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Pilgrims at Thanksgiving did not go home

That time the Pilgrims didn’t go home for Thanksgiving

Several years ago, I wrote a response to an article on Military Spouse Magazine in regards to going home for the holidays. The article felt judgy and unnecessary for military spouses who want to go home but for reasons cannot. My response was hasty, brash, and resonated with other military spouses. If you google it you can probably still find the original article at https://www.militaryspouse.com/magazine/. I decided to edit and share with you my thoughts about feeling guilty when you cannot go home for Thanksgiving, Christmas, or any other important times of the year. So enjoy this revamped and retitled article, That time the Pilgrims didn’t go home for Thanksgiving. Here is to another guilt-free holiday!

Released from guilt

Two significant times in my life I was released from guilt for living so far away from family. The first was when my mother told me to get out of our small, rural, Indiana town. Then my 93-year-old grandmother told me as we prepared to move to Germany, “If anything should happen to me while you are gone do not haul those babies back here for my funeral.” She released from the guilt I had for not attending her funeral. You see, I am married to a military man but I live with less guilt because of the overwhelming understanding of my family for missing out on holidays back home.

My husband Chris has been in the Air Force for over twenty years. We have spent five years overseas and moved fourteen times in total. Currently, my college kid has never come home for Thanksgiving. I would be a hypocrite to insist he come home for Thanksgiving. In the meantime, I have prepared myself for the future. As the mother of boys, I may spend future holidays without them. Our military lifestyle has always been about creating new traditions. Holidays at our house don’t always look traditional and we are okay with that.

Many times it is just not fathomable to return to your parents’ home for the holidays. Air travel, car rental, hotel stays, boarding of pets, food, and the list compiles and before you know it, you are so in debt you cannot travel the rest of the year. There is also the stress factor, the inability to get enough time off, and a plethora of other responsibilities. Let us not forget those that are deployed and cannot be home for the holidays.

Random thoughts about going home for the holidays.

1. If it is so important for your extended family to be together, invite them to your place. Two years in a row, our families traveled to where we live and we rented a house large enough for all of us. It relieved me of doing all the cooking and cleaning.
2. Delay holiday for cheaper times of the year or plan a destination holiday where you all gather in a central location. I dream of having a vacation in a cabin in the mountains one day surrounded by my boys and their families.
3. Talk to your extended family. Let them know how you feel. My hope is that your family is understanding and if not that is on them, not you.
4. Coordinate with local friends to gather for the holiday or serve in the community in some capacity. In years past, my family and I are served dinner to inmates in a halfway program on a farm.
5. Create your own traditions. My husband and I have created our own family holiday traditions. We look forward to carrying these out every year.
6. Above all, do what is right for you and your family. In the meantime, release your family from that same guilt. And do not judge other military families if their choices for the holidays are different than yours.

The 2020 holiday season is different but still guilt-free

The holidays should not be stressful or filled with guilt. My kid is doing what I taught him to do by making a life of his own. If his adventures lead him far away at the holidays I will survive just like my mother has done. She is a great example of how a mother can release her children and adapt through the holidays. Listen, this military life is hard enough on good days so the last thing you need is to feel guilty for not being able or wanting to return home for the holidays. Instead, embrace your new home, make new traditions, and if someone tries to make you feel guilty remind them that the Pilgrims didn’t go home for the holidays either. I release you of that guilt. I’m not saying to never go home for the holidays but when you can’t that’s okay too.

The 2020 year is bizarre, to say the least. We are being told by health professionals that it is best to not gather in large groups or with those people who have compromised immunity. This year we all are relinquished of any guilt about not going home for the holidays. We can claim that we love our families by staying away and thus keeping them healthy.   

Have a happy, guilt-free holiday season!

Wilderness interstate

The Wilderness that is I-84

Recently, my minister asked me to a testimony about being in the figurative wilderness. After prayer and much thoughtful consideration, I contemplated what the wilderness meant to me. It reminded me of my drive from Washington to Utah and the vastness that I drive through. It is there in the wilderness that is I-84 that I have learned to trust in God for protection and provisions. Included is my testimony that I gave to the congregation at Cornerstone UMC in Covington, Washington. https://buildingonjesus.org/

This is my testimony

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7NyH9mDYECk  Elevation Church’s song, “My Testimony”.

We own a home in Northern Utah and have family in the area. Therefore, we travel from our home in Maple Valley to the Cache Valley in Utah a couple of times a year. On this route, we travel some isolated sections of the interstate. The most barren is I-84 in Northern Utah. Before we hit this section of the road, we stop in Twin Falls, Idaho for fuel and provisions. Once we make that turn south, services become scarce, cell phone coverage is weak, and the weather is indecisive.  But the grace of God, we have never broken down in this section of our trip. However, we have broken down twice on this route but in more habited areas where we could receive assistance.

This stretch of remote, American highway signifies something else to me. It is a faith barometer. If I’m honest, this road makes me nervous. What if we do breakdown and there is no service area nearby or we can’t get a call for help out to someone? But that has never happened. I forget that even though there are very few services areas, weak cell coverage, and unpredictable weather, God is on that road. He is in the vast wilderness.

I have walked through a spiritual wilderness

In my life, I have walked through spiritual wildernesses. Through seven military deployments, when my son had a seizure on an airplane on a cross country flight, when another son was attacked by a dog and required emergency surgery, and when son number 3 fell out of a second-story window and needed to be life-flighted. In the back of an ambulance with your kid is a wilderness. Giving birth in a foreign country while your husband is deployed can feel like a wilderness. I have felt alone, rejected, scared, unsure, and ill-equipped while in the wilderness. But all along, God was there.

My spiritual walk is a growing process. I have learned many lessons along that desolate stretch of I-84. God has never abandoned me there or anywhere else. His provisions never run out. There is no place that God isn’t with me. He is the service area, the cell coverage, and the weatherman on any wilderness road we find ourselves on, both figuratively and literally.

A highway for our God

I am often reminded of Isaiah 40: 3-5

A voice is calling,

“Clear the way for the Lord in the wilderness;

Make smooth in the desert a highway for our God.

“Let every valley be lifted up,

And every mountain and hill be made low;

And let the rough ground become a plain,

And the rugged terrain a broad valley;

Then the glory of the Lord will be revealed,

And all flesh will see it together;

For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

We will find ourselves in a spiritual wilderness at some point in our lives. But we are never alone or without provisions. When we remain faithful, we have all we need.

Second house in Texas

Military housing: Challenge accepted

On October 9, 2009, at 3:00 p.m., a knock on my door surprised me. I assumed it was one of the neighborhood kids asking to play with one of my boys at the park. As it was a Friday, I was ready to sit at the park with the other parents and have an adult beverage in one of those kid’s cups from Chili’s. I was months into a deployment so I had earned it. Much to my surprise, it was one of the military housing managers, Kathy. Beside her stood someone vaguely familiar. Also, with a deployed husband, I automatically feared the worst. Sensing my unease, they jumped straight to the point.

“Mrs. Kuester, we need to renovate your kitchen and you have until the end of the month to vacate your house.”

The first thing into my brain and out of my mouth was, “Over my dead body!”

The man, Jason spoke again, “I don’t think you understand. You don’t have a choice.”

And that’s when the challenge was accepted.

Finding out what I was made of

Anyone that knows me knows that if you back me into a corner, ask me my opinion or challenge me, I will fight back. Poor Jason had no idea that I was not passive. He and I were both about to find out what I was made of. (Find out more about me: https://missykuester.com/have-you-heard-about-missy-kuester/)

Let me back up.

Our family arrived at Randolph AFB near San Antonio, Texas in July 2008. We owned a home in Delaware that had not sold. Therefore, we felt it more economical to live on base. The day before arriving, Randolph military housing called to tell us a house was available. On our check-in, the housing office explained that the kitchen would be renovated in the next year and may require us to move out. We agreed because we were desperate. We moved into the house on August 22. A private contractor, Pinnacle Hunt had taken over months before so things were in a stage of transition.

We pretty much lived in bliss at 5 Northeast Road. With family in the Dallas area, new and old friends, and great neighbors, we were content. We loved the 1920’s character and charm of the on-base housing. Even though it had an outdated kitchen, I was thrilled to have a base house.

A bit of history on Randolph AFB Housing: https://www.433aw.afrc.af.mil/News/Article-Display/Article/1547475/history-comforts-of-home-coexist-at-jbsa-randolph-housing/

Early in 2009, we found out Magnum would be deploying. In preparation for his deployment, we informed Pinnacle he would leave in May. The house across the street (6 Northeast Road) became vacant a few weeks before.  We requested that we be allowed to move into it. “Perfect,” they said. So, with the help of neighbors and my family, we relocated to the house across the street.

May came and went, Magnum left, our lives resumed until that knock on the door.

The fight was on

By this point in my military spouse career, I had endured many deployments, gave birth to a baby in a foreign country with Magnum deployed, and moved…a lot. I felt confident in my abilities to keep things afloat. So, as soon as they told me I needed to vacate to renovate a kitchen that had already been updated but now needed to be updated again (lookup government fraud, waste, and abuse) I was upset. My first call was to Chris’s commander.  He was an imposing man, probably about 6’4″. He also happened to be a really good guy. We agreed to meet at the housing office. Upon our arrival, he did the talking. He asked to speak to Kathy, the manager. We went through the whole song and dance about ‘Did we have an appointment?’ and ‘Was she expecting us?’ No, and No but we were not leaving.

The great thing about the colonel besides his physical stature, his cool demeanor, his smart brain, and the eagles on his lapels was his notebook. Something so simple conveyed that he was serious. The air shifted when he withdrew that notepad from his pocket.

Throughout the process I quietly observed. The manager, Kathy answered the colonel’s questions and filled in blanks. He scribbled their answers in his notebook. Then he turned to me and asked one simple question, “Missy, is that how it happened?” I said a simple ‘no’. And the fight was on! The colonel gave the manager homework and we dispersed with a plan.

The military spouses’ guide to a fight, 10 things that may help you

There are a lot of details I am leaving out but I need to get to the point of this post. Sadly, this type of behavior is still ongoing. I want to share things that worked and what I learned throughout this process so it may help other military spouses.

  1. You should always start with the chain of command, even if you don’t have faith in them. Give them an opportunity to do what is right. Proceed from there.
  2. You find out who your friends are.  I heard from many people that my name was often mentioned during morning meetings on base. Well-meaning people offered their sympathy but no real help. The wing commander called near the end of this ordeal with no real help but empty words. One person stood out. We were friends before this event and he and his wife supplied me with pitchers of sangria during the deployment. In another world, before housing privatization, he had more say in the matter. He did try to speak up and he was told it was no longer his lane. One day, I received word that a Congressional complaint was filed on my behalf. I could only guess it was him.
  3. It’s important to get the word off base.  This was a valuable lesson taught to me by my friend Angie. She guided me through the ordeal. She sent messages to all the contacts she had in town; reporters, news outlets, bloggers, politicians, etc. When the wing commander said to me, “I’m getting phone calls from outside of base about your situation and we don’t like that to happen,” I knew I had peoples’ attention. Get the word out! I equate it to an abuser threatening you to not tell anyone. Tell someone!
  4. Document EVERYTHING!  I learned this early on with the colonel’s notebook. Write down everything. Record conversations, keep emails, and remember, that tablet may be your best weapon. People will lie, say they don’t recall or change their story. You need a record to protect yourself.
  5. Find your Allies.  Yes, you will find out who your friends but you need allies. I found people within the military housing office that did not agree with what was going on. Our maintenance guys were with housing before privatization. They were familiar with these older homes. Even before this saga, I appreciated them. During our future renovation phase when I was living in another house temporarily, they met me at the house to let me get personal items. Don’t look down on the people who have the actual keys to your home.
  6. Don’t ask, tell people what you need and want.  This was another valuable piece of advice from Angie. I stopped being sheepish and instead stated what I needed and wanted. At some point, they realized I wasn’t going to back down and therefore started meeting my demands. I wasn’t mean spirited but stood firm in what I needed. My kids were already without their dad, now they were being forced from their home.
  7. Find resources and help outside of the military spectrum.  Tap into resources outside the gate. I reached out to the VFW and The American Legion. Both of those organizations reached out to Public Affairs and put pressure on them. I sent emails and made phone calls almost daily to obtain advice and find out my rights. Educate yourself. One of the best ways to bring about change or bring awareness to a situation is to contact your Congressman’s office.
  8. It’s not always about you.  This has two meanings. Sometimes, the military housing office, management, and contractors are just doing what they are told. While it’s hard to not take it personally, it isn’t a direct attack on you even though that’s how it feels. Also, remember when you are fighting, keep in mind all those families that will come after you. As I told management many times, “What are you doing to the first term Airman (Solider, Marine), who is 19, new to the military, has a wife and a baby?” Always work so that you relieve some of the hardship for others.
  9. Shoot for the moon and hope to land on the stars.  After I learned to tell people what I needed, I shot for the moon. Initially, they wanted me to move entirely to a new house and never return. I asked the housing manager if she ever moved 3 times in one year. She then understood what they were asking of us. When they said I needed to move for 4 months, I told them to find me a place on base. They suggested a TLF room, but it was not comparable to our house and wouldn’t allow my dog. I also requested a furnished house on base and I got it.
  10. Use the power wisely.  After a while, I realized my power in this situation. The goal was to use it in a way that got us to our desired endpoint, a house with a new kitchen. It had to be done and the housing office wasn’t going away. The contractor slated our house to be the last one to be remodeled to allow time for Chris to return from his deployment. When workers failed to show up one day to work on my house, I called Hunt Headquarters. I informed them it was costing them more money every day I was displaced. From that day on, workers never failed to show up to work and eventually finished ahead of schedule. I think they were just tired of me. What I never did was become mean, resorted to name-calling, or became overly demanding. Keeping a level head and ultimately working together made the process go faster.

At the end of the day

At the end of the day, it all worked out for our family. I can’t say the above will work in every case for every person. Each situation is different. Our situation was a matter of inconvenience, not safety. If my experience can help even one person or give them the courage to speak up, then we win. Military families are resilient. But we also endure things that many people don’t. Our homes are our refuge. It’s the one place where we have a little bit of control in a lifestyle that requires us to be flexible, resilient, and brave. In the end, no matter the outcome, all that matters is that you are safe, healthy, and together.

And the next time someone tells you that you don’t have a choice, remember you do have power in the situation. I wonder what Jason is up to these days.

I wrote this post sharing my experience after becoming involved with MHAN, a great resource for military families living in military housing with private, managing contractors. http://militaryhousingadvocacynetwork.org/

 

cemetery

How I learned to appreciate Memorial Day in a foreign land

Thanks to Covid-19, many Memorial Day activities are canceled or look different. With so many places still closed, it’s the perfect opportunity to reevaluate what Memorial Day is really about. Since I cannot attend my usual activities, I will reflect on our time overseas. Seeing other countries honor our military gave me a renewed appreciation of the meaning of the holiday.

Read more to understand the history of Memorial Day: https://www.pbs.org/national-memorial-day-concert/memorial-day/history/

Observing Memorial Day abroad

Because of my husband’s career in the U.S. Air Force, our family had the opportunity to live overseas in Europe twice. Our second overseas tour was to Belgium where he was the commander of the 424th Air Base Squadron stationed at Chievres, Belgium. Public Affairs would often ask him to attend and participate in memorial services. Many of these events coincided with the day and place a plane crashed during World War II.

Europeans do a great job observing US history in their backyards. During World War II, Chievres Air Base saw activity. Planes flew in and out of Chievres for months supporting their allies. Unfortunately, some aircraft crashed in the surrounding countryside. Those communities to this day still hold ceremonies to memorialize the heroes that sacrificed for their freedoms.

Magnum at ceremony
Magnum at a ceremony in Wodecq, Belgium. ©missykuester.com

On occasion we had activities at the many American cemeteries scattered throughout Europe. While we have been to Arlington Cemetery in the DC area there is something breathtaking about seeing the American cemeteries on foreign land. What is truly remarkable is how our allies honor and memorialize American soldiers. These cemeteries while paid for and monetarily maintained by the American Battles Monuments Commission (https://www.abmc.gov/cemeteries-memorials), are visited by foreign and local visitors. Some cemeteries have adoption programs that allow local people to adopt an American soldier’s grave. 

Celebrating American heroes in Normandy

We also had the opportunity to celebrate the 70th Anniversary of the invasion at Normandy. To walk the beaches that many of our country’s men stormed and died on is humbling. But what struck me the most was how the many non-Americans were there celebrating, honoring, and depicting roles of American soldiers. When tourists found out we were Americans they enthusiastically thanked us and wanted to share their stories and appreciation. How can you not be moved by other citizens celebrating what your countrymen did for them?

Boys at Utah Beach
Our boys at Utah Beach in Normandy France
©missykuester.com

Not the usual Memorial Day

So, your usual cookout, camping trip or other 3 day weekend looks different this year? That’s okay. Maybe we have gotten out of hand with our celebrations. Hopefully this year, we can focus on what Memorial Day represents. This might be the year that it really sinks in for you. It finally hit me when and where I least expected. Standing on foreign soil was when I understand what Memorial Day truly meant. I hope you experience the true meaning of Memorial Day this year. Thank you to all who answered the call and ultimately gave their lives so that we could live a life in freedom.

A man’s country is not a certain area of land, of mountains, rivers, and wood, but it is a principle, and patriotism is loyalty to that principle.    George William Curtis