By Circe Olson Woessner
After almost twenty years of living in New Mexico—and twelve of those years as military retirees, we moved to Hawaii. While in New Mexico, we mostly lived and worked on Kirtland Air Force Base and the VA, so we remained immersed in military culture. The experience of moving to Hawaii added another military layer.
When we PCSed to Kirtland, we lived on base for a year, and then bought a house in town. It was close enough to base to hear Reveille in the morning; far away enough to feel like we were in another milieu. Over time, we moved onto three acres in the East Mountains. Then, the only time we felt connected to the military was when we shopped at the commissary or were caught in five o’clock traffic at Retreat.
When we moved to Hawaii, we spent over a month living in TLFs on Marine Corps Base Hawaii. Living on a Marine Corps base in Hawaii brought back memories, initially, of our living on Fort Buchanan, Puerto Rico in the 1990s, but also on posts and bases in Germany and Stateside.
Even decades later, I am surprised– and maybe also comforted– at how little seems to have changed.
When we arrived in Puerto Rico, Bill was a Captain, soon-to-be Major, and I was a school teacher. As we checked into our TLF on Fort Buchanan, I was struck at how damp our room seemed and worried about the black smudges of mold in the corners. At night as we lay in our beds, we heard the chirping of the coqui, the tiny tree frogs which call Puerto Rico home. Twenty years we moved from the high desert of New Mexico to the island of Oahu– into a humid TLF on a Marine Corps Base. No black mold, no coqui—but, daily, in the very early morning, we heard roosters crowing.
One morning as I did my PT, I was amazed to see chickens running through the military housing area. Hawaii is known for its free-range fowl, but it’s still disconcerting to see chickens roaming loose in an urban environment. Recently, my husband got out of his car at Camp Smith in the middle of Honolulu and came across a wild pig mama and her babies. He stepped quite lively and gave her a wide berth.
It seems life on military installations hasn’t changed much. Every morning, the flag goes up—and each night the flag goes down. We come to a stop and honor the flag. At night, we are lulled to sleep by Taps. Our walls rattle when the helicopters fly overhead; we give way to military convoys. There is a rhythm and flow to military life.
When living on Kirtland Air Force Base, we often would get caught up by MPs randomly searching vehicles as we entered or exited the installation. For a while, it seemed that every week, I was being stopped, pulled over and my vehicle rummaged through. I actually began to recognize the police dogs and their handlers. Half-jokingly I accused a young airman of targeting blue Priuses. My teenager pointed out that maybe it was my semi-obscene bumper sticker that was triggering something in the conservative police force—not my car. At any rate, the young airman very seriously assured me that I was not being targeted personally.
Decades earlier on another installation in Maryland, I was driving my car (albeit a bit fast) and an MP car pulled out right in front of me from a side road and abruptly stopped. I had to slam on my brakes to avoid back-ending it. A large military police officer approached me and said very sternly that I seemed to have been driving in a hurry. Speeding possibly. Still shaken, I retorted maybe it seemed I was going fast, because he was stopped in the middle of the road.
“If you’re stopped, anything approaching from behind would appear fast—and isn’t it against the law to stop in the middle of the road, anyway?”
After giving me a stern glare, he let me go.
I tend to have a bad habit of mouthing off to cops. But, I also seem to get away with it –most times. My mouthing off is probably a defense mechanism or a case of nerves. Once, at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, I was rushing my kid to school. I must’ve been going over the speed limit as I pulled into the school drop-off zone–although how I would manage that is a mystery to me, considering it was bumper to bumper cars. Immediately, a soldier wearing a safety vest and school patrol badge rushed up to me and informed me that I was speeding. Was I? I asked perplexed. Yes, he said indignantly, “How would you feel if you hit a child?”
Without thinking, I retorted, “It depends on which child.” He looked shocked. I was shocked hearing that come out of my mouth. I immediately apologized, and the two of us stared hard at each other as we both went our separate ways. I, driving very slowly. He probably memorizing my license plate number.
In the early 2000s, I staged a sit-in at the Kirtland Air Force Base Security Forces station over what I considered an unjust parking ticket. The stand-off lasted a couple of hours until the LT finally decided that he’d had enough and let me go—sans ticket. I wasn’t so lucky in Germany. One day I racked up a parking ticket on post and I was so upset that I ran a red light on the way home, so the Polizei nabbed me too. It seems to me there was another violation that day—and my husband was displeased with three citations on his record.
My being stopped by the military police continued even into 2020.
My husband and I stayed at the TLFs on the Marine Corps base when we PCS’d to Hawaii. One day we were walking our dog near the on-base nature preserve that runs parallel to the base main gate. There’s a strip of path which is obscured by trees, and as my husband and I came out of it with our dog, a Marine who was obviously law enforcement, moved toward us with great purpose. We froze, expecting to be scolded because we were walking Danny in the preserve which clearly is marked “no dogs.”
Technically we were just outside the preserve, so we thought we were on the right side of the law. As the young man strode toward us, we prepared ourselves for that argument. Instead, the Marine asked us where we’d come from. In unison, my husband and I said, “Not from the nature preserve; it says no dogs allowed.”
The Marine then asked to see our ID cards. It dawned on us that he thought we’d sneaked in from off base. Since my husband was wearing PT clothes, he didn’t have any ID—it was back in our room. Luckily, because I always carry my purse, no matter how stupid it looks, I was able to produce my military ID. Chuckling gleefully, I said, “See? Army wife—I’m always prepared and have my ID!” The Marine smiled and said, “That’s how our wives generally are— much more prepared than their husbands.” The incident reinforced the importance of always carrying ID on base.
One thing that hasn’t changed is run-around. In Puerto Rico, as an Army family living with a special needs kid on a Navy Base, we got all sort of push-back about which medical facility would cover his very expensive and experimental treatment. Neither wanted to. The matter was settled after a long back-and-forth when the only doctor who could have treated him committed suicide. After that, our son was referred to a civilian doctor.
In Hawaii, the situation was completely different, but the buck-passing similar. My husband is a Federal employee (a civilian) working for DOD in a Joint Command. He works on a Marine Corps Base. We live in Navy housing. After what seemed to be a bazillion days in a hotel, I wanted to get some loaner furniture from the military so we could at least live in our new home. (There is an “Aloha furniture” program to help families get settled while they wait for their household goods. Each branch has its own program.)
I started with our housing area “ambassador.” She said she’d figure who we fell under and get back to me as soon as possible. She never did. After two days, I decided to call the Navy—after all, we were moving into Navy housing. The sailor told me that since my husband worked for the Marines– call their program. I called the Marines, and they said since we were living in Navy housing, we fell under their umbrella. Another lady said that she knew exactly who to call—she’d plug in our name, address and contact info and someone would get in touch. No one ever did. So, no Aloha furniture for us! We toughed it out in the hotel for 44 days in Hawaii after having spent 10 days in a hotel in New Mexico. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger!
As in Puerto Rico, our Hawaiian house is a small concrete structure. The windows are designed to protect against hurricanes and brutal sunshine; all exposed metal latches and hinges are covered with salt crust and rust. Like all of the military places we have lived in, the fixtures are cheap and functional, the walls have been repainted over and over and the polished floors are well-worn and scuffed. There is little personality in the structures; it’s only after we move in, that the house becomes a home.
Each military housing neighborhood we have lived in is cookie cutter. I jokingly refer to this one as Camazotz. Each house looks like every other; and in fact, our house could be a military house in Kansas or Virginia. Except for the Plumeria, Royal Poinciana or Palm trees, one would never know this is Hawaii. In the morning, we are treated to a rousing rendition of the National Anthem; in the afternoons, we dodge sailors in PT uniforms running along the sidewalks. At night, the neighborhood is quiet and well-ordered. We feel safe surrounded by service members and military retirees. We shop at the commissary, the NEX; the Shoppette. I’ve joined the Officers’ Spouse club; my husband plans boogie board excursions to the MCBH beach.
While some things have changed—the active-duty families are all so YOUNG—some things have remained the same. We have settled back into a familiar life which we gave up ages ago, only to wrap it around us now like a well-worn and welcoming blanket.