A dismal cloud of dust hung in the air, obstructing my early morning view of the Franklin Mountains. Overnight, a thin layer of sand the color of combat boots had collected on the window sills and underneath each door frame. Wiping and sweeping away the grit had become a loathed daily ritual.
Fort Bliss, my husband’s first duty station assignment out of training, is not the kind of installation you are likely to find at the top of anyone’s dream sheet. There is a reason why pre-deployment exercises are often conducted there; the hot, dry climate of the Chihuahuan Desert is similar to the conditions service members face down range. From the outside looking in, El Paso can seem desolate and intimidating, especially when you find yourself living there at the whims of the military, far from family, friends and all things familiar.
For me, the first couple of years at Fort Bliss were a desert experience on the inside, too.
Shortly after we arrived, my husband was sent to the field to begin preparing for his first year-long deployment while I tried my best to brace myself for what was to come. I remember standing in our tiny apartment, then, unpacking the last few boxes of household goods alone as I looked out on the barren, monochromatic landscape. When watered daily with isolation, sinking depression and pride, conditions were perfect for growing bitterness and resentment.
My husband shipped out two days after our baby boy’s first Christmas, and twelve months of separation, missed milestones and heartache stretched out before us. Panic welled up inside of me, but I was too stubborn to reach out for support in my first year of military life. I thought I had to prove to myself and the rest of the world that I was “Army Strong”, and I foolishly thought that meant I had to figure out how to do it all on my own.
I would love to say I handled this first deployment with Rosie the Riveter’s strength and poise, but that would not be the truth. Sincerely, it was the most trying year of my life, and my husband and I will be the first to tell you there was a time when we were not sure whether or not our young marriage was going survive it.
Hate is such a strong word, but if I had to pick one to honestly describe the way I felt about Fort Bliss during this time, that would be it.
In the beginning, I attended the monthly Family Readiness Group (FRG) meetings with the rest of the spouses in my husband’s unit, but I put up a wall of suspicion and diffidence, and chose to keep my distance. I was a rookie military wife in a sea of women who had been-there-done-that, and I often felt as though I were invisible.
Over time (and many mistakes and missed opportunities), I eventually learned that I could trust and open up to a few of these ladies, and that I was not as alone as I felt.
They were there for me and my baby boy when I lost the keys to our house somewhere between the driveway and the front door in the middle of a blinding dust storm (yes, that really happened). They were there for us when my husband’s truck – our only vehicle – broke down in the middle of a busy intersection on one of the hottest days of the year. They were there to help me pick myself up when I felt as though I were completely falling apart.
That year, we celebrated holidays, special occasions and the birth of babies together; we talked through our frustration, and commiserated losses and disappointments.
We became sisters.
When my husband returned home from deployment, we had a lot of picking-up-the-pieces and rebuilding to do for our family, and we were able to accomplish that with the help of a church we started visiting on base. Through The Navigators, a local ministry serving military families, we found mentors who took us under their wing, and we learned by example what it means to be a part of a thriving community that takes care of its own.
Despite its rough start, our time at Fort Bliss taught us to count our duty stations by the friendships we make over the experiences we have, and it encouraged us to use what we have learned from our trials to help others.
At the end of our time at Fort Bliss, my husband received orders to Joint Base San Antonio. We were excited to be heading to a city we knew and loved that was close to both of our families, but I was surprised to find a part of me did not want to leave. Saying “see you later” to the friends that became “framily” was so much harder than I thought it would be.
Since then, we have made another major move, this time across the ocean, and have even more friends to add to our ever-growing military framily.
Every now and then, we still find grains of El Paso sand in pockets, toys and at the bottom of boxes we have not opened in a while, but it does not bother me like it used to. Instead, it reminds us of where we have been, how far we have come and all of the wonderful people we have met along the way.
Courtney is a military spouse, mom of 2 boys, graduate student, and part-time writer-editor for a travel & lifestyle magazine serving military families stationed in Europe. She has a heart for our troops and their families and hopes to share what little she has learned along the way to help others overcome the unique challenges of military life. You can follow her adventures at her blog, Courtney At Home, or through her social media: Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.