Coast Guard Life

by Laura Vanderwerf, ?2011 Coast Guard Spouse of the Year

I’ve been married to this Coast Guard lifestyle for 24 years. But I remember what it was like when I was young and naïve, with absolutely no clue what being married to a Coast Guardsman would mean.

I was picturing an adventure that my husband and I would experience together. But his duties to the Coast Guard have often kept him out at sea and away from home.

For new Coastie spouses, and for those outside the CG who are curious about ?just who and what we are, I wanted to share these:

Top 5 myths you’ll hear repeated about Coast Guard life:

ONE- “At least you don’t have to move as much as other military families.”

Actually, we do. Even if your spouse is stationed at the same unit for several years, that doesn’t mean the unit won’t move elsewhere. Our wedding gift from the Coast Guard was the announcement that his current ship was changing homeport and moving to Kodiak, Alaska. So instead of setting up a home after the honeymoon, I was back with my parents, waiting until my new husband said it was time for me to move. My friends were baffled. “Yes, I’m married,” I kept telling them. “Yes, I plan on moving where my husband is… I just have no clue when that will be.” It took years, but “Semper Gumby” finally became a key phrase in my vocabulary. It describes the life of any military spouse, Coasties included: We must be “always flexible” as things seem to change daily.

Since then, our family has moved every two or three years, on average. My kids can’t claim any one place as home. They aren’t close to extended family members, because they’ve never lived close enough to develop that type of relationship. But they have learned how to adapt, having experienced new places, learned new cultures, and seen how people live in various parts of the U.S. We may not be overseas, but they get a taste of what their fellow military children experience.

TWO- “At least your spouse gets ?to come home every night.”

The reality is that Coast Guard missions are often away from home. CG members do not get to go home every night. Depending on their unit, they may be gone from a couple of days to upwards of a year.

THREE- “At least you know your spouse is safe and not in danger.”

Have you been on a ship in rough seas or tracking down drug-runners? How about in a C130 or helicopter ?during a storm? We have Coast Guard men and women stationed overseas in places like Bahrain, and they perform numerous dangerous missions. Whether for port, waterway and coastal security, drug interdiction, aids to navigation, search and rescue, marine safety, defense readiness, migrant interdiction, marine environmental protection or ice operations, our CG members work in hostile environments here and abroad, risking their lives to save others.

FOUR- “Your husband/wife is ?not really in the military.”

The Coast Guard has officially been a military service since 1915. But strategically, the Coast Guard is not part of the Department of Defense. Coast Guard men and women board foreign ships looking for drugs or anything that would jeopardize our ports. If another branch of service did this same work on behalf of the DoD, it could be seen as an act of war. But we are 100 percent military. Our dependent ID cards look exactly like everyone else’s.

FIVE- “Oh. Then you must live ?on a base and have lots of services available.”

Well, no. Many Coast Guard stations are located far from any military base, which means there is no commissary, no Exchange and no MWR facility nearby. It’s a blessing and a curse: A tiny unit of CG families can become very close, and we support each other. We also attend the local church, shop at the local stores, and join the PTA of the local school, so we make civilian friends and become a real part of the communities where we’re based.

But since there’s often no base housing, finding a place to live can be tough. Many stations are located in tourist towns where available rentals are limited. For a spouse, finding work in these small towns can be tough, and local schools may have little experience with military children who have been through several school systems and been taught under different state requirements.

Although we don’t have large base communities where we can gather, there are Ombudsman to help us connect with resources and build a network of friends. Way back when I arrived in Kodiak, before the days of Ombudsmen, I was on my own. But what I did then remains the best choice for spouses even today: Go to any and all get-togethers you can. If you make an effort, you’ll find fellow spouses you can relate to.

Coast Guard life can be wonderful and also difficult, like just about every aspect of the military. If you embrace it and reach out to connect with others, it can bring you a lot of happiness.

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