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Before my high school sweetheart entered the Air Force almost fifty years ago, I had never been on a military installation. I didn’t know once I married him when he got to tech school after basic training, we would both have a military identification card. Mine was orange to signify I was a dependent. His card was green. Each card had the photo of the person who was authorized to carry and use it to gain access to installations and their amenities.
Back in 1972, the active-duty person was identified by their social security number, as were their dependents. Any activity the member or someone in the family did was connected to that number including on-base traffic tickets. I can still recite his today even though I haven’t been married to him since 1980. In 2011, with identity theft becoming a problem, the US military ceased using social security numbers and instituted a numerical system specific to each service branch.
A military installation is a microcosm within a fence. A valid ID gets you into it through the guarded gates. Besides all the buildings and roadways that make it a unique place with a specific purpose for the US government’s use, there is a social center for the personnel and their families. That includes the Exchange (large department store); Commissary (grocery store); O Club for officers which consists of a restaurant and bar; NCO Club for enlisted personnel; child-care center; beauty shop; bank; hospital; security police offices; law offices; library; fire stations; movie theater; swimming pool and maybe a bowling alley and/or golf course. I’m sure I forgot some things.
Also within the confines of the fence is base housing which to qualify for a military person has to have enough time in service and a family. Officers’ and enlisted housing are separated, but dependent children of both share the same schools. Sometimes housing is located away from the installation and is more like a subdivision of patio homes or quadruplexes. Individual yards are often fenced, and there are plenty of small children and pets.
In 1974, my ex received orders for a three-year accompanied tour to Lakenheath AFB, England. We only had one child at the time, so that meant he would report there on a specified date, and then he would have to rent a suitable home for us before the Air Force would cut our orders to join him. It wasn’t a quick process, but the government footed the bill.
When I got the news he had rented a brick house with two large bedrooms, an attached garage, and fenced yards on Thetford Road, in Brandon, Suffolk County, I was elated. Then I learned that it had been empty for a time, and wondered why. The crux was that the coal stove in the kitchen heated the hot water radiators in other rooms. The landlord would only rent the house to someone who knew how to feed the stove methodically during the day, bank it at night and not mind the mess of coal and ashes. My ex had no experience doing such, but he knew I did.
I should interject the average low temperature during an English winter is around 40 degrees Fahrenheit and the summer high averages 70. Heat is necessary, but not like in the Finger Lakes area of New York State where I grew up with a large wood stove in residence.
I loved that coal stove. During the winter I always had a hot kettle of water at the ready. I made soups and stews on it and I got so I used the oven as well, especially for pot roast. Our son had learned to walk while waiting to go live with Daddy, and he experienced “hot” very quickly, so stayed away from that side of the small kitchen.
Our daughter was born at the Lakenheath AFB hospital in December 1974, which meant we became eligible for base housing. Thus, we only lived in Brandon for a year. I didn’t want to leave the house “on the economy” or the friendly town, but it meant an increase in the paycheck so, we moved into “substandard base housing.”
Moving while in the military is expected. It is also quite simple. A date gets set; the movers arrive, pack everything for you, and deposit it at the new address. You do have to do your own unpacking and decorating. I wouldn’t want it any other way, especially when it comes to arranging my kitchen cupboards.
“Substandard” meant we would live in a row house built in the 1930s at RAF Feltwell, Norfolk County. The rooms were small, the neighbors attached by thin walls, and no amenities. We had to drive seven and a half miles to Lakenheath AFB for those.
The following year we moved to “standard” housing in Thetford, Norfolk County. This home was much newer, had in-floor hot water heat, three bedrooms, a garage, and a fully fenced back yard. I enjoyed walking into town with our children in a large wheeled English pram (baby carriage.) The Little River Ouse runs through a park we frequented and my son loved to watch the fisherman. Still, all major shopping and other appointments happened on base, 12 miles away. My ex had coworkers living in the same subdivision, so they would share rides, and I often had a car at my disposal to do errands at Lakenheath. I didn’t find driving on the left side of the road a problem.
We returned to the states in 1977 but my memories of our time in the UK seem like it was much more recently. I would like to revisit the area with my grandson so he can see where his Mom was born and spent her first two years. I would point out the 700-year old buildings that are still in use and make sure there is time to visit the coast which I didn’t do when I lived there.
Have you traveled or lived someplace you would like to visit again? Have you had the opportunity to use an experience from your childhood, like a wood stove, to enhance a happening in your adult life? Please share your comments below.
Sue Spitulnik was an Air Force wife from 1972 until 1979. She stays connected to the military/veteran community through her membership in the Rochester (NY) Veterans Writing Group. The group has recently published an anthology of some of their military experiences, United in Service, United in Sacrifice, available on Amazon. If you would like to contact her directly, you can do so on her Facebook page; Sue Carmichael Spitulnik
When you grow up in a small rural town in the Finger Lakes area of New York State as I did, you can hold on to some strange misconceptions because you don’t know any better. When I started moving around the US and the UK as a military wife I learned that dirt isn’t the same wherever you go. In some places, it isn’t even the same color. And the plants that thrived near my childhood home wouldn’t necessarily survive in another location. The same holds for birds. I learned about different backyard songbirds each time I moved. I enjoyed getting acquainted with them and knowing their proper names.
From lack of experience, I also thought food was the same wherever one might travel. If I hadn’t left my home area I wouldn’t have been introduced to Huevos Rancheros, Greek gyros, or jerked chicken served with plantains. I would never have had steak au poivre in a French restaurant in London or enjoyed the beignets that New Orleans is famous for. I wouldn’t have been able to go to a port and buy fresh-caught shrimp from a deep-sea fisherman. I wouldn’t have learned there are many ways to make baked beans other than the way my mother did. Nor would I have been introduced to Yorkshire pudding which is not a dish of cold creamy mousse but what I know as a popover. While living in England familiar foods were called by different names, for example, French fries are chips, and what I call stew is goulash. I like my food, it wasn’t a problem, just another interesting experience.
I was a dependent, a support to my husband, comfortable at home with our little ones. I never had to serve in a war zone or “in the field” where active-duty military members were fed K-rations, or C-rations depending on the time period of service. Stories from veterans about what those rations looked and tasted like can be high spirited with expletives thrown in. I have heard one man say, “They included that tiny bottle of Tabasco sauce and I used it to make whatever I was looking at palatable.” In the reverse, I have heard high praise for the canned cherry cobbler.
The MREs that are in use currently have a better reputation than the rations did according to the people who I know that have eaten them. I include a complete list of what is in the package because I have always wondered how toilet paper gets supplied. (IF you eat, you must go!) It doesn’t sound like a bad meal to me, but I’m not too fussy when it comes to food choices.
QUICK NUTRITION FOR SOLDIERS ON THE GO
GoArmy.com article on MREs
MREs are the main operational food ration for the United States Armed Forces. It originated from the c-rations and k-rations from World War II, and later developed into MCI (Meal, Combat, Individual) rations used in Korea and Vietnam. In 1980 the MRE was developed and is still the U.S. Army’s primary ration.
Generally, an MRE contains the following items:
- Entree – the main course, such as spaghetti or beef stew
- Side dish – rice, corn, fruit, or mashed potatoes, etc.
- Cracker or bread
- Spread – peanut butter, jelly, or cheese spread
- Dessert – cookies or pound cakes
- Candy – M&Ms, Skittles, or Tootsie Rolls
- Beverages – Gatorade-like mixes, cocoa, dairy shakes, coffee, tea
- Hot sauce or seasoning – in some MREs
- Flameless Ration Heater – to heat the entree
- Accessories – spoon, matches, creamer, sugar, salt, chewing gum, toilet paper, etc.
Each MRE provides an average of 1,250 calories (13 percent protein, 36 percent fat, and 51 percent carbohydrates) and one-third of the Military Recommended Daily Allowance of vitamins and minerals. A full day’s worth of meals would consist of three MREs.
In my Veterans writing group we have discussed food on more than one occasion. Some of the prompts were: tell about a dish you ate in a foreign country, a memorable or holiday meal you had while serving, a unique way of cooking something you were familiar with, or an entree you learned to like though you didn’t expect to. Both of the WWII vets wrote about fresh-made German sausage. While sharing their stories they discovered they had been in the same sausage shop in Europe a few months apart. The owner stood back and watched on both occasions as the Americans took/stole his inventory. The rest of the story is that the shop owner moved to Buffalo, NY, after the war and my friends found out so went to visit him and apologize for their wartime actions. “We were just hungry. We meant him no ill will,” Kurt told us before going to meet the man for the second time. On their return, Bob explained, “We shook hands and passed around the forgiveness.”
When talking with a Korean War vet about his travels, he mentioned kimchi, made the traditional way, in an inground pit. He said the first time he had it he was skeptical, but by the time he returned to the states from Korea he craved it and still does 60 years later. If you don’t know, it is fermented Napa cabbage and radish with a lot of garlic and plenty of spice. I have to be honest, I have never tried it because of the smell. Maybe I’m missing something.
While living in England, we did our major grocery shopping at the base commissary. It was stocked with familiar name brands and the prices were set for the benefit of the American serving overseas. This was during the mid-1970s so fast-food chains like McDonald’s had not yet opened there. The two items we couldn’t wait to get back to the states to ingest were hot dogs and Kentucky Fried Chicken. Silly I know, but some flavors can’t be replaced or reproduced in my kitchen. Now I would love to be able to go to an English Chippy for some deep-fried, battered Rockfish and malt vinegar covered chips wrapped together in butcher paper.
Are there any types of food have you been introduced to while traveling and wish you could have again? Use the comments section to share where you’ve been and what type of food played a part in making your memories.
Sue Spitulnik was an Air Force wife who stays connected to the military/veteran community through her membership in the Rochester (NY) Veterans Writing Group. The group has recently published an anthology of some of their military experiences, United in Service, United in Sacrifice, available on Amazon. If you would like to contact her directly you can do so at her blog, susansleggs.com
The World War II vet tells of his experiences like they happened yesterday, or maybe last month. The reality, he is 95 and he is reliving days that took place 70 years ago. He explains their daily routine, as soldiers, was so structured that the feelings and memories have never gone away. He is a gentle, caring, slow-moving, refined gentleman, but his stories are of a young, cut-up, often getting reprimanded. I can’t picture the young man, but I can tell you about some of his shenanigans because I’ve known the man for five years. Most likely, I will never grasp the severity of his statement, “On the European front, we were just trying to stay alive and we did what we had to do to make it home.”
The Vietnam Era C-130 pilot explains, those who wore flight suits were a team. If one person failed to do something correctly, the whole team could die in a fiery crash, taking the load of cargo or humans with them. The military flight suit, with name, insignia, and rank was our brand and it was burned into our souls through training and repetition how to act while wearing it. Sometimes taking off or landing on the airstrips we had to use turned into an exercise of cheating death because of weather, location, or gunfire. One doesn’t forget those experiences. After his enlistment was finished he worked for 38 years at Xerox helping to design and bring to life the first digital printers, yet when he is asked what he did for a living he will tell you he was a pilot. That’s the identity he is proud of, that never left him, and has shaped him as a man.
The female Lt. Colonel RN admits she said no when the Air force asked if she was going to reenlist again after serving 23 years. Her dreams had become instant playbacks of twisted bloody bodies and she knew she couldn’t bear another deployment to a war zone. She now stares at her military uniform in the closet wondering who she is without it? No one knows how many young lives she saved or at least tried to. She has no intention of telling her co-workers that during her last military assignment in Afghanistan it was her job to make sure the correct body parts were reverently placed in the body bag with the same name label. When she had worn her uniform people could see her rank, her ribbons that proved accomplishments, and her name. She was a necessary cog in a big wheel. She knew her job, and she did it well. Now in her civilian job, she feels insignificant, invisible, fearful, and uncertain of how to establish her identity as a civilian. She knows it’s time to heal herself but she isn’t sure how to do that.
The above three examples of military identity come from veterans who are close friends of mine. They gave me permission to summarize their identities in my own words. When I asked them to explain why some vets walk around wearing parts of their old uniforms or other clothing identifying them as a veteran the answer was because it shows who their brotherhood is. It gives the vet a sense of still belonging in the big wheel and allows others to strike up the common conversation of, which branch, where and when did you serve. The question of what did you do is shied away from, especially during wartime. No one wants to admit what they had to do on the front lines. Sometimes the uniform stays visible because the body has left the armed forces but the psyche has not.
Families are directly affected by their member’s identity on many different levels. Some because of accomplishments, reprimands, security clearances, ongoing health and/or emotional problems, and even death benefits. I went to a quilting retreat a few years ago and overheard our guest teacher being asked if she had been able to travel without her security detail. My ears perked up. She answered, as she drove out of D.C. her tail car turned back. What? Turns out she was married to one of the members of the White House Chiefs of Staff and a security detail was part of her life. I’m not sure I’d enjoy that. I recently learned that my desire to move often may be called “self-deploying” because as a military wife I moved almost yearly, if not to another base, to another residence because of my husband’s advancement in rank or because of another child being born. The military life is a transient one. I’m one of the people that enjoyed it.
Have you been the person with a military identity or an identity from any other job that had a major impact on your life? Did you find it took a while to grow away from it once you were no longer involved in that job? Were you able to take the attributes and apply them elsewhere, or did you miss the routine you were used to and still long for the familiar? Please share any thoughts in the comments section.
Sue Spitulnik is an ex-Air Force wife who stays connected to the military/veteran community through her membership in the Rochester (NY) Veterans Writing Group. The group has recently published an anthology of their military experiences, United in Service, United in Sacrifice, available on Amazon. If you would like to contact her directly you can do so at her blog, susansleggs.com
In the fall of 1971 as the Vietnam war was winding down my long time boyfriend enlisted in the Air Force to avoid being drafted. Seven months after I graduated from high school, I left my hometown to marry him after he finished boot camp. The husbands of the two couples who attended our wedding at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Mississippi were his classmates who he had known for mere days. There was no one from either of our families present. He was the oldest of six children who had known too much responsibility and I was the youngest of four girls who had known little. We were excited to be starting a new adventure together thinking we were escaping the ho-hum of the small town we grew up in.
We learned quickly that military life was unlike what we were used to. There were many rules to be followed by the service member; no calling in sick, wear the uniform with precise requirements of creases and boot shine, learn how to budget on little pay, don’t even ask to have a holiday off, live and work where you were told to, and sometimes end up working in a job field different than the one the recruiter promised you. We were young and giddy, we didn’t recognize these rules as sacrifices of our freedom, it was just how things worked. For him, he had a job with good benefits, and for me; I was getting to “see the world.”
Now it’s almost 50 years later and I have realized when I left home, the familiarity of family and friends went with me. I lost, sacrificed, a personal connection to the daily lives of my sisters and their families and my school chums and their siblings. Had I stayed near my hometown I would have maintained a closeness to my nieces and nephews. I would have known one of my classmates became a local businessman able to pay for the town’s new playground and own a golf course. I would have known the neighbor’s little brother ended up working for the state and has been able to retire comfortably at age 55. Instead, I met lots of people who I have no connection to today. The exception being one girlfriend that is a letter writer who keeps the communication alive. I’m attempting to regain friendships with people I grew up with via Facebook. It isn’t all that satisfying nor successful.
My life as a military wife expanded my horizons like I didn’t know was possible, but I sacrificed my roots to live in a bigger puddle of experience. I can’t change the past, but I can go to my veterans’ writing group and discuss what I have learned. They will understand because they sacrificed their roots too, or in one lady’s case, she feels she has lost familiarity with her child to the service.
Diane’s son is a 10-year Marine and now a Major. She tearfully shared with me she doesn’t know her son anymore. Her memory of him is an immature, but driven college student and now he is a man and she didn’t witness the growth because he was “off in the service.” She continued to tell me when they Facetime and she asks what he is doing at work, his answer is, “You know Mom, military stuff.” The sad fact is Mom doesn’t know. She doesn’t know when he switches girlfriends or where he might be stationed in two years. She doesn’t know when he buys a new car or has a toothache and he doesn’t think to tell her. She tells him she would like to set up a ZOOM chat with him and his sister and he says he has to deal with his men first. She has fallen on the list of importance for him. It hurts her and he doesn’t realize it because his focus is elsewhere. She feels like she has lost him and longs to see his face more often. I expect some sons stay in touch better, but this is her story. (Name changed for privacy.)
The Rochester Veterans Writing Group book, United in Service, United in Sacrifice is now available on Amazon. The writing group is proud the project is finished, of their service, and of being able to share their experiences to maintain a record and help non-military folk understand the sacrifices some made so others didn’t have to.
In the book I didn’t use a pen name, so look for Sue Spitulnik’s essay. Included in the back are prompts you are welcome to use to help you start a personal notebook or writing group.
In the comments please tell about something you have given up, sacrificed, for the good of others.
If you would like to contact me personally, you can do so through my blog Susansleggs.com.
When you hear the word SERVICE, what flashes through your mind? Currently, it may be a picture of doctors and nurses. It could be your favorite restaurant server, your mechanic, or someone in the military. I was an Air Force wife from 1972–1979 and I waited tables in the closest restaurant to the main gate of both an Air Force Base and an Army Post in Tacoma, Washington from 1978—1991 where most of the customers were active duty or retired members of the armed services. I moved back to the Finger Lakes area of New York State in 1991 and lost my connection to a military-based way of life. When I hear the word service my mind thinks military first, then may drift to other definitions.
I am a five-year member of the Rochester, NY Veterans Writing Group. We meet each month and I have only missed a few meetings since joining in 2015 because being with “my” vets has brought me home to a feeling I didn’t know I was missing until I experienced it again. When I started attending I found my “tribe” of brothers and sisters that “get it.” The group gathers around a table and writes personal experience memories brought forth from thought-provoking prompts. Once the allotted writing time ends, we read our musings aloud, sharing the highs and lows, and sometimes comical, points of military life. It’s a healing process and only safe to do with other vets who understand: the front lines come with exhaustion, bad food, blood, and death; the military comes with pride, service, boredom, and chaos; the home front can be supportive or fall away in a flash, and it takes 22 to 25 other members in the background to support the ones brandishing weapons no matter the circumstances.
I am proud to share, the groups’ anthology titled, United in Service, United in Sacrifice will be released in May 2020. The authors are veterans and family members ranging in age from 27 years to 95 years old. The stories start at WWII and move forward to Afghanistan. The authors’ goal is to help anyone understand the meaning and feeling of “tribe” or “brotherhood” of the military and the sacrifice it takes to “sign on the dotted line,” hence the book title.
According to the National Conference for State Legislators, only 7.6% (in 2019) of all Americans have ever served in the United States military. I beg to differ because I was a dependent wife and had two children. No, I didn’t serve to the extent of following orders and being asked to brandish a weapon, but I carried a military dependent ID and served by being the back-up, the home front, who gave up my childhood roots, never gave them to my kids, then willingly packed and moved each time the Air Force ordered my ex-husband to do so. I made immediate friends with new neighbors and relied on other members of my husband’s unit as a family because I had no other choice. Becoming a military dependent changed my life by expanding the puddle in which I live.
Today I continue to serve by being the “Mom” of our writing group. I take the coffee pot to each gathering, check in privately with a member when I can sense they need it, and present each new member a patriotic quilt on their sixth month attendance anniversary. I learned to sew when I was in high school and I’ve been making quilts ever since. I am very fortunate to have a large sewing studio in my home that has multiple cupboards full of many different colors of fabric, lots of it red, white, or blue. My husband is often with me when I’m shopping for fabric. He carries the bolts I pick, chats with the person who cuts what I want and pays for it knowing I am going to give most of it away. He’s a veteran too and his generosity keeps me occupied doing something I love, and gives both of us a way to acknowledge our fellow veterans.
The quilt pictured below was made for my WWII Veteran friend, Bob Whelan. It is a replica of the 13th Armored Cavalry (1944-’45) patch of which he was a member and is now the President of that unit’s reunion group. The quilt hangs in his study at home. The pattern for the recurring block is called Kaleidoscope. Fun fact; my husband was in the 50th Armored Division (1970-’76.)
The above quilt was a gift to Steve McAlpin.
We had to say a final farewell to one of our own this past January. Some of “my” vets from left to right; Me, Gary Redlinski (Vietnam), Steve McAlpin (Afghanistan), his girl Carol, Holly Katie (family member), Vaughn Stelzenmuller (Vietnam), Bob Whelan (WWII)
There are so many different types of service whether it is in the military, to your family or community, at work, in your children’s schools, at the Carrot Ranch, etc. Service can be as simple as a smile in the check-out line at a retail store or brandishing a weapon not knowing if you’ll make it to the next day and all points and locations in between.
Charli Mills serves us by giving us a fun, safe, positive place to share the written word. I am thankful to be a part of Carrot Ranch and proudly talk of my international friends who keep my life puddle ever expanding.
In the comments section please share your service story–military or otherwise.
You can contact me individually through my blog susansleggs.com