To some, “Sweet Home Alabama” is a cute chick flick with Reese Witherspoon or that song everyone loves to sing by Lynyrd Skynyrd. For me and my immediate family it is actually a lot more than just a song or a movie, though I do like both. To my two oldest boys, my husband, and I, we hear this phrase and think back fondly to our year and eight months on an active duty post. To be more exact, it makes us think back to our active duty experience as a National Guard family. Now to most of you seasoned PCS’ers or active duty in general this may seem like nothing new, nothing odd. For our family this was not common and for guard families in general an active duty base is more like something visited but not called home. Now there are lots of instances when National Guard members do end up on active duty bases and there are a lot of guard members who are always on active duty orders but may or may not be in base housing. It’s complicated to say the least as guard membership can happen in many different ways.
Either way, being on an active duty base was not the most way our guard family was accustomed to living. However, for my husband’s training purposes and career advancement this is the adventure we were going to embark on, our one and only PCS move. One day long ago, almost seven years ago to be exact, my husband and I, with two boys aged six and four, packed up our little family and all our treasured belongings in one big yellow Penske truck and headed clear across the country towards the east coast. Well our trip was actually just short of the coast, we ended up in the good ol south, Fort Rucker, Alabama to be exact. Now I certainly had my own list of active duty bases I would have much rather ended up on other than ‘mother Rucker’. Anywhere in Hawaii comes to mind first and foremost or maybe something a little more north on the map. The upper east coast would have been nice, still have never been there. But Fort Rucker Alabama is where we needed to be and where we would be calling home for the foreseeable future.
By the time our California family found ourselves in Alabama we had already been a guard family for more than seven years. Active duty was, well, to say the least, going to be a bit of a shock to us. This family could have been thrown in any of the thirteen western states and we probably wouldn’t have felt out of place one bit. Bama though, that was going to be different, strange and maybe weird. Yeah, all of those adjectives pretty much sum up how we were feeling heading into this new found territory. I wasn’t scared of all this, I actually consider myself quite adventurous and Alabama was not the first state in that region that I’ve ever set foot in before. I was quite familiar with South Carolina and Georgia, spent eight months in total within these two states while doing my own boot camp and advanced training for the Army National Guard. This adventure though, this was with children, when I was now a parent and had a lot more than myself to worry about. I proceeded with caution but so much excitement too. I just knew it would be a great experience for our little family.
Now our family had a choice to let dad go this alone or relocate for this time period with him. I was hesitant about a move but considering my family had just gone through our first deployment I knew what we needed to do. My husband had only been home from deployment for about five months before he was off again to Alabama. I stayed behind for just a bit more so the kids could finish out the school year. Those two little men in my life made all the difference in how I proceeded with caution. However, it did not take long to find I had nothing to worry about and that this was the right choice for them too. We knew it would be a long time for my husband to finish up what he needed to do and there was no way we were staying behind if this was actually a place we could travel with him to. Plus, another deployment was almost guaranteed when he was finished at Fort Rucker. And it was, exactly two weeks after we had made the drive back home to California he was off again to deployment number two.
So now that I’ve set the stage on the how and why we ended up in Alabama let me talk about what this national guard spouse learned while I was there. This is the good part. We were just a few months short of a full two year stint on an active duty post. Because of the timing of it all though we actually each spent two birthdays there, two wedding anniversaries, two Christmas’, Thanksgivings and New Year’s Eve’s in Alabama. And wow, I just have to say, what an interesting almost two years it was! I really don’t know how to best describe everything that happened there. It was kind of magical, a little crazy, dashed with a bit of frustration, sad here and there, and a lot of fun! All of that made me just a bit envious of the active duty life.
First off, one thing I learned immediately about a PCS…don’t pack your driver’s license in the back pocket of a skirt, packed inside a wardrobe box, packed inside the big yellow Penske truck. Yes, I totally did this and we actually had to leave said Penske truck outside the gate, drive our car onto base and later a friend took my husband back to pick up the Penske truck. Don’t want to dwell on that too much, it happened and I certainly learned my lesson. This does lead me to another thing I learned, not just that first day when our very long road trip finally ended but throughout my time in Alabama.
Friendships take on a whole new meaning within an active duty base. On that day there was someone my husband had just met maybe a month or two before but he had no problem helping us out with the little hiccup we had trying to get ourselves and our belongings through the gates. And this theme was an ongoing one while in the south. No matter what we needed, at any given time, there was ALWAYS someone willing to help. Granted, we happened to go through this time period with three other guardsmen who were from our original unit in California and they also helped along the way. I was always amazed though with the way complete strangers became friends and were willing to go the extra mile for us. Even if it meant they would dump all our junk that we did not want to haul back across the country all by themselves when we were busy doing other packing. Or when someone would come pick up my son every morning to take him to school because I was doing childcare in my home. Or when my new bike-to-school-son would get help from a soldier who pulled over when he saw my son wipeout on the side of the road.
This helping hand thing was like I said, an ongoing theme. I will never forget my son’s 5th birthday party we celebrated just about three and a half months after getting to Alabama. This was where magic happened! Since we were still getting to know people there was a small pool of people to invite and there ended up being a couple kids from his soccer team, a few from school and a couple of neighborhood kids. When the party was basically done it was like a little fairy waved their wand and my house was clean, furniture back in place, food away, backyard cleaned, and the dishes even done….the dishes even done! I do not want to put my family here at home on blast but even at home a party clean-up had never gone quite like this. These nice women and some men were, without being asked, pitching in to get things done, doing the heavy-lifting, literally. It reminded me of an actual military detail that worked with efficiency, no complaining and got the job done. I was amazed….and so thankful! That night my son enjoyed his gifts and the company of a couple of kids whose parents were still hanging out with us.
So while there was a lot of good stuff going on for us at this time there were some trying times and some scary times. Training was sometimes pushing my husband to his limits and there were some things that went on locally that kind of slapped you in your face. Overall most people in the surrounding towns were very nice and seemed appreciative of the military community they shared their lives with. I would be lying though if I said that there were never any instances of people treating us, or my husband and his buddies, well let’s just say not so nice. Besides those instances there were actually very scary moments. Being from the west coast tornadoes were something I was not accustomed to. So when tornado sirens went off on post it was very alarming and frightening. It did not help that it was in the middle of the school day and my kids were not with me, nor my husband. I just wanted the skies to clear, wanted a phone call and wanted to know immediately that everyone was ok. I would come to find that my immediate family was perfectly fine but that the tornado did touch down in town and not only that but through a local high school.
Eventually we would find out that two of the high school students that passed away were children of soldiers based out of Fort Rucker….talk about disheartening. I would later talk with the neighbor of one of the families and also have the little brother from that same family play on my son’s soccer team in the next season. In the discussion with the neighbor, she had said the mother knew her son was hurt, knew he was gone that day before the official news even got back to her. As a military spouse I know we prepare for a lot of what ifs but I am sure that spouse could have never seeing this coming. The local community in town and the community on post came together for all the families affected. I even remember the big concert that was organized to be on post and benefit the tornado recovery. Disasters like these showed people’s true colors and gave way for the best of humanity to shine through.
So to contrast with that sad and fearful note let me move onto the thing that encompassed most of our time spent in Alabama. Fun! Through any difficulty we may have experienced, throughout the almost two years there was a lot of fun to be had. Fort Rucker may have not been the ideal location for us but for a family who likes to road trip it worked out well. We had many voyages down to different beach cities in Florida, up to Atlanta, over to New Orleans and many other places in between that we would have not visited if not for our time in Alabama. We visited fun places like Coca-Cola World, educational places like the US Space and Rocket Center, and historic places like Martin Luther King Jr’s childhood home. There was also one thing I had to admit and got a couple of weird looks for it back home. Florida beaches are BEAUTIFUL! And that beach water is the best water I have ever swam in. Maybe it’s because it’s gulf coast ocean water but all I know is that it was not near as cold as the Pacific Ocean back home, which I love the view of but rarely actually swim in.
My boys have so many memories of our time in and around Fort Rucker that they can’t help but smile when that song comes on, as do I. I have to mention too that this year and eight month time period was the only straight time since our marriage where my husband actually came home to us every single night. There were only three weeks towards the very end where he had to be out in the field. Back home for the National guard he travelled ALL the time so this time period was like a little cherished space in time for us. Alabama was a place where I met so many people from all walks of life and where I made memories and friendships that I can never and will never forget. Being active duty for just that short period of time taught me so much about myself as a person, as a military spouse and the differences and commonalities there are between the guard life and active duty life. In my family’s hearts there is a little bity spot just for Bama, the Wiregrass, Rucker. And I know exactly where Hoda Kotb is talking about when she says “Dothan, that map dot town” as she mentions it on the late show with David Letterman.
I could go on and on about the different little things I learned and experienced from calling an active duty post home. An actual MP watched the crosswalk at my children’s school…Awesome. Beautiful beaches less than an hour away…Amazing. A whole community of families and friends who get what our life is about and pitch in to become all the family and friends you can ever need…the BEST THING EVER!