One of the many advantages of military life is getting to interact with a diverse range of people. No, I'm not talking about the other military brats or families around us, although I've enjoyed getting to know many of them too. I'm talking about the non-military community in the towns around the installations that have impacted my life in so many ways.
In many military towns, there are countless institutions that promote collaboration between military families and locals. For my family, our primary "off-post interaction" has always been a local church, but other examples include youth sports teams, school extracurriculars (especially for high schoolers), jobs, and volunteering. Not only is having ties to the local community good for social interaction, but it also offers new insights and unexpected opportunities that will ultimately help to shape your military experience for the better. Here are some reasons investing in the non-military community can greatly enhance your time at any given location.
1. Fresh Perspectives
By interacting with people in your community, you are exposed to diverse opinions that you may not have considered before. For instance, people who have never moved have a very different view of our country than military personnel who have lived in multiple places. The policies of our government or military may affect different people in different ways, especially in overseas locations.
Here in Korea, I found myself resentful toward some U.S. government policies involving the military presence on the peninsula, thinking that some actions taken by the DoD negatively affected Korean citizens. It wasn't until I had an in-depth conversation with a friend from our off-post church that I realized that some Koreans supported these policies.
Additionally, many people you will meet don't have a full understanding of what it's like to be in the military, or the child of a service member, for that matter. By befriending these people, you have the perfect opportunity to educate them and give them a glimpse of your lifestyle, while also learning about theirs.
2. An Escape
We all know military life can be overwhelming, and constantly being around people who have the same overwhelming life can negatively impact our mental health. During certain times, it can seem like all of the military folk around you are grumpy and worn out, especially during military exercises and PCS season.
By spending time off post away from all the hubbub of the military, we're giving ourselves an escape and an opportunity to spend time with those who sometimes have no idea what we go through. This may sound uncomfortable, but you can leave all of your Army/Navy/Air Force/Marine/Coast Guard problems on base and pretend, for a while, that they don't exist.
3. New Adventures
No one knows an area better than the people who live there. Having non-military friends can be the perfect way to find out more about your town, explore the area, try local foods, and visit regional attractions. Your new friends can quickly turn into your tour guides, cultural ambassadors, translators, and more, especially when living overseas. Who knows what secrets lie beneath the surface of the seemingly sleepy small town or big city surrounding your base? Dive in, get connected, and get to know your area!
By plugging in, you may also find some unexpected connections and mentors. For instance, I've found tremendous musical opportunities through people I knew. One family friend from church invited me to attend a community band rehearsal with her, and pretty soon I was the youngest member of the Bonner Springs City Band, playing alongside many talented older people. I also got to play as an honorary member of a local jazz band in Kansas through this same connection.
Other clubs and organizations may offer you scholarship opportunities, job offers, or a new skill that you can take with you when you move.
One of the tough things about military life is that we don't have a single place to call home. By plugging in to the local community, however, you'll have many different "homes" around the country! While the military folks at the post you used to live have probably all moved away, the locals you befriended will always be there for you to visit.
And, who knows, you may end up getting stationed in the same place twice! My family moved from Leavenworth, Kansas, to Hawaii when I was entering the second grade, and I had to say a sad goodbye to what is now one of my favorite duty stations. Little did we know, three years later the Army would send us right back. During our first time in Kansas, we attended a local church and developed strong relationships with the people there. When we moved back, we were able to pick up right where we left off.
Whether you're moving to a new community or you've been in one place for a while, take time to consider your relationships and connections. Not only can quality friendships and bonds benefit you immensely and improve your experience in a duty station, but it may also have an equally powerful effect on those you create ties with.