People sometimes wonder if I love or hate being a military dependent. It’s a good question, and one I’ve asked myself.
I’ve been known to write about things that drive me crazy about military life: deployments, frequent moves, seabags full of clothes that are ship-grey and smell like JP-5 (jet fuel).
I’ve also been known to write about things I love about military life: most notably, the culture, unique experiences and relationships with other military families.
If Facebook had a status update option for users’ feelings about the military, mine would be, “It’s complicated.”
To be fair, I don’t know what it’s like for people who aren’t military dependents. I’ve been one since the day I was born.
In fact, there only have been six weeks, between my college graduation and wedding, when I didn’t have a military identification card. During those six weeks, I broke my right leg. So that’s what I think about not being in the military: I break things, and I don’t have insurance.
I often view the military as a parent. I’ve gone through cyclical, childlike feelings about it, and while I can criticize and complain about Uncle Sam, my heart hurts when anyone else does (“Hey, that’s ‘MY’ uncle you’re talking about!”).
My dad was an F-14 pilot. His office was located on an aircraft carrier or above a hangar. Until I was about 13 years old, when I saw a documentary about aircraft carriers on television, I didn’t realize this was unusual to those outside of the military.
Going to see my dad on the ship was, from what I can tell, like a civilian child going to see her dad in an office building. The distinct odor of steel mixed with JP-5 is as familiar to me as the antiques smell of the house I grew up in. When I smell anything vaguely similar — like the greasy handrails of old stairwells — it stops me in my tracks.
I remember going to see my dad on the aircraft carrier before ships were made to accommodate women. There weren’t any female restrooms. For some reason, that always made an impression on me.
I sat on Dad’s small bed and usually complained of needing to use the bathroom (of course!) while I watched mom put his clothes away in metal drawers. If I gave Dad a picture to take on deployment, it had to be secured to his desk or wall so that it wouldn’t slide.
I didn’t second-guess any of this. It was just the way it was.
Then came what we’ll call my “teen years” with the military. Only, I wasn’t a teen. I was in my 20s and married to Dustin, another military pilot.
By then, I could easily list all the ways in which the military was dumb. Not having female restrooms on the aircraft carrier? Dumb. Asking families for their “top choice” for a duty station and then sending them elsewhere? Dumb. Using taxpayer dollars to move a family back and forth across the country when their “top choice” wouldn’t have required transferring? Dumb, dumb, dumb.
By this point, the military was something I couldn’t wait to put behind me. It was wasteful, demanding, annoying, and so 1980s. If the military were a person, I’d scream that I hated it. Then I’d cry, “You don’t care about me at all, do you?” and slam my door.
I begged Dustin to get out when his commitment was up.
Thirteen years later, we’re still in the military and nearing Dustin’s 20-year mark. There will always be things I don’t understand or like about the military (Detailers really are blindfolded when they throw darts at a map, aren’t they?), but, wow, the military somehow, magically even, became smarter and less annoying now that I’m not in those “teen years” with it anymore.
I watched my human parents go through a similar process: they were everything, then they got all weird, and then, when I turned 25, “suddenly” they were super smart again! Funny how those things happen, huh?
Just the other day, as I drove past the airport, a Navy P-3 was about to takeoff. I actually pulled off the side of the road and watched from my car. I was surprised when I got a little teary. The aircraft seemed old, but it was familiar and looked like “home” to me. It’s complicated.
My feelings about the military, much like my feelings about my parents, can’t be teased out. They’re all mixed up in my childhood, who I am, and how I view the world. At times the military has disappointed me, infuriated me, and gotten in my way. But it has always been there.
So, as this is the week of giving thanks, it seems appropriate to take time to acknowledge the military for shaping me, and, ultimately, providing for me and my family.
Yes, I get mad, but dear military, when you’re not looking, I smile and whisper “thank you.”
Sarah Smiley is a columnist and author of “Dinner With the Smileys,” a memoir of a year of dinners and motherhood.