It's Military Spouse Appreciation Day. I'm a Navy wife of 20 years and these are the lessons I've learned

I was a small-town girl, unsure of the next step after high school. I then decided to join the Navy. I proudly served for three and a half years as an airplane captain flying back seat in various fighter jets: A-4’s, F-5’s and F-16’s.

Military service was a tremendous experience, one that reshaped me as a person by instilling the confidence to tackle challenges head on. It was perfect timing too because the next challenge, while the most rewarding of my life, would also be the biggest I’ve faced – I became a military spouse.

While my story is unique it is not unlike those involving love, sacrifice and duty of the more than 640,000 spouses of active-duty service members. Friday is Military Spouse Appreciation Day and it is the time to reflect upon the fact that protecting our nation is also a family effort.

Toward the end of my active-duty assignment at Naval Air Station Key West I met this cute guy, an air crewman on a helicopter and an in-flight paramedic. Long story short, we have been married for 22 years.

Being a Navy wife wasn’t my plan, but I recognize that my life was never entirely my own, for it’s also shared with my family, my country and God.

I’m so proud of my husband, Don. During the day he served in the Navy as a Hospital Corpsman and at night he went to school. After he completed his undergraduate degree he attended Officer Candidate School, then flight school. After he “winged,” he began the journey to becoming the pilot of an MH-53 – the largest helicopter in the U.S. military’s fleet, known lovingly as the “Super Jolly Green Giant.”

Heather and her husband Don.

Heather and her husband Don. (Courtesy of the author)

Over the years Don deployed with a squadron flying this aircraft. His typical deployments were to Bahrain, but he was also called upon for specialty missions due to the MH-53’s size and ability to transport. For example, he rapidly deployed to Southeast Asia in 2004 to run humanitarian flights after the Indian Ocean tsunami, which killed more than 230,000 people. With tireless dedication, he has since worked his way up the ladder, recently completing his tour as the commanding officer of a mine warfare staff here in Point Loma, San Diego.

Being a Navy wife wasn’t my plan, but I recognize that my life was never entirely my own, for it’s also shared with my family, my country and God.

We have lived in Florida twice, Texas twice, Maryland, Virginia, Washington, D.C. and California – with a few little moves in between.

Heather's husband, Don.

Heather's husband, Don. (Courtesy of the author)

My oldest child has moved nine times in her 16 years of life. She mostly handled it all really well but did not want to leave Washington, D.C. for San Diego. She was invested in her school, her friends, and her community, and didn’t want to move to a place that couldn’t hold a candle to her fine-arts programs. Leaving was hard and it changed her. My little one, a fifth grader, is a social butterfly and is fine with whatever as long as we don’t spring surprises on her.

Military kids are the most resilient children. They often have to “suck it up” and move forward. While that seems tough – and it is – I do believe the character they build helps them in more ways we know once they become adults. The dandelion was chosen as the official flower of the military child. That’s because it can plant roots anywhere and it’s almost impossible to destroy.

Military kids are the most resilient children. They often have to “suck it up” and move forward. While that seems tough – and it is – I do believe the character they build helps them in more ways we know once they become adults.

“How do you handle it?" my civilian counterparts have often asked about military life. Like with almost any situation, you can make it as fun or as miserable as you wish – it truly is a choice.

My husband deployed four times and once for an extended testing program in Florida. Even that was okay because we stayed with him in his temporary “house” on the beach.

Heather and her husband Don.

Heather and her husband Don. (Courtesy of the author)

If you ask any military spouse for advice, they will tell how to add temporary curtains and of course, always unpack the kitchen first. Then home is home. One benefit is you’ll likely never be on the show “Hoarders.” Another is that you say “see you later” to the friends you make rather than “goodbye.” The military is small and somehow you get to see friends again at duty stations down the road.

The word “family” takes many forms. You have your biological family and the family you choose along the winding path of life. We have never been lucky enough to be stationed close to our relatives but we have gained family members with each move.

The bond between military families is watertight. You celebrate and spend holidays together, have house parties, game nights, help out with bike-riding lessons and swimming lessons.

My friends become my brothers and sisters. We look out for each other and become each other’s emergency contacts, prepared to drop anything.

I now have friends around the world and when we DM, FaceTime, text, call, or hang out in person, it is like no time has passed. I feel blessed and I know there were times my parents were thankful for my Navy family.

One of my best friends, Theresa Jones, a fellow Navy wife and Gold Star family member, has shown me that while life sometimes stinks it’s really all about who you surround yourself with during the journey. She invited me to join the Travis Manion Foundation Ambassador program (TMF.) Knowing how the TMF helped her family get through a particular event, helping them to find purpose and a voice, I knew it was an organization I wanted to be a part of too.

At TMF training, I received the book “Brothers Forever.” In it, Janet Manion, on her worst day said, “Lord, help me to remember that nothing is going to happen today that you and I together can’t handle.” Those would be the words I recalled the day I was told I had cancer. I sat in my car and cried but in my head I paraphrased them, then made phone calls to my husband’s parents and a few close friends. I cried some more, took a deep breath, started the car and my journey began.

Since November 25, 2017, I’ve undergone four surgeries, made the choice to have cancer or a double mastectomy and endured all that went along with it. Joy, depression, anger – you name it, I felt it. It was my amazing family as well as my other “family” that got me through it.

I’m proud to be a Navy wife. I wouldn’t have it any other way. Thank you to all the military spouses out there. Stay strong and surround yourself with amazing people.