Last night I went to a spouse FAM-O (essentially a Question and Answer session, along with an information-filled presentation) for Nathaniel's helicopter squadron. I didn't really know what to expect, but was told it would be a great opportunity to learn more about the helo squadron, more about what Nathaniel does, and possibly what to expect in the future.
Sounded good - so I did some fanangaling with my schedule, and by 4:15 pm was bumping along the road for my :45 minute drive out to Whiting Filed.
As the spouse of someone who has been in the Marine Corps for 5+ years, Nathaniel and I have been through a lot together. Deployments - there have been two, Afghanistan and Iraq - stress, moves (he's lived in Virginia, California, North Carolina, and now Florida. I've visited VA and CA, but have spent a lot of time in NC and now FL), job changes, life changes, meeting new friends, saying good by to old friends, and seemingly everything in between.
Additionally, I've had some great experiences and some not-so-great experiences with other spouses. After a few years, I feel that I've adopted a pretty healthy persepctive on Nate's job. Let's face it: I need to in order to survive in this system. Nathaniel is the one who wears the rank: not me. I've been bullied by other spouses to "volunteer" for jobs to help out - which I flatly refused to do. But I've also met some tremendous women, strong and courageous in their own right, who have really helped me, and inspired me. Even though I don't see these women as much as I would like, their friendships have remained true and strong.
At this point, I am confident that Nathaniel's carreer doesen't hinge on my ability to bake cookies (thankfully!). If I want to volunteer, to be involved, I can. But if I'm busy or have a lot on my plate, then there's no need to worry. This might change in the future, if he stays in and increases in rank (he's currently a Marine Captain). From what I've read and discussed with spouses who have been around for a lot longer that me, this is a newer trend. Sure, there are still relics of the old system, but by and large modern spouses that I've had the pleasure of meeting are (more often than not) pretty much down-to-earth.
When Nathaniel checked into his helicopter squadron, we were both made to feel immediately welcome. We are sent frequent updates, both via newsletter and email, and while Nathaniel spends 10-12 hours at the squadron daily, I still appreciate being informed of what's going on (he doesen't always relay the message. "Lost in translation!").
When the opportunity to attend FAM-O came up, I knew that I wanted to go.
Even though Nathaniel and I have been down in Pensacola for 18 months or so, this was the first spouse meeting that I've attended. Yes, I realize that Nathaniel is in a training command, which differs from a regular squadron. However, I feel that familes, spouses and loved ones would be much better served, if the MTSIG and VT squadrons took a more active role in letting everyone know what was going on, what to expect. (Nate had to go through 2 squadrons and 3 different flight programs to get to where he is today - in a helicopter squadron, FYI). A family meeting, any sort of informational meeting, would have been greatly appreciate by THIS spouse. Even though I've been a Marine wife for 5+ years, I can always learn something new. (Flight school is just as new for ME as it is for my husband.)
At a fleet squadron, the purpose is mission-readiness. At a training squadron, the atmosphere is that of a teaching command. In the fleet, its been our experience that the squadron is "tighter" - military personel and their families are all on the same page. The purpose is to prepare for deployment, deploy, and then return. Everything in between is done to help the Marines an their familes.
At the training squadron, it's different. There's no threat of an impending deployment. Additionally, Nathaniel has no Marines under his command. His sole job is to study his aircraft and learn to fly. Still stressful, but a different kind of pressure than in the fleet. As a result, it's been our experience (again), that the squadrons aren't as tight. Students are on their own plan, their own schedules. There's no pressure to be "mission ready" and have the Marines "mission ready." Instead, Nathaniel and his counterparts need to be ready for every flight.
Flight school has been difficult for both Nate and myself. I hate to say this, but its almost easier when he's deployed. Yes, I still worry about his saftey when he's gone (all the time), but I don't see the stress that he's under, aren't exposed to what he goes through. In my mind, he's gone for 7 months "doing his thing." This allows me, in turn, to form my own schedule. Yes - it's really hard and it sucks - but gradually you get into your groove. You figure things out. You make your own schedule and time eventually ticks by.
Flight school is different: I see Nathaniel sometimes, but he spends almost all of his time studying. His day is spent at the squdron, and at night he studies - yet he constantly checks the next day's schedule to see what time his pre-flight brief is (it changes daily) We're like ships passing in the night. We sleep in the same bed, but he gets up at 3:30 or 4 am, leaves the house by 4:30 or 5, and doesn't come home until 4 or 5 pm. And then he studies until 8 or 9... and then falls asleep. It's very hard being so close to someone you love, and them under so much stress. He's adapted to the workload brilliantly, but I still struggle with missing my husband (except on Saturday - our day).
Typical Nathaniel - he just shakes his head, smiles, and returns to his studies in his ugly green recliner.
I wish that 18 months ago - when we first arrived in Pensacola, that the squdrons (The MTSIG and VT squadrons) had held an informational meeting for flight students AND their spouses/families. There are so many new things to learn, so much that is different and unexpected: it would have made the past 18 months a little easier had I known ahead of time what I've had to learn (painfully at times) during this 18-month tenure.
Just simple stuff: why is my spouse studying for 15 hours a day? Where will we be 6 months from now? How can we better communicate? How can we support EACH OTHER? What kind of resources are available to me, to us, to him? Can you give us an idea of what to expect? Do other people feel the same way? What is your advice on how to cope during this time?.... and things along those lines.
Last night was great. I was SO GRATEFUL to the helo squadron CO, the XO (oops - the company commander, the executive officer), and several of the IP (instructor pilots) who showed up to help out, answer questions. Additionally, there were several IP spouses who served as a link between the squadron and the student spouses (they basically pass along information and answer questions), and a woman from the Counseling Center on hand to answer our questions.
Even though there was lots of great information that they provided, the CO made one comment that stuck with me:
"Every day your spouse (Nathaniel) gets in that helicopter, every day he comes to the squdron, he's taking a pass/fail test. Every flight he takes is a test. It's pass/ fail, but its still a test. He is tested every day. And where they end up is largely based on how they perform on a daily basis. Every day is a test."
That doesen't sound like fun.
It sounds stressful. It sounds scary. And that explains a lot of Nathaniel's behavior these past 18 months.
Rationally, I know that he's tested every day. That every flight is a test. But it was really great hearing it from other people. To see other spouses and realize that we're all going through this together. It's nice to see the IP spouses, and realize that many of them have been in our shoes. AND, its nice to know that the counseling center is always available, always on hand to support us should we need it.
I wish I had known this 18 months ago...learned a little more of what to expect.
There was so much information given out at the meeting - and I was grafetful. Yes, I had learned a lot during these past 18 months through trial and error, but I really appreciated the effort that Nathaniel's helicopter squadron took to make sure the families and spouses were informed. I wish the other squadrons that he was in before we hit the helicopter squadron, would have made this available. It didn't take a lot of effort, but it left me feeling so much better about where Nathaniel is and what he's doing.
And I know that folks at the helicopter squadron care about the families.
I don't know how I would be if every day I was given a pass/fail test. Probably under a lot more stress than I am now. Sure, I do my workouts, write, do my own thing: but nothing like what Nathaniel is doing. Hearing the CO discuss a daily test really help me to put things into persective. Not only does it help me to understand a little more of what Nate is going through, but I can alter my behavior to help him out. For the most part, I feel I'm pretty good in this department - going over flashcards, taking care of dinner and stuff around the house - but I can always learn.
And when it comes down to it, that's what life is about. Trial and error. And learning.
I can't reiterate enough how grateful I am to Nathaniel's helicopter squadron for putting on the FAM-O. For the past 18 months, I've been nervous about the flight program, unsure of what we got ourselves into. It wasn't a "family friendly" envoronment, and both Nate and I suffered as a result. I didn't feel that families were given the support they needed, and a lot of the painful lessons I learned/endured could have been averted with a little more information and support on the part of the previous squadrons.
So far, I'm liking the helicopter community. I'm learning new stuff, and discovering that other spouses feel the same way. And in the end, its a lot easier when you know others are going through the same thing as you.