When you live in a mostly civilian town as we have for the past five years after living in high-density military areas for the first 30 years of your life, some of the service’s nuances fade from memory.
The feeling is similar to moving away from home and forgetting your family’s subtler traditions, like the Christmas plates with a holly-green border, or the wire, tabletop tree with heart-shaped ornaments your mom puts out on Valentine’s Day.
It usually takes going back home for these memories to resurface, like they never were forgotten.
A recent trip to D.C. and a visit with Dustin at his new job at the Pentagon was this homecoming for me. I remembered the military way of life as if I’d never been away from it.
Almost immediately — on the Metro, even — the first thing I recalled was the uniforms, or, specifically, seeing other people besides my husband in them. Navy uniforms are nearly obsolete in Bangor, Maine. Indeed, they aren’t that common across the entire state now that NAS Brunswick has closed. If I see a man in khakis or summer whites, it’s probably my husband. The Navy uniform is such a novelty here, one time a woman stopped me at a reception and asked, “Do you mind taking a picture of me with that Navy man over there?”
I looked in the direction she was pointing. “That one over there,” I said. “In the white uniform?”
“Yes,” she said. “I’ll just go stand next to him and you take the picture.”
I did as she requested, but before I gave back the camera, I said, “My husband sure is cute, isn’t he?”
On the Metro in D.C., military uniforms aren’t necessarily ubiquitous, but they aren’t all that unusual either. I saw men and women in uniforms representing all branches of the service.
At first the children were surprised. “Hey, look,” Lindell said. “It’s someone dressed like Daddy!” After a while, however, he realized there were plenty of Daddy lookalikes in the city. In fact, we almost didn’t spot Dustin in a sea of khaki, green and blue when he met us at the entrance to the Pentagon.
Inside, the Pentagon felt very familiar even though this was my first time visiting it. Everything from the office doors to the floor mats out front were standard military-issue. They reminded me of every building on base I’ve been to around the country, only this was the Pentagon, so it had an added air of mystique.
Originally, I thought the inside of the Pentagon would be more like the inside of the Capitol or the Smithsonian. I imagined marble, domed ceilings and Romanesque columns. I mean, we were in D.C., after all. But, no, if you’ve seen one military building, you’ve pretty much seen them all: utilitarian and gray, with lots of metal and blue carpeting.
For me, it was a lot like being on an aircraft carrier. Yes, it’s almost incomprehensibly big, but once you’re inside, you could be anywhere — anywhere that has spy-resistant coated windows, that is.
In any case, the familiarity was comforting.
The people inside the Pentagon were familiar, too. They talked about things that aren’t typical in our life in Maine. They said things like “IA,” “TAD” and “PCS” without stopping to explain. We all knew.
I imagine this is what visiting a foreign land is like, then coming home to speak your native language.
But the most familiar and reassuring part of our trip down military memory lane in D.C. was meeting with Dustin’s boss, Vice Admiral Robin Braun, the first female chief of the Navy Reserves. Her office is decorated with all the things I love and remember about military life: plaques, pictures of aviation, a wooden conference table decorated with Challenge Coins.
Admiral Braun showed us the Pentagon Memorial outside an office window and showed us a model airplane that had been inside one of the offices that was hit on 9/11. It still has a layer of soot on it, so it is protected and enclosed in glass. We peered across the highway to Arlington National Cemetery and the rows of graves going up and down the hillside like a ribbon. We talked about service and sacrifice. And one of the most important memories of all came to me: why my husband chooses to serve.
As we left D.C. and returned to Maine, I felt like I was coming home. But I also felt like I had left behind a different kind of home in the military surroundings of the city and the Pentagon.
I miss my husband while he is away during the week, but I am now comforted to know that he is in our second home: the military lifestyle, which is all we’ve ever really known.
Maine author and columnist Sarah Smiley’s writing is syndicated weekly to publications across the country. She and her husband, Dustin, live with their three sons in Bangor. She may be reached at www.Facebook.com/Sarah.is.Smiley.