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Military life friendships: Cultivating a chosen family


Waving across the street, they waved back and averted their gaze. 

Oh no, I thought. Did we scare them off? 

It was the fall of 2020; we were at our first duty station and everything extra was shut down. It was perhaps the worst time for an introduction to the military community. We chatted from a safe distance with these military neighbors a couple of days prior. Now, though, no small talk. Only disconcerted glances and polite waves before rushing on. Perhaps they felt nervous about any in-person interaction. Perhaps we came on too strong. 

A friend came to visit recently. This friend lives states away, but we’ve been close since arriving on campus as starry-eyed freshmen living in the same cinder-block dorm. We were floormates, suitemates and housemates over a six-year period. There’s a lot of history there, and consequently, a lot of trust. This friend is like family.

Our junior year, a group of us were trailing out to the parking lot and I was trying to pull everyone into my sunshine-level enthusiasm. Being a more subdued personality, this friend couldn’t take my emotional pulling and prodding. She stopped in her tracks: “Just let me be!” she exclaimed, stopping me short with my mouth agape. 

Raising my eyebrows, I spun on my heels and jangled my keys into the car door to unlock it. Lesson learned.

Military community remains an enigma to me. The more I try to untangle it, the more I just seem to end up with bigger knots. Though some souls seem to whip up a community as easily as their best potato salad, to me, it just seems tough. 

I often long for the kind of local friend who is confident enough in the friendship to stop short with a bit of honest-to-goodness truth you need to hear. Like I experienced in that parking lot. And I long to be that friend, too. The primary difference between the friend who visited me and local friendships is this: time. 

Through a recent conversation with a friend-of-a-friend, I remembered the value of “chosen family” in military life. These are the people who decide you’ll have each other’s backs like a healthy family would. They are the people who commit to showing up for you as you show up for them. And it happens.

I’ve heard of these communities forming organically when a unit deploys and the spouses and families back home have no choice but to pull together for the sake of emotional (and sometimes physical) survival. Whether folding piles of laundry or searching one friend’s fridge to find something you can all eat, I’ve heard these communities exist, out there, as they should.

But part of me wonders how many feel disconnected. A few years removed from those first-duty-station, pandemic-era attempts at friendship with my neighbors, I’m wondering: What would it take to cultivate a chosen duty-station family, without the gift of time? What would it take for me? What would it take for you? Answers will vary wildly.

Service members (whether married or not) and families face different uncertainties; different levels of daily, weekly and annual upheavals; different changing schedules; different family or work responsibilities. We face a lot of change, and that requires a lot from each of us in different ways.

I think we acknowledge it individually. But the next time you attend yet another unit event, family event, spouse event, networking event, where you will recount for the 100th time the places you’ve lived, the schools you’ve attended, the jobs you’ve worked … remember that to some degree, everyone there is likely feeling it, too. 

Perhaps acknowledging this will help us slow down long enough to really see the person in front of us. Though our time is often limited, perhaps we could give the gift of honest friendship, even if for only one conversation.

And when you’re back home and ready to pull the stories you heard from your jacket pocket like a child’s collected seashells from the shore, consider: What would it take to cultivate my own chosen family? What would it take for me? What would it take for you?

Aria Spears writes for CityView’s Homefront initiative. She’s a writer, communications professional and civic leadership enthusiast. With a master’s degree in nonprofit and civic leadership, Aria can be found exploring cities, persuading people to join local civic boards and sharing her book “The Community Mapping Journal.” When it comes to active-duty military family life, she believes that joy makes us strong.  

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