I learned to drive stick shift in a day: the day we arrived in Spain, which was also the day of the Benghazi attacks. Driving a manual vehicle was a survival skill.
Learning to drive stick was just the first of many, many new things I would learn in my first weeks at an overseas duty station. Military moves are never easy, particularly when they are overseas. This one—with 3 children ages 4 and under—was no exception. We flew on September 11, 2011. When our plane landed, we were greeted with the news that my husband must report to work as soon as possible, because the Benghazi compound in Libya had been attacked, and half of his new unit had deployed there overnight. We had a few hours to get settled into a hotel off base. We then learned that Spanish rental cars are almost exclusively manual. And a “large family vehicle” meant a hatchback. So, we packed the kids in their 3 car seats into the back seat, and my husband spent a precious hour teaching me how to drive.
My first lesson was going around the block at the local fairgrounds, and by the end of the day I had to navigate 1-way streets and signs in Spanish to get myself from our hotel to our new military base. It was a stressful, knuckle-clenching ride. But I did it.
Then I had to get back.
We learn new things (like how to drive stick shift) when we are forced to.
Military spouses are always faced with new situations. The world is a rapidly-changing, unpredictable place. Even though we had done some research and suspected our rental car would be a manual, we thought my husband would have the time and ability to drive us around. That situation changed, and we had to roll with it. Every military spouse has a similar story of a situation that changed suddenly, leaving an unexpected pile of responsibilities in his or her lap. Orders can change, even after you have bought a house. Deployment dates can change. You can unexpectedly discover that you are pregnant.
What separates the new from the ‘seasoned’ spouses is the ability to shoulder the new burden and move forward. In spite of fear, or doubt, or insecurity, we simply have to deal with the situations that the military hands us. Take one step. Then take another.
In the weeks that followed our move to Spain, my husband spent most waking hours at work, and even slept in his new office. It fell on me to drive myself and the 3 little ones around base to get us “checked in”—registered for housing and health care, signed up for new preschool and bank accounts. Those first few weeks, everything was hard. Driving a few miles for a simple errand was an instant headache. Each ride, I clenched my teeth, tried to ignore the questions from the 3 children directly behind me, and prayed not to stall when backing up. But I did it.
Every week, things got easier. I got us settled into a new house, attended orientation, found my way around town, learned where the grocery store was, and made some new friends. Every day was a struggle, with new challenges and confusion. I felt alone and intimidated. But I kept trying. I knew the beginning would be the hardest part, and that eventually we would enjoy our ‘exotic’ overseas location. Each tiny achievement felt like a huge victory, a precious jewel. One by one, a day at a time, I strung those jewels into a necklace and wore it close to my heart. Each time I whispered, “I did it.”
Every time you face a new challenge bravely, it is another jewel on the strand. The first few weeks apart when he goes to Boot Camp? That’s a jewel. Finding a new job after a big move? Jewel. First deployment? Having a baby alone? Learning how to change a tire? Click, click, click. With each new experience, we are all building ourselves custom jewelry. Even if no one else can see them, they will notice that we hold our heads a little higher, smile a little brighter, and have a firmness in our step that makes civilians watch in awe. We have faced change, and we have changed right along with it. Whatever challenge life threw at us, we did it.
After 3 years in Spain, I fell in love with the country, its people, and its food. I even wrote and published a guide book for new families moving to the base! When it was time to move, I was once again driving a stick-shift vehicle around base for our final days. The ‘check-out’ errands were just as numerous, but not nearly as challenging. I knew where to go, how to speak in Spanish, and how to drive the car. Everything I had pushed myself to learn, (even when I didn’t want to do it), was suddenly obvious. Three years earlier, those errands had seemed like an unmovable mountain. Now they were just a standard chore. Like every military spouse who has faced an unexpected challenge—I arrived, I adapted, and I conquered. I did it.
What is one challenge that you have faced with strength and bravery? I would love to hear your “I did it!” moment in the comments!
If jewelry isn’t your thing, then perhaps you would prefer my post about making yourself a Deployment Brag Wall out of Post-It notes! Thanks for stopping by!