Okay, to clarify, this is one of the most emotional topics for me to discuss. Not because it’s a sad one, but because it brings me so much joy. High-key crying while typing this article, which is not only because it is 1 a.m. I promise.
Picture this for me… The familiar images; camouflage uniforms, blazoned flags, all sorts of different firearms, unit t-shirts, and a DoDEA school right in the middle of it all. The only difference was the 30 different flags displayed on the sleeves of the varying BDU patterns, according to country and military branch. This was not just any other military base, this was SHAPE. Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe, the military headquarters for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). An alliance of member countries and their global partnership allies, a total of more than 30 nations represented on a small base of approximately two square kilometers.
SHAPE was my seventh duty station, my third overseas, and Korea being my fourth. This means that only half of my moves have been OCONUS, however less than a third of my life has been spent in the U.S. In fact, I’m only half American. I speak three languages fluently, and one of them isn’t even from a country I have lived in. Okay, now you have all the background information. Trust me, this is all very relevant. The conclusion of this is that my nomad tendencies are raging, and all of the cultures I have grown up in are pieces of me. I never truly felt understood no matter where I moved, until SHAPE.
From the moment I attended my first class at SHAPE, I knew I had found my tribe. There I was, never having been comfortable in any school because I just never fit in quite right. At SHAPE, I had found my people. My tribe. Military kids from all sorts of countries, who had moved to all sorts of places. The children of Spanish airmen who spoke fluent German because they had been stationed at Ramstein for the majority of their childhood. The children of Albanian sailors who spoke Italian because they had been stationed in Naples during middle school. The children of Turkish soldiers who spoke fluent English because they had been stationed in D.C.
They understood me on a different level. Where American military kids understand me because that’s our subculture as brothers and sisters, these NATO military kids understood me because that was our psychology. While the common experiences like moving, deployments, and linguistic barriers were things that brought us closer, it was also the similar experiences like lack of cultural identity, international immersion, and linguistic talent that brought us even closer. Note the difference.
SHAPE is so diverse and unique. Just at the high school alone, there are over 20 different countries represented any given year. You could literally walk from one class to the next and hear at least six different languages, not including English. You could also probably hear six different teachers yelling at students to speak English, but I digress. It’s hard not to feel like a family the moment you walk through the front doors of SHAPE American High School (the superior SAHS, by the way). The way that the interactions between native and non-native English speakers was so fluid, even with the language barrier. Because we didn’t need a traditional lingua franca (thank you Ms. Johansen) to understand each other. Our common language was the basis for our lives, what controlled every aspect of it since birth; the military was our lingua franca. SHAPE has it’s own language and culture which can only be described as the nights at the Pizza Bowl, the Thursday lunches at Mass and Meal, the conversations in line at the Carrefour, SHAPE Fest, losing Euros, lunch at Rendez-Vous, and hating on the kids from the Belgian school. Those things built the Shapian language. If you haven’t been stationed at SHAPE, you will literally have no clue what I was just describing, because it’s our language and subculture.
At SHAPE there are many other “sections”; the Belgian, German, Norwegian, British, Greek, Canadian, and Polish schools opened their doors to any NATO military kid seeking the most unique opportunity for education. And all the schools participated in activities together, even school sports. At SHAPE they don’t ask you what state you’re from, they ask you what country. This is interesting because, honestly, I think that when we think of an Army kid, a Navy kid, an Air Force kid, we think of Americans. When I moved to SHAPE in 2016, I think I realized something I always subconsciously knew; there are tons of kids from different countries who go through exactly the same trials as us.
Other countries have militaries, duh. It never crossed my mind because when I thought of a military kid I thought of an American. At SHAPE, I realized that deployments aren’t limited to Americans, there are thousands of soldiers from allied countries that deploy alongside our military to keep the world safe. So if you never go to SHAPE, know that you always have a connection to thousands of other military kids from all over Europe, South America, Asia, and Oceania.
SHAPE is my absolute favorite duty station, not necessarily because of the country, but because it’s like no other place in the world. I know I will never experience something like SHAPE again. It helped me grow as a person, and it opened my eyes to a completely different side of military life. The part of military life where they don't keep us in an American bubble. The part of military life where more than 30 different countries can come together as one family. The part of military life where I finally found my home.