Over the past 17 years, I have lived all over the world. No matter where I was, the contrast between the standardized, drab monotony of military buildings and the wildly vibrant world that lived just outside the front gate was amazing. Yet my fellow Soldiers would often be hesitant to explore the wild world the Army had placed us in at a duty station.
This article is about how to not be one of those people.
Perspective is Everything
“You know, if I could do it all over again, I would live more like you have,” one of my best friends told me. I was stunned to hear it since he had a good job, a nice family and was living the picture-perfect American dream. Why in the world would he want my chaotic life?
What seemed like a grand adventure to him was merely survival to me. I was basically a high school student when I left the swamps of southern Arkansas to my first frigid duty station at Ft. Drum, NY. I had never even heard of the place. When I found out that subzero temps and snow drifts were typical most of the year, I thought I was the most unlucky person ever to enlist.
However, today when I sit around the dinner table at 36, everyone is on edge as I tell the stories of blizzards, the roads “going black” and discovering what freeze plugs were the hard way. In retrospect, my time at Ft. Drum was an incredible adventure that formed me into who I am today.
The Dream Sheet
The reality is there are only a few places people want to go. Japan was it for me. Want to know the place that I have never even been close to going to in the Army? You guessed it, Japan.
However, I have been to places you have never had to figure out how to pronounce—ever heard of Kyrgyzstan? When I enlisted, I hadn’t either. Yet talking to a girl that looked Chinese, but with a heavy Russian accent, in a yurt in the mountains that looked like Colorado is something I will remember until the day that I die. The experience is still wild, as I recall it twelve years later.
Eating rare tuna steaks on the marsh of coastal Georgia, hiking through the towering firs of the Pacific Northwest or seeing the lights of Vegas off in the distance in the middle of Death Valley are things I never thought I would experience.
I never even knew they were possible, frankly.
Yet they all had one thing in common. They weren’t in the barracks. I didn’t stay in my room, playing video games and watching movies all the time. I got out and about.
Admittedly, it was out of frustration with the Army. When the weekend hit, I always wanted to be as far away from being a Soldier as possible. Flip flops, five o’clock shadow, and no camo in sight was my recipe for a good weekend.
I’ve learned through experience how to make the most of a duty station. The following steps are merely a start, not an exhaustive list. These are just the foundation of the things that made a difference to me when I was a young Soldier.
Find a Religious Community
I know, leave it to the chaplain to tell you to go to church, but seriously it is a life hack for young Soldiers. Churches, mosques and synagogues are community hubs. At one point in American social life, even nonbelievers went to church to simply connect with others in their community.
Today, many religious communities host small groups of people your age for you to connect with. There are wild game dinners, block parties, fall festivals and many other events that churches use to grow their membership. These are great ways to build lasting friendships with people outside of the military that will help you build a home away from home.
I remember changing little old ladies’ light bulbs, teaching a girl how to drive a stick in my jeep and being invited over for Thanksgiving dinner by a family that would become like my own. Another officer and I even ended up in a sweat lodge once, but that is another story!
Often, the most random explorations off-post turn into the best memories you will have in terms of experiencing the local scene at every duty station.
For example, growing up in the South, I knew nothing about ice fishing. One day in upstate New York, a friend and I came upon a frozen lake on a random drive designed to get us away from Fort Drum. In the middle of a lake was a shed. Since I had a well cultivated level of curiosity, we ventured to the shed to investigate.
My friend and I still laugh at the look on the old man’s face when we opened the door of his ice shanty. There we stood in subzero weather, wearing nothing but jeans and t-shirts as the old man asked us if we were ok. We ran away laughing, slipping and sliding all over the lake.
Once I got married, I learned that wives have this secret weapon for finding cool things. They call it Pinterest. On this social media platform, travel bloggers make their name by finding out-of-the-way attractions, restaurants and cool places that some of the locals aren’t even aware exist.
My wife Cait has found many places on Pinterest that make up the substrate of many of our memories together. We have eaten cheap steaks in a basement restaurant in London and the biggest hamburger in the world at the foot of Mount Rainier. There was a place she found in the Green River Gorge in Washington and an adobe we stayed at outside of Fort Huachuca.
However, the most incredible place she ever unearthed was just outside of Rome. It is an ancient port city called Ostia Antica. Imagine a Roman city, complete with bathhouses that have tiled mosaic floors from Roman times, that you can explore unhindered and for free. That all started from my wife stumbling upon it on Pinterest.
Get Out And Explore Your Duty Station
The bottom line is the military will take you all over the world and put you in situations that no one from your hometown would ever believe. However, they can’t live your life for you. It is up to you to capitalize on the opportunity and make the most out of every place they send you.
Read More From Sandboxx
- 7 Ways to Learn More About Your New Duty Station
- How to Fall in Love With Your Duty Station Before You Arrive
- 15 Duty Station Tips for Milspouses to Feel Right at Home Sooner
- 9 Best Military Bases in the U.S. Based on Lifestyle
Featured photo by Senior Airman Anabel Del Valle. U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Clifford Roberts, 325th Contracting Squadron contracting officer, and his family, pose for a photo at Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida, July 21, 2022. Roberts and his family recently moved into base housing after a permanent change of station to Tyndall.