Military families are well-versed in separation and loss. Combat deployments are, I can only imagine, an often grueling, sometimes punishing ordeal for military spouses. And of course there is the loss of life, the death of a loved one…something so profoundly devastating that mere words cannot possibly capture the resulting grief and anguish.
So I am well aware that another type of separation pales in comparison, and it seems rather trivial to even mention it. But they have affected me, and I imagine they weigh on many military families. It’s saying goodbye to a duty station. Yes, a PCS is a solid 5-6 months worth of upheaval: packing and purging, cancelling and connecting all of your utilities, changing your address and your kids’ schools, transferring your medical, dental and school records, and trying to find that damn post library book that is holding up the whole affair. After doing it a few times, I find I dread it less. But it still never rises above ‘barely tolerable drudgery’.
But over and above domestic issues, what I find most challenging is the goodbye that accompanies the unavoidably transient friendships that grow out of any PCS, and saying goodbye to a community of folks who were your whole world for 3 years. They were friendships that grew out of circumstance and forced relocations, the fact that your kids went to the same DOD school together, were sick at the same time at some dink MTF, of the mere fact that you were the only ones who spoke English in the whole area. You knew what you were getting into when you struck up friendships with those people, and that each one of those friendships would surely end with a handshake or a hug, some exchange of thanks and best wishes, and maybe a hushed word or two about some evening adventure you shared. But it’s always accompanied by that somber realization that you would probably never see that person again. I often feel weighed down by the idea that when my wife’s military career is over, I will never be able to adequately recall and appreciate the hundreds of great people I’ve met, and the thousands of tremendous moments that can only be really experienced in ‘that’ part of the country or the world.
I’ve tried some really foolish techniques to combat this sense of nostalgia and loss of a PCS: as we were about to leave Texas, I ate as much BBQ brisket as I could, and when we were leaving Germany, I sought out as much schnitzel as the family could tolerate. This was all done with the idea that, if I ate enough of either of them, I would never want brisket or schnitzel for a long, long time. Guess how that worked out. Of course, I don’t want to trivialize the wonderful friendships that every PCS has afforded us by comparing them to regional delicacies. It’s the people and the friendships that make or break a duty station. And having to say goodbye to people who were a big part of nearly every great experience we had there, and do so on a regular basis, well…that won’t ever get easier. Social media is a great tool for keeping in touch with faraway friends—if you don’t have Skype, I strongly recommend it, even if you’re a technological invalid like me—but we all know it’s not the same. At some point, you realize you really have only been speaking to a computer screen for the last hour, or tapping out letters on your phone…and that you’ll never really have those amazing, spontaneous moments that cemented your friendship ever again. Though technology can bridge the gap, you will eventually come to feel the distance that separates you from your old neighbors, your old friends, your old life. Over time, your list of ‘friends’ will surely grow. Unfortunately, the amount of time and energy you have to keep those friendships alive remains the same. Some friendships fade, only to be replaced by new ones. And you know that those too have their own ‘sell by’ date. I guess it’s one of the natural cycles of life, but for military families, it’s amped up, and it weighs on me from time to time. Yeah, Facebook can let you know where someone’s having dinner, or how their kids have really grown. It’s great to hear that your old crew is doing well. But you knew full well that when you had Ft. Anywhere in the rear-view mirror, ‘goodbye’ really meant ‘farewell’.