on the local economy because of language fluency challenges in jobs other than entry-level, local work permits, tax complications, etc. Entry-level jobs may have also been prohibited for wives because of the dissonance of attending State Department functions in a higher social capacity than any low status job could provide. A grocer’s clerk wouldn’t have been seen as a suitable person for shaking the hands of an ambassador.

On overseas military installations, status of forces agreements and treaties required the US to provide X-number of jobs to local nationals as payback to the host nation for allowing the troops to be in the country. Quid pro quo.

For a long time, military family member jobs were of low priority. Even after jobs-for-family-members came to the forefront, any job had to be unsuccessfully offered to local nationals before being advertised to military family members. That was the existing diplomatic environment and it wasn’t about to be negotiated away when the families-in-country were temporary and local workers were permanent.

Recruitment for higher-paying American technical jobs took place in the States among career Civil Service employees and those employees were transferred in and out just like their military colleagues. No wives need apply because they were never in the running.

Teachers in schools for military kids was one area where local hiring did favor family member spouses because of the English-language fluency requirement.

In the States if the wives followed their husbands on assignment after assignment (not everyone did) they would be starting out fresh in new markets every few years. Even if the wives were career Civil Service employees, the location to which the service member was transferred needed to have a job available in the wife’s career field and at her grade-level. One of my jobs was as a GS-02 school playground monitor.  $5.00 an hour. The other playground monitor, and the lunch-room monitor, were the wives of officers.

More than one career Civil Service employee has shown up at the civilian personnel office for her new home, with her job status being in the holding pattern of LWOP — leave without pay. The employees were often under the impression that career-status made them shoo-ins for employment only to find out that the installation not only had no open jobs but the one job for which they were qualified had just been filled. If they still submitted an application, the job would often open up a couple years later, just as they were getting ready to leave for their husbands’ new assignment.

With so few jobs available for so many family members, it’s no surprise that the women developed a social structure in which to function. Installations have only a limited number of jobs especially since the local civilian population is stable. A civilian employee has to die, retire, or move someplace else in order to create a vacancy. For many of the women, volunteering with Scouts, family support organizations, Gray Ladies (Red Cross), chapel activities, and schools took the place of paid work.

Kindley AFB, Bermuda, 1965: Me and my mom with our pre-clip-art, completely homemade poster for Girl Scouts.  No idea why we have snow-capped mountains in the picture. Nostalgia?

Kindley AFB, Bermuda, 1965: Me and my mom with our pre-clip-art, completely homemade poster for Girl Scouts.
No idea why we have snow-capped mountains in the picture. Nostalgia?

With the rise of the Internet and various business opportunities, some wives of military members can have jobs that they can take with them. Tupperware and Avon provided portable jobs in the past. Etsy and eBay — not to mention telecommuting — might be the most common now.

The new calling cards

Social events with rituals such as calling cards probably provided a sanity-saver for women who had to create temporary homes for their families time after time. The formality of coffees, teas, and calling cards mirrored that of the military’s rank structure.

Those ancient Victorians, who are now seen as ridiculously stuffy with their silver tea services, their linen tablecloths, and their china tea sets, did leave a card legacy for their successors. Some of today’s military wives — and the increasingly less-unusual military husbands — do have cards. They have their own business cards.

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