Joining the military community can be a daunting and foreign experience for individuals unfamiliar with the military life. You are not alone – and you certainly don’t have to navigate this strange new world on your own either. For new military families, the military jargon, customs and courtesies, high OPTEMPO (“operational tempo”), and the myriad of bureaucratic organizations to deal with can be incredibly overwhelming. Never be afraid to ask questions. There are so many experienced families who can guide and support you along the way. Here is some helpful advice that I routinely share with new members of our military community.
- “Nothing is EVER set in stone!”: This is a motto that I live and swear by from my experience as both a Soldier and as a spouse. This motto has made my life infinitely easier when I know and accept ahead of time that dates and situations will always change because the military works in time frames, not set days, making life unpredictable for military families. Having worked on operational level staffs, I’ve seen the hard work and planning that our service members’ leaders conduct on a daily basis. I’ve also seen the immense frustration when all the in-depth planning is nixed or drastically altered, requiring immediate attention in addressing the latest issue or timeline change at hand. There’s always someone higher up in the food chain with the authority to alter any given plan. In a perfect world, everything would be predictable and on a set schedule. However, as a new spouse, get used to arrivals, departures, training events, and even vacation leave moving either right or left on your calendar. The same goes for abrupt requirements that will require your service member to have to drop everything and disappear at a moment’s notice for a tasking or for a last-minute change in duties.
- Use your family support group: Each service has its own support group with different names, but they all serve the same purpose in providing information, guidance, access to military post resources, and camaraderie. Their functions are most prominent during times of deployment and extended training when your service member is away from home, but they also serve the same purpose in a garrison environment. The Army has its Family Readiness Groups; Navy has its Ombudsman volunteer and Family Readiness Groups; Air Force has the Key Spouse Program; Marine Corps has the Family Readiness Program; and the Coast Guard has the Work-Life Program. Get to know the other senior spouses – they are a wealth of knowledge and experience and can guide you through the often baffling military system. Check with your readiness groups and on-post facilities to see if they offer introductory classes for new spouses. There are often courses both in a classroom or online that you can participate in to familiarize yourself with ranks, military jargon, military benefits and resources, and deployment preparation.
- Ask questions in the absence of information: The most damaging thing that can harm a unit and its families is misinformation. In the absence of real information, never succumb to rumors and never make assumptions. If something sounds off or if you lack clarity, ask your Family Readiness Group Leader or the Chain of Command (if they have provided their contact information for that very purpose). Always go to an individual or representative who is authorized or has direct access to get the real information. Circulating or purely going off information within a rumor mill is counterproductive to the efforts of readiness groups and units which have the best intentions for the families under their care.
- USAJOBS.GOV: Moving from post to post every couple of years can mean your own career sometimes takes a backseat. At USAJOBS you can find federal jobs around your current duty station, as it is an incredible resource to becoming a federal employee. The Military Spouse Appointing Authority (Executive Order 13473) gives agencies the authority to hire military spouses without competition, but it doesn’t entitle spouses to a hiring opportunity over all other applicants. For more information, read “Special Hiring Authorities for Military Spouses and Family Members.”
- Understand the Leave and Earning Statement (LES): Upon first glance, the LES can be highly confusing with all of its acronyms. Learning how to decipher what everything means will ensure you can track pay allowances, benefits, debts, and allocated leave days. Consistent monitoring of the monthly LES can prevent pay issues. For official guidance on understanding the LES, go to the Defense Finance and Accounting Service (DFAS) site.
- Memorize your sponsor’s (service member’s) Social Security Number (SSN) and birthday: Commit this information to memory, as all Tricare benefits and any other official military services will always need the sponsor’s information before services are rendered. Just ensure you give this information out judiciously to legitimate organizations and trusted sources to prevent identity theft.
- Familiarize yourself with your respective service’s customs and courtesies, as well as personal etiquette: There is nothing more embarrassing than committing a social faux pas at a military event, be it a formal, semi-formal, or casual event. No one ever wants to go down in unit history as that person. Ensure that you also dress appropriately for unit functions – when in doubt, ask an experienced spouse or the leadership for clearer guidance on attire. (Most event invitations will specify the dress code.) If you’re invited to a small function, a Thank You letter to the host/hostess will go a long way.
As a whole, welcome to the military community! It’s a fantastic adventure that your family will never forget. A grateful nation thanks you for your commitment and sacrifices. Get ready to meet amazing people, see different places, and HAVE FUN!
Viv is a West Point graduate, an Army Officer, an Army wife, and a Family Readiness Group Leader. She has served on Active Duty with deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan and is now in the Army Reserves. She is enjoying life in Texas with her Army Ranger husband.