A military base can feel like a whole new world as soon as you pass through the base gate. But first you have to get through the gate. Here’s what you need to know the first time you visit a military base.
My first military friend was a girl I met in high school. I was a civilian who had spent zero time thinking about the military for my first 16 years of life. When a new girl joined our class, I was fascinated to learn that she lived at a nearby military base. She invited me to visit her house, but told me I would have to stop at the gate so she could meet me and escort me onto the base. She drove with us past brick buildings and houses that all looked the same. She said funny things like, “there’s the PX, I love shopping there. And that’s the Commissary.” I didn’t know what she was talking about, so it was a bewildering experience!
Now I can laugh at my teenage confusion. I have spent the past six years living on military bases. Before that, we lived off-base in two other states. Base buildings and resources no longer confuse me and I have learned enough lingo to find my way around. Now my family and friends are the ones who are confused when they visit a military base!
Your first visit to a military base may be when you attend a Homecoming ceremony to meet your service member after deployment. Or it could be when your military boyfriend lives in the barracks or your girlfriend invites you to visit her on base. Either way, there are some unique things you should know before your first visit to a military base.
How to visit a military base as a civilian
Most military bases have multiple gates, and each one has armed guards. To enter a military base, you must show your dependent ID card (if you are a military spouse) or have a military sponsor (your service member.) A service member can sponsor non-military guests on base. But they will need to either fill out a sponsorship form in advance or meet you in person at the gate.
- If you are the passenger in their car, you simply need a driver’s license. A military service member or spouse can sponsor one guest in their own vehicle, as long as that person has valid photo ID.
- To bring your own car on base, the service member will need to request a base pass, which should be done at least a week before you visit. They will need your full legal name, driver’s license number, address on driver’s license, and your birthday. A pass is temporary and can only be used during the dates listed. When you arrive at the gate, you will have to show your driver’s license, which the guards will scan to see if you have a pass listed in the system. Be prepared to also show car registration and up-to-date insurance, since they are allowed to ask for that too. If you are driving a rental car, you may show the rental car paperwork.
- Your sponsor will need to be with you most of the time you are on base. You aren’t able to do much without a sponsor or ID card.
Things to know when you first visit a military base:
- Dress code: Yes, there are dress code expectations on a military base, even for visitors and guests. These are posted at the public buildings and offices. Generally: flip flops, belly shirts, workout attire, and baseball hats should not be worn inside. Some bases enforce the rules more than others, but it’s best to not wear anything too revealing if you will visit any base buildings.
- Flag ceremonies: Each morning on base, flags are raised at a short ceremony called Reveille (French for ‘wake up.’) If you are outside and hear bugle music, you should stop walking and face the nearest flag pole. Once the flag is raised, there is a quick bugle blast, then everyone is free to move again. The flags are all taken down at sunset, at a similar quick ceremony called Taps or Retreat. The same rules of respect apply.
- Exchange: The Army and Marines call it a PX (Post Exchange), the Air Force calls it a BX (Base Exchange), and the Navy calls it an NEX (Navy Exchange). But it’s all the same–a department store located on base. This is similar to a Kohl’s or Target. You can find home goods, furniture, decor, clothing, shoes, gifts, etc. To purchase anything, you or your service member must show a military ID.
- Base Housing: On some bases, housing areas are segregated by rank or number of children. The housing is for service members who are married. Many of the houses will look similar because they were all built at the same time. Some neighborhoods look like apartments, while others have single family homes.
- Gas Stations: All military bases have at least one gas station. The prices there are always slightly lower than they are off base because the military negotiates unique prices with its vendors. You typically need to show a military ID card to pay.
- Commissary: The Commissary is the base grocery store. Commissaries sell food tax-free, so it is usually a little cheaper than stores off base (depending where you live.) You need to wait in one long line to check out, and you must show a military ID card when you pay.
- Gyms: Military bases have excellent gyms which are available to all service members and their families. There is usually at least one main gym with great equipment and amenities, then there are smaller gyms located throughout base housing. Access is free, but you will need an ID card or your sponsor with you.
- Movie Theatre: Each base has its own movie theatre, and it is WAY cheaper than theatres off base! Tickets are often $3 or $4, and the movies are new releases that are selected for their popularity in the young military community. Before each movie, the National Anthem plays.
- Bowling Alley: Bases usually have a bowling alley too. There are bowling leagues, Family Nights, birthday parties, and teen nights. It’s a fun place to gather with friends on a weekend.
- Chapels: The base chapel can be used for multiple religious services, and there are usually chaplains from several different religious backgrounds. Typical services include Catholic, Protestant, Gospel, Orthodox, Jewish, Latter-day Saints, and sometimes Muslim. A chaplain is also trained as a counsellor, so you can talk to them about all kinds of topics–marriage and divorce, anxiety, mental health, or abuse.
- Hospital or Clinic: A base hospital serves all military families. Tricare health insurance covers visits to the base hospital for service members and ID card holders. If you do not have an ID, go off-base to an Urgent Care center or Emergency Room for any medical emergencies.
- ITT Office: ITT stands for Information, Tickets, and Tours. They provide tickets to local attractions and events at a discounted rate for military members and families. If you are going to any show or amusement park, you can save money by getting tickets through them.
- Bank: If you need an ATM, you can find some on base for local banks or for military banks like the Navy Federal Credit Union.
- Family Center/ Community Activities: The military has an amazing amount of programs to support families. And most of them are completely free! There are classes to help you before, during, or after deployments. Community Services offers annual events to celebrate holidays, and they sometimes host guest concerts on base. You can find these events advertised on the base website.
Whether you first visit a military base for a day or a week, I hope you have a great visit and aren’t intimidated by the military world!