17 years ago I got on a plane with my 18-month-old to join my husband in Germany. He had been over there for about 4 months, and we were finally joining him. The time apart was quite a whirlwind for me as I got used to the way the Army did things, slower than I would like.
The flight over was long. The leg from Chicago to Madrid was the toughest. My son’s car seat wouldn’t fit and he didn’t sleep a wink. Finally, as we sat down on our short flight from Spain to Germany, he crashed on my lap.
We met my husband in baggage claim at the Frankfort airport, sleepy and in a fog. Unless you count trips to Mexico as a teen, this was my first experience in a different country. This was my first experience in Europe. This would be my first experience on an Army post.
A few days later, I was walking my son in a stroller around the post. I stopped and just took everything in as a group of soldiers marched by. Up until a few months before, we had been a civilian couple, raising our son in a civilian family. But all of that had changed.
As the months went on, I started to become more comfortable with where I was. We were stationed in Schweinfurt, which was about two hours from Frankfort in Bavaria. I was 26 years old, and the interesting thing was when my mom was my age she also moved to Germany, as a DoD teacher near Ramstein. I grew up with photos and souvenirs she had collected during her time there. I was so happy to experience some of what she did, but as a spouse instead of a teacher.
I made friends pretty quickly as our FRG was very active. There was also a deployment coming up and all of us could feel it. So many of us had little ones and soon after we got there I discovered I was pregnant with my second little boy. There was a lot going on and a lot to take in.
After we had been there for about five months, my husband deployed to Iraq. We assumed he would be back within a year, or even nine months. But that was the deployment that kept getting extended and he finally made it home after almost 15 months.
During that deployment, I learned so much about myself. About who I was as a mother, a wife, and a military spouse. It was my “welcome to this life” baptism that I didn’t really fully understand until much later, after moving back to the states and experiencing more deployments.
Our little community in Schweinfurt was something so special and different. For one thing, the post was pretty small. We only had about 3,000 soldiers. Compare that to Fort Campbell which has around 29,000 soldiers. Pretty much every soldier, unless you were on Rear D, was deployed. Most of the soldiers went to Iraq and some to Afghanistan. But the reality was, the post was made up of military spouses, going through a very long deployment, far from home.
During the first part of the deployment I was pregnant, and as I got closer to the birth, that was my main focus. My amazing mom came out planning to stay two months over the birth and after to help. I can’t even tell you how much this helped me. My son was born just four days before his due date and three days before my husband made it back to Germany for R&R.
During those two weeks, my dad came over to join us and we had a nice family Christmas together. My parents left us for a week to travel and we had a week as a family of four before my husband had to head back to Iraq. That week was truly amazing. I can’t even tell you about what he did, other than sorting out my son’s birth certificate, but our family needed that time.
R&R was over, and my husband and I woke up before dark to take him to the train station to head back to Iraq. My husband stood over my son’s crib and said goodbye, thinking he would be back in about five months. In the end, he didn’t get back from another 11, missing almost his whole first year.
My dad headed home soon after, and my brother came to visit which helped with the after R&R letdown. In February, my mom and brother had to head back home, and soon after I ended up in the hospital with my two-month-old for RSV. I was so thankful for my military spouse friends who stepped in to help me during that week.
Winter ended, and it started to warm up a bit in Germany but our husbands were still deployed. We, spouses, worked hard to stay busy, and spend time together. We had Monday mornings at the coffee shop, we met for lunch and met up at the park once it was warm enough to do so.
During those 15 months, I found myself in a tight-knit military community with almost all of us going through the same thing. This isn’t something you find in a lot of places, but this was my introduction to the military world. I didn’t realize at the time how different it would be at a stateside post when units were all coming and going at different times.
I learned through other military spouses, what they had been through in the past, and the lessons they had learned along the way. I learned true independence as I would go so long without being able to talk to my husband, and just had to figure everything out by myself. I realized what was important about parenting and what to let go of so that I could be the best mom for my kids.
The military was 100% in our face during this time. Yes, you could go off post and I did. I enjoyed walking my kids around in the double stroller and visiting all the different German shops. I was able to travel even more once my husband came home, going on a few USO trips.
But still, the military ruled so much about my life then. From where I got most of my groceries, to where I got my mail, to where my son went to preschool.
When we moved to the states, I found this wasn’t the norm. But it definitely shaped my military spouse experience.
Looking back, I am so glad I had the experiences I did. I was a part of history. I was a part of the military community. And learned so much along the way.
The Army has left Schweinfurt. If we were to visit again someday, we would find the area a very different place. I think they have knocked down most of the housing and there is no longer any American military presence. But the memories will stick with me forever.
The Halloween party we had when I was super pregnant. The Thanksgiving potluck we military spouses had while leaving computers on in hopes that a husband or two would log on. The time after R&R as I thought we were in the final stretch of the deployment and then learned we had so much more time to go.
The lonely nights we made better by spending time together while our kids played. The tensions that arose during a super stressful situation. Homecoming day, when the deployment was finally over, and we could get back to almost normal life while knowing we were now different people.
All of us were going through something so difficult but we had to find the strength to make it to the finish line and we had to do it together one day at a time. I will never forget those years, even if some of the details are fuzzy all these years later. I am thankful for being able to experience life overseas, and I am even more thankful for all that I learned while I was there.
Arriving at that small Army post in the middle of Bavaria as a brand new military spouse is something I will never forget.