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Ask VMW: What's it like on a US Army post?

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Life Lessons of a Military Wife (overseas in Europe!): Ask VMW: What's it like on a US Army post?

Life Lessons of a Military Wife (overseas in Europe!)

My goal here is to make your life easier, especially those who are in the unique situation of being a military spouse. Yes...I've been around...but in a good way...and hopefully can share those tips, tricks and shortcuts with you too. I've been on this military bus for over 40 years now. My goals in life are to have a well-run home, few money worries, well adjusted children, money socked away and whatever happiness I can scoop out of life.

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After life as an Army brat, being in the Army myself and marrying a soldier, I can honestly say I have a bucket full of life lessons I can share to help you make your everyday life easier and enlightening. Don't waste your time making unnecessary mistakes and benefit from others who have come before you on your journey through life.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Ask VMW: What's it like on a US Army post?

I've gotten this question a few times and thought I'd better answer it now.  It's nice to see that some blog readers are not affiliated with the military and are interested to know more about what goes on here.

"Hi, I watch Army Wives every week and I always wonder what life is like behind the big fence.  Could you tell me what can be found on an Army base?"

Ahhh...the sounds of the bugle playing reveille in the morning, retreat being played at 5 pm as the American flag is lowered, taps at "bedtime" and the etiquette that goes with it....that sure brings back memories for me (We are on a NATO base right now, so none of that!).  That's the first thing that came to mind!  Thanks so much for your question!  Life behind the gate can certainly be different than civilian life...but then again, you'll see a lot of similarities.  I think everyone who has ever lived, worked or visited there knows this.  I'd like to clear up that Army posts are called "posts".  You'll only find bases in the Navy and Air Force...and of course the few Marine bases.  There is some historical reason for this......just know that it's different.

Army posts are scattered all throughout the US...I believe every one of our 50 states has at least one Army post.  Just ask your Congressman or Senator...they are always fighting to keep bases and posts from being closed....every few years, our government goes through a Base Closure & Re-alignment dance, and all the states usually sweat it out before it's all said and done...overseas too!  Bases beef up the economy and bring jobs and money into the areas they lie.  No one wants to have their bases or posts closed.

A base or post is like a small city.  The mayor is actually the base officer in the rank of Colonel usually to even a General for some of the super-size bases, changing every few years.  He or she is charged with running the infrastructure of the base and keeping in touch with the local civilian community and government...providing a link between the two and making sure he is being supportive in the decisions he makes.

Almost all posts, or in the case of overseas, a collection of small posts in an area, will have basic services to keep things running smoothly.  The military provides legal and administrative services on post through some of its military units.  For example, a large post will actually have an Army Finance Battalion (a few hundred soldiers) providing financial and pay services for their military members.  A smaller post may only have a company-sized unit there.  As far as non-military units, you'll also find a commissary, run by DECA, which has commissaries world-wide providing the food and supermarket products we are familiar with.  I always joke about some of the "special aisles" we have in the commissary.  If we have an aisle with ethnic foods, like German or is because servicemembers married a lot of spouses from those's not racist, just true.

The PX or "the Exchange" as it's now called is run by AAFES.  You will find them on all the bases too.  They used to provide products at great prices, back when we didn't have the big box stores and Walmart...but these days, especially overseas, I see them carrying expensive Coach purses (yes, they are discounted some) and higher end stuff, when I want the comfort things from home and just highly consumable simple products like printer paper!  They can never seem to keep that stuff in stock or deliver it to a PX location near me.  Some PXs will also have a gas station attached to their shopette...a kind of 24-hour convenience store.  An interesting fact, is that their gas prices stateside must be in line with what is being offered outside the gate.  Overseas, they use a formula to give us discounted prices less than what the Europeans are paying...much less.

In the US, where segregation was an issue in our country's history, you'll still find schools onpost...mostly elementary schools.  All overseas posts or collections of posts in a geographical area will have schools from Kindergarten to 12th grade in order to provide an American education.  These are run by DODEA (used to be called DODDs).  BTW, DODEA teachers overseas get some great pay...easily 4x what most stateside teachers get paid.  If you are a teacher and looking for work, be sure to check it out but please don't just do it for your "European vacation"....we have a few teachers who do it for that reason rather than the kids and education unfortunately.

You'll see gyms and fitness centers....many state-of-the-art....even some indoor/outdoor pools.  They are all mostly free.  I've only ever had to pay for aerobics classics and signing up for organized sports.  Sports teams, competitions and sports programs for children of every sport you can think of have some registration fees involved but are many times affordable.

Youth Centers on post are very popular with tons of programs for kids along with after school and summer programs at reasonable rates...these are not free, although spouses of deployed soldiers can get some costs reduced.  The childcare center on post also allows for this too.  It is called the Child Development Center.  Here is an example of one of the larger ones.  We do have many dual military couples with children who get priority for their children at the CDC but others use it as well.  Many times unfortunately, there is a waiting list and some take their children for off-post care or they use one of the home daycare providers that are licensed by the government who live onpost and sometimes off-post (FCC providers).  Some spouses make extra money by running this out of their home.  Yes, it involves lots of inspections and some say it's not worth the trouble, but just as many enjoy doing it and like that they can always find work wherever they are stationed.  There is ALWAYS a childcare shortage on post I have found.  It is one of the top issues complained about by Army families every year.

Many posts will have a movie theater run by AAFES...not first-run but in today's age, they do show movies a few weeks after they hit the civilian megaplexes at a lower cost.  Of course bowling alleys along with their short order kitchens are plentiful on military posts....and don't forget the foodcourt, also managed by AAFES.  I always found it strange that I can find a Burger King, Anthony's Pizza or even Frank's Franks pretty much worldwide at any AAFES foodcourt.  Remember, eating at the foodcourt and buying at AAFES is tax-free.  The commissary is tax-free as well, but they do put a small surcharge on your total which goes back in to maintain their system.

Ask any retiree about golf courses, and you'll see some of those.  Not on every post...but many do have them.  In the old days, you had the Officer's Club and the Enlisted Club....they used to socialize separately.  I still remember going with my parents to once-a-week Happy Hour at the O'Club, loading up on the free appetizers and snacks every Thursday and then playing on the playground while they hit the slots (yes, they had slot machines...some still do) or socialized with their friends.  Nowadays it's called a Community Club and all military and civilians and their guests are welcome.  They typically have a bar there...a snackbar and fine dining and a variety of special events throughout the year.  I don't know if they still do stateside, but sometimes there was a cash cage where you could cash checks.  BTW, the PX will cash personal checks for you too. 

Overseas, you'll also find a Car Care Center.  It's usually small, but you'll find some of your favorite stateside car care products and also some parts.  They have mechanics that can work on your vehicle...sometimes the wait can be long for an appointment, but I am thankful they do offer that, especially if you come over with an American car that is difficult to service on the economy.  Yes, they have American dealers & service centers over here but many times they are not familiar with our American I've had to have some parts shipped from stateside for my Honda the few times I took it to a German Honda dealer.  Where would we be without the internet and APO shipping overseas?  And if you are mechanically inclined yourself, you'll find an auto craft shop where you can work on cars with maintenance bays and tools provided...very handy!  I even had one of the shop personnel, many years ago, show me how to change the oil in my car...they do things like that.

Of course don't forget our religious service centers...used to just be called chapels.  We have military chaplains of every denomination on post and if they don't for some reason, the chaplains there will provide you with the resources and equipment you need to follow your faith.  At my basic training post, we did not have any chaplains of the Muslim faith, but they made arrangements for our soldiers to visit with their civilian counterparts and also provided a room, Korans and prayer rugs...whatever they needed.  You'll find multiple services on post as well of all the major faiths.  They also have a variety of programs for single soldiers, families, religious education and fun kids' programs...whatever you can think of!

Now what did I leave out?  Oh, laundromats...most posts have them....sometimes car washes too...plenty of parks and running/walking trails, playgrounds too.  I've even been on posts that have stables and lakes with picnic/camping facilities, boat rentals and fishing possibilities.  Of course you'll see onpost lodging, used mostly by people moving in our out of the post...but also soldiers and civilians on temporary duty there and some vacationers.  Many of these lodging facilities have been nicely renovated or are new and are much lower in cost than their civilian counterparts...imagine staying close to Disney World in Florida, or Key West, Hawaii or in the foothills of the Alps in a military lodging facility....yes, you'll find those.  And, I almost forgot the on-post housing areas scattered around the post.  Most of the administration of these are contracted out and many can be small and cramped...but other than your phone and cable bill, you don't have to worry about utility bills (although this has been changing), maintenance costs...but do have to worry about keeping your grass cut and keeping your area neat.  Just ask the highest ranking officer of your neighborhood, who has been appointed as a "mayor" of your housing area.

One of my favorite places to go though when moving to a new location is Army Community Service (here is an example of an ACS).  The other services also have equivalent offices by different names (yet another thing you will learn...they all name things differently a lot of the time and with more and more posts/bases having all four services stationed there....being called "Purple Communities", know that you can go to ACS or whatever regardless of what your husband's service is - Army, AF, Marines or Navy..even Coast Guard).  ACS has new daddy and mommy programs...can get you in to see the WIC nurse, has mommy/child playmornings, a variety of free classes, programs and events...even job and resume training.  They also have a lending closet where you can get pots  pans and the things you need right after arrival....lots of newcomer resources and counselors through their Military Family Life Consultants who are free and don't keep any records...but help you get pointed in the right lots of friendly faces.

Sometimes, you get the feeling you are part of a special club, especially when you hand over that ID card as you enter the facility and leave the civilian world behind.  Going "on post" is like "coming home" at least for me.  I know what to expect once I go through that gate and know exactly where to go for what I need!

Lastly, you'll find the buildings housing the military units who are actually stationed on that post.  They'll have their own infrastructure to an extent...also single soldier barracks and facilities for them, such as community rooms and kitchens.  You could find rows of motorpools if the unit has lots of vehicles.  Military police units are on each post, providing their services....yes, they have the right to search your vehicle on post, and you can get a speeding ticket from them...they do the same things civilian policemen do, just on post.  If you have pets, there is usually a vet clinc...yes, the military vets are also tasked with food inspection and taking care of any military working dogs and other animals on post (don't laugh, some units have mascots)...but they can also provide lowcost care on a space available basis (here's an example).

I'm sure I've forgotten the banks that have a contract to be on post and the Red Cross, which you will find on every post or even the community thrift shops (like Goodwill)...even the housing office which manages the onpost housing or helps you find off-post housing, but those are the highlights.  I realize there are a lot of them......I have unfortunately droned on about this topic, haven't I, but if I did forget something, please post it below:-)

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Blogger Mary R. said...

This was great (we're retired).I wish the internet was available while my husband was active duty. I'd have had a blog like this. It is very difficult to describe military posts or bases to civilians who have had no experience with the military. Very hard. We now stay in billeting on bases when we travel and none of our civilian friends can understand why. They imagine we are staying in the barracks with the men and marching around on the parade ground with them if we stay in billeting. Funny.

May 12, 2011 at 4:27 PM  
Blogger ****Veteran Military Wife at Life Lessons of a Military Wife**** said...

Okay, so I used the word "also" every other sentence...terrible! Let me mention onpost libraries that have inter-library loan programs and ebooks/audiobooks and DVDs. Many posts overseas have USOs now...each with their own flavor. They offer a great place to socialize, volunteer and get newcomer resources. Some even do trips, tours and offer language classes...let you play Xbox and get free food and drink and sponsor programs and free events...very popular!

Mary R., that's funny...I can see you marching around in formation in your civilian step of course!

May 12, 2011 at 4:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sounds like the perfect model city!

May 15, 2011 at 5:04 PM  

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