The Air Force Wife - Life Is a Classroom

  • Published
  • By Loida Hagadorn
  • Air Force Spouse
As an Air Force spouse, I've had an incredible journey. I met my husband, Sam, in the Philippines in 1982. He was at his first duty station at Clark Air Base, living in the dormitory. Back then, single Airmen lived in the dormitory with at least two per room. Sam's roommate, Romeo, was a Filipino who had joined the Air Force and gained his American citizenship.

Romeo knew the area and spoke our native language, Tagalog, better than he spoke English, and he was the perfect person to introduce Sam to the Filipino culture and customs. He also ended up introducing Sam to me. Now, before you think this fairytale ends, "...and they lived happily ever after," remember this is an Air Force wife's story, so there have to be some bumps along the way.

We married in July, 1983, and Sam immediately upgraded his lifestyle by moving from his dormitory room on base with a roommate, to our own apartment off base. The housing allowance was far more than we needed. After paying the rent and utilities, there was plenty of money to spare. So, the first thing he did was hire a full-time maid. Life was good! Sam looks back, and even today, he'll tell you his standard of living was never higher than when he was an airman first class in the Philippines!

I come from a typical Filipino family, with two sisters and six brothers--including our parents, a family of ten. Traditionally, Filipino families are very close, and mine was no different. My brothers, sisters and parents were always close by. And soon after our marriage, Sam and I added someone new to the family--our son, Sam Jr., was born. There was so much to do with a new baby in the house! The solution was obvious: Hire another full-time maid!

I had to say goodbye to my family for the very first time in my life when we PCS'd to Castle Air Force Base, Calif., in 1985. It was here the realities of being an Air Force wife became my own. Suddenly, I was alone! I was no longer surrounded by family. I was in a foreign country, having a maid was out of the question, and I didn't drive. I had to do all of the house cleaning and laundry on my own, and Sam was working 12 hours per day, 5 days a week.

We lived in base housing, and when Sam couldn't get home in time to prepare the lawn for the "Tuesday morning white-glove" inspections, I had to rake the leaves and mow the grass myself. I soon found out I was pregnant, and had nobody to turn to for support. I cried every day, and wanted to go back home to the Philippines! I could identify with many of the wives around me who were experiencing the same challenges I was, with our husbands' hectic duty schedules. It was as if we were all single parents. My next-door neighbor was an "experienced" Air Force wife, an "older woman," in her 30s. She had six kids of her own, but eventually took me under her wing and helped me through the tough times. She was the only person I had to lean on for support. Back then, there was no spouse support system, much less, a Key Spouse program. Finding support was hit-and-miss.

Nine months into our assignment at Castle, Shannon was born, and Sam was tasked for a 6-week TDY, departing the very next day. I was still crying every day--but now, even more. When he returned from his TDY, his shop's work schedule had changed. Now, they were working 12 hours per day, 7 days a week, with no days off at all! Sam filled out a "Dream Sheet" to try and get an assignment out of Castle. He was so desperate, he asked for every remote assignment he could think of, and then we prayed real hard!

Just 10 days later, he was notified that we were headed to his sixth choice, Spain! To prepare for the PCS, I learned to drive, but only an automatic, and after many attempts at parallel parking, I finally passed the driving test the day before we departed the states. We accepted base housing at Torrejon Air Base, Spain, and for the first time, I began to experience the "Air Force family" environment that exists only at overseas locations. I found that we all are faced with the same challenges, and instead of reaching out to family in time of need, we only have each other--military spouses--to get through the tough times.

Soon, Sam was selected to go TDY for several weeks. This would be a big problem, because all of the support facilities, including the BX, commissary, and hospital, were on the base, 23 miles away, and I couldn't drive our only car, a stick-shift! It was an Air Force spouse who recognized my predicament, and offered to teach me to drive. When Sam returned from Turkey six weeks later, I was proudly driving our stick-shift car up and down the hills of Madrid!

In Spain, I learned two important lessons that are vital to the sanity and survival of every military spouse. First, leaving is good. It can be painful, but a healthy and strong marriage can't fully develop until the apron strings are cut. A marriage will only be stifled if it remains under Mom and Dad's supervision. Although leaving my family behind in the Philippines was very difficult, getting away from my family was the best thing we could have done to develop and strengthen our marriage.

The second big lesson I learned was that our home is where the Air Force sends us! I feel that my husband and I are a team. We depend on each other, and when we have challenges, we deal with them at home. We're not looking for somewhere else we call 'home' to escape to. During our assignment at Castle, I wanted to go 'home.' What I meant was, I wanted to escape my reality and not deal with it. Now I know that no matter where we are, we can turn a house into a home, and that's where we belong!

Let's fast forward to 2007, Aviano Air Base, Italy. Sam was the first sergeant of a very large maintenance unit with 630 military members, plus their families, and the commander asked me to be the key spouse for the squadron staff. Our squadron had nine flights, and each had a key spouse. Now I was that 'experienced' Air Force wife, an "older woman," in her 30s. I had the privilege of sharing my experiences with other spouses, most of them younger than me, as well as consoling those who had lost loved ones--even our own active duty members. We met often and learned from each other every day.

Our club's greatest triumph was probably the squadron's version of the Amazing Race. It was a series of different events on six consecutive Fridays, and the spouses put together a team and entered, too! Each event took about one to two hours to complete, and included a base history scavenger hunt, mini-triathlon, and construction of a large military tent without instructions. Nobody expected it, but at the end of the event, the spouses' team won!