A Different Kind of “Fangirling”: Staff Sergeant Spencer Stone

Throughout my years with GeekMom, I’ve had the opportunity to meet some amazing people. I have written about meeting book, comic, music, and film/TV celebrities and I get my share of fangirl “squeeing”—hopefully mostly internally—while I’m shaking his/her hand and talking.

A couple weeks ago, through a program at the U.S. Air Force Academy, I had the opportunity to listen to Staff Sergeant Spencer Stone (say that four times fast!) give an account of the events that led to his incapacitating a terrorist on a high speed train in France last August. The two-day event was filled with inspirational speakers, and I heard several wonderful talks from non-profit owners, industry leaders, and higher-ranking military leaders. However, I was the most excited about hearing Sergeant Stone’s account. Inside, I was certainly Kermit-flailing! Continue reading A Different Kind of “Fangirling”: Staff Sergeant Spencer Stone

Memories of 9/11: A Military Member’s Perspective

Soldiers from the US Army 10th Mountain Division in Afghanistan have a moment of silence in honor of the 9/11 victims on the 5th anniversary of the event. Photo by Flickr user Morgan-Family, via CC.

Note: GeekMom originally published this article on 9/11/2012. We’re running it today in memory of those lost on 9/11/2001. 

Where we were on 9/11 have become such fixtures in our memories. Relating what you were doing has become as commonplace as remembering what we were doing when when the Space Shuttles Challenger and Columbia accidents occurred. Or in the case of my parents’ generation, remembering where they were when Kennedy was assassinated. My story shares what it was like for a military member in a very non-military assignment.

September 10, 2001

I had been serving on active duty in the Air Force for about six and a half years on 9/11/01. I was serving during a time of relative peace, although on 9/10/01, the American military was certainly busy with assorted peacekeeping missions around the world: Operation NORTHERN WATCH and SOUTHERN WATCH in Iraq, Operation JOINT FORGE in Bosnia, Operations ALLIED FORCE and JOINT GUARDIAN in Kosovo, Joint Task Force – Bravo in South America, and we always counted the “cease fire” operations in South Korea. There were other missions but I might not have been privy to them. In my mind, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Korea were some of the most dangerous places to serve. And it wasn’t that bad.

I had served tours in Bosnia and Korea by this point, and in September 2001 I was in the final stretches of my Master’s Degree work at the Air Force Institute of Technology, which is their accredited graduate school at Wright-Patterson AFB, near Dayton, Ohio. Between about Labor Day and the end of September, the students have a 3-week “fall break.” New students are having a review session — since most of us active duty students hadn’t cracked open a textbook in 5-8 years — while those of us who weren’t new could take a much-needed break.

I was in a class with 11 other weather officers, all of us working on our meteorology Masters degrees. Some of my classmates had taken leave (i.e., vacation days) to go home and visit family, or take vacations. Three members of my class, my husband among them, had traveled to Seattle, Washington on September 10th for a conference on lightning research. Their advisor was flying out to join them on September 11th.

Whenever there was an academic break, our class of 12 had to identify the “senior ranking officer” who planned to remain in the local area. With about hafl of our classmates gone, including the two highest ranking officers in our class, that job fell on me. As of September 10th, this position didn’t really require much. He/she is just supposed to know where everybody is in case of an emergency.

Business as Usual

On the morning of September 11th, I went into my office at school to work on my thesis. Even though it was a break, several of us were using the peace and quiet to catch up on data analysis and writing. We have a television in our computer lab, one of the few rooms on the 2nd floor of our building to have one. It was usually on either the Weather Channel (go figure!) or one of the news networks. Several of us had our preferences between Fox News, CNN, or MSNBC, and whomever got to the remote control first got to choose the network. Usually the volume was very low, or muted altogether.

We remember taking note of the smoke pouring from the first aircraft hitting the North Tower of the World Trade Center. I distinctly remember thinking it was a Cessna or other single engine small plane causing it, because of the Twin Towers being so big. I remember the our computer lab had started with just 4-5 of us, and quickly filled up as those without TVs in their offices came in to see what was going on. I won’t go through the timeline here, but when we received word of the progressive grounding of flights, from the NYC area, to the entire northeast, to all of the United States—just an hour after the first plane hit the World Trade Center, we knew something very, very bad was happening.

The Fog of War: Processing Rumors, Finding Our Loved Ones

I have vague memories of being glued to a TV set for the rest of the morning. I remember flipping channels between the major networks and cable news networks as they were all processing information from several directions, all varying. The rumors were flying. Major city centers were evacuating and reports were coming in of additional crashes and fires, many of which were unfounded.

I called my husband at around 10 am. He was three time zones behind on the west coast, so he was just preparing for his day at the lightning conference and hadn’t yet turned on the TV. We spoke briefly and then hung up. He says he turned on the TV just before the live shot of the second World Trade Center tower collapsing. I remember him calling me back within the hour very very upset about it all. He’s a native New Yorker, and like GeekMom Kristen said at the end of her remembrance, you don’t mess with New Yorkers and their city!

Also heavy on my husband’s mind was that we had just been to New York the week prior, for Labor Day weekend with his family on Long Island. We had just driven across the George Washington Bridge, enjoying one last glimpse of that skyline that included the Twin Towers.

As the news was coming in, we, like everyone else in America, checked in with all of their friends near the impact areas. I called my closest friend who lived inside the Washington Beltway at the time. She worked at an elementary school and told me about all the parents coming in to get their kids. Her in-laws were near New York, including a sister-in-law in lower Manhattan! She was trying to get in touch, but it wasn’t easy. As for Dave’s parents on Long Island? Forget it. The collapsing Twin Towers severed the major trunk cables that connected Long Island land lines with the rest of the country. It would be several days before we could talk to them on the phone.

After lunchtime, all U.S. military installations were put in Force Protection Condition DELTA. In other words, highest alert. Nobody goes in. Nobody comes out. When this happens, you know things aren’t going well. Panic went through my mind.

When you don’t know how long this is going to last, you start thinking about things like “What about my children in child care?” and “What about that dinner in the Crock Pot?” In my case, I was in a panic about my dog Howie. Howie was used to one of us coming home to let him out by mid-afternoon, if we didn’t come home for a lunch break. I had planned to head home pretty early, but that plan was shot. There was only one hope: My friend Bill was stuck outside the base gate and everybody in my lab asked him to perform a number of tasks, mainly checking on pets. Imagine not knowing how long you might be confined to the base…Bill came through for us and I’m still grateful to him for popping the screen on a window to get into the house to let our dog out.

Go Home, You’re Of No Use To Us Here

Since we were in student status, we weren’t really useful for combatting terrorists and were released from the base by dinnertime. We wouldn’t be allowed back on the base for the rest of the week.

Remember when I said I was the “Senior Ranking Officer” for my class? That meant contacting everyone in my class and ensuring they were okay. I did that without incident, but one of our advisors was airborne in the middle of all this and we were all very worried about him. It didn’t take authorities long to realize that cross-country flights were being used to hit the buildings, and we wondered if a Chicago-to-Seattle plane might have been hijacked. It wasn’t my responsibility to contact this officer for his whereabouts, but I made some phone calls and learned that his flight had been put down somewhere in the Dakotas and he got a rental car and drove home.

Sonic Boom

A couple friends and I hung out at my house that first night. We had been in “let’s get the job done” mode for most of the day, but as the family members started begging on the news networks for information about their loved ones, the tears really started flowing. It was an emotional first night. When we parted ways, I was afraid to sleep; I was in the house by myself (well, my dog Howie was with me, but he was hardly a guard dog).

At about 2 am a loud BOOM overhead awakened me and to this day that was the most scared I had ever been in my entire life. The airways were empty, right?

What was that BOOM? It turned out it was from a couple of Air Force fighter jets patrolling the skies, performing a mission known as “Combat Air Patrol”, or CAP. The local news outlets were quick to report on what it was, since our entire community was in a pretty fearful state.

Trying to Be Useful

Our base remained closed for the next three days. On Thursday, September 13th, a small group of us decided to heed some advice on the news and pay a visit to our local blood bank. Even if we weren’t in a position to be mobilized for war like many of our peers, we would be useful this way.

The line was so long! I believe we waited nearly three hours outside on the morning of the 13th.

Of the four of us who attempted to donate blood…none of us were qualified. Three of us had been to locations that prohibit us from donating blood for one or more years. One of us had been to Europe, one of us to Africa, one of us (me) to Korea, and one of us was on a prescription medication that prohibited him from donating.

Boy did we feel incredibly useless.

The Long Road Home

In the meantime, my husband was still in Seattle. The air routes were shut down until further notice, and the the conference they were attending was canceled, a large number of attendees were planning to fly on September 11th and never made it to Seattle due to cancellations and reroutes. They—and most Americans—had no idea when the air would be open for flying again. On Thursday morning, September 13th, he and his group got in their rental car and began driving eastward.

They drove straight through, with stops only for meals and a shower somewhere in Minnesota. About 46 hours after they left Seattle, Dave made it home. It was early Saturday morning, September 15th, 2001.

The emotion of that week was incredible. Writing it all down like this has been very interesting for me. Like dredging up deep dark memories…although my memories aren’t really that deep and dark. Those who were actually in lower Manhattan, Arlington, Virginia, or on those four aircraft would have much darker stories to tell.

Please take a moment today to remember the 2700+ innocent people who were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time when terrorists executed a plan that was seven years in the making.

I remember the spirit and unity the United States felt after the attacks. I’m saddened that we don’t have that emotion anymore, and that it took something as tragic as 9/11 to make it happen. American flags everywhere, impromptu singing of “God Bless America,” and something that reminded me of the spirit Americans probably had during the Revolution.

How will you #NeverForget911??

Product Review: Cuddle Clones Custom Stuffed Animals

Cuddle Clones make great gifts for those who miss their pets, whether due to the pets moving on to the Rainbow Bridge, or if the owners are having to spend extended periods away from their loved ones. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.
My sons with their “Howies.” Cuddle Clones make great gifts for those who miss their pets, whether due to the pets moving on to the Rainbow Bridge, or if the owners are having to spend extended periods away from their loved ones. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.

Earlier this year, our family lost our beloved pet, Howie. You can read more about him on my website. During our mourning, we learned of a company called Cuddle Clones. My husband and I thought this would be a great gift for our 11- and 9-year-old sons to help them remember Howie.

The company was founded in 2009, when Jennifer Graham lost her own beloved pet, Rufus. While she had been mulling the idea while her pet was still alive, it wasn’t until his death that she decided to go forward in starting up a company that specialized in completely customized stuffed pets.

Pay a visit to the Cuddle Clones website. You will instantly be greeted with a slideshow of incredibly cute stuffed pets, with the photos of the real pets alongside the replicas. You will see the accuracy and quality right away. In addition to the stuffed animals, Cuddle Clones offers cast resin figurines and ornaments. It also offers gifts and supplies for your living pets, such as shirts, beds, and collars.

The website is easy to navigate, and in just a couple of clicks, you can start designing a custom pet replica of your very own.

Screen Shot 2014-08-16 at 10.42.42 AM
The Cuddle Clones website makes it easy to upload photos of your favorite pet and design a “clone” for you or your loved ones. Image capture: Patricia Vollmer.

For the classic stuffed Cuddle Clone, you will go through a step-by-step process that includes uploading numerous photos of your pet. The more photos you have available, the better. Howie had a distinctive curly, fluffy tail (he was part Chow Chow), so I made a point to let the company know on the order form to make sure the tail is right.

Cuddle Clones aren’t inexpensive. Expect to invest $199 for a dog or cat, or $129 for smaller pets such as guinea pigs and rabbits. Don’t forget tax and shipping, which is approximately $10 per pet. I assure you, based on what we’ve seen with our own new pets, the attention to detail is worth every penny.

Also, Cuddle Clones take a while to make. Each pet is individually handcrafted, and that takes time. As of this writing, expect to wait 8 to 10 weeks for your completed replica. Ours took about 9 weeks.

Cuddle Clones will arrive in custom boxes wrapped in tissue paper. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.
Cuddle Clones will arrive in a custom box wrapped in tissue paper. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.

When the replicas arrive, prepare to be dazzled. I was certainly shocked at how big the clones actually are. Each one was about 12 to 14 inches long, and about 10 inches tall. A tag with your pet’s name is sewn onto the back of the animal.

Check out these comparison photos and see for yourself:

The left side is Howie from 2006. I thought they had amazing detail in Howie’s face, from the pink in the ears to the grey around his mouth. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.
The top photo is from fall 2007. They did a fine job with capturing Howie’s curly, fluffy tail. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.

Our sons absolutely loved them…at first. The boys toted them all over the house, had their “Howies” ride in the car with us, and slept with them at night. However, our oldest son began to have dreams about Howie again and that worried us. So he (for now, he insists) has put Howie away for a little bit. Our youngest son continues to love his “Howie.” Based on their cost, however, we’ve discussed whether the clone should be placed in a nice location just for viewing, or if we should just let the kids hug and love them to death the way they do their other favorite stuffed animals.

I have to admit, we were worried about whether such an accurate likeness would creep out our sons. We decided to go forward, but some families might not be comfortable with it. You know your kids well; consider their reactions to a gift such as this.

While having the replica as a memory of a passed-on pet is a great way to enjoy a Cuddle Clone, consider other ways to make them great gifts. How about a gift for your son/daughter going away to college? Is your favorite military member taking a deployment and might miss his/her pet? Consider Cuddle Clones.

Join the company’s mailing list for coupon codes, such as $30 off a clone.

GeekMom received a discount on this product for review purposes.

Veteran’s Day 2011: A Reflection of Why I Deployed

This picture was taken on January 6, 2009. About a minute later, the boys were out of my sight for 100 days. Photo: Dave Vollmer

Happy Veteran’s Day!

As it’s been mentioned many times before, I am a Major in the U.S. Air Force Reserves.  I have been serving as a meteorologist for the Air Force since Spring 1995, where I joined the active duty ranks right out of college.  In January 2005, when my 2nd son was born, I had an opportunity to accept a Reserve job in Norfolk, Virginia and I made the transition out of active service.  This afforded my husband the chance to take an Air Force PhD program assignment in Raleigh, North Carolina.  Something he wouldn’t have been able to do easily if I had remained on active duty.

It was a whole new world for me.  Except for one-weekend-per-month, I was a stay-home-Mom!  Little-to-no adult interaction most of the days, weekly playgroups, preschool drop-off and pick-up lines, etc.

My friend and colleague Paul. This is the Reserve weather officer I "shared" my deployment with. Here we are during our overlap at Al Udeid AB, Qatar, April 2009. Photo used with permission by Patricia Vollmer.

One weekend per month, I’d travel to Norfolk and perform my reserve duty, and every fall (usually around peak hurricane season) I’d perform my two week tour.  In 2007, my job in Norfolk was cut and I transferred to a new position at Shaw AFB, South Carolina, this time with the Air Force weather unit that provides “reach-back” forecast support to the Global War on Terror: both Operation IRAQI FREEDOM and Operation ENDURING FREEDOM.

It was tough to fit in with a group of Airmen who were constantly rotating in and out of the Middle East.  They would bring their forward-deployed expertise back to South Carolina and constantly make our forecasting processes better.  I had never taken a Middle East deployment — the cards had never fallen such that I had to go.

I still didn’t have to go.

But my credibility was at stake.  Not to others.  To me.  I had plenty of managerial experience.  I knew who to talk to to get things done.  I would fix countless issues in my job, but in terms of forecasting for the Middle East, I still lacked that hands-on experience.

The commander of the weather unit offered some of us a chance to take a non-Iraq/Afghanistan deployment opportunity, and Air Force Reserve Command took the opportunity a step further and said that if two reservists wanted to “share” a single 179-day deployment, we could do that.  So my friend/colleague Paul and I did exactly that.  We volunteered to serve in the Middle East.

I was given a spot in a required training class on the Florida Panhandle in mid-December 2008, then had orders to go “downrange” in early January 2008.  This was awesome in that I’d at least get the holidays with my boys before I had to leave.  The kids would be back in school by then, too…

I was ready for this — I got my training, I got all the child care arranged for the kids, my husband’s job (at the time) supported a standard work week so he could play single dad.  What I wasn’t ready for was the reaction from many of my friends, neighbors and extended family about this.  We were living in a non-military community at the time, and most of our neighbors and friends weren’t accustomed to someone they knew having to take a deployment.

  • “The kids are so young!  It’s a shame they’re making you go with such young children.”
  • “Couldn’t you get out of it?”
  • “Are you sure you have to do this?”
  • “I can’t believe you have to do this!”
  • “Can’t you call your Congressman?”

Then I say that I volunteered and it was as if I shot a puppy.  I can imagine the thoughts going through those fellow Moms’ heads, “She must hate her family…” or “How could she traumatize her children like that?”

I had not-so-nice thoughts in my head too: “I’m doing this so you don’t have to!”

Most of my friends were more understanding after a short conversation about it.  I’d merely explain that most other Americans who do what I’m trained to do had been already (such as my husband, who deployed to Baghdad in mid-2003), and that it was time for me to do my part in the Global War on Terror.  I’m sort of idealizing/glorifying the explanation here, but you get the gist of it.

My sons wrote me many letters and cards. This is my oldest son's first letter to me. He was in Kindergarten when I deployed in 2009. Photo: Patricia Vollmer

On January 6, 2009, I made the journey “across the pond” and had a very busy, educational, and rewarding experiencing serving “downrange”.  The forecasting was among the most challenging in my entire life (Afghanistan weather in the winter is NOT for the faint of heart).  I met hundreds of outstanding fellow military professionals and got to do full time work for the first time in 4 years.  It felt good.

My only negative about the entire experience was how much I missed my family.  I won’t beat around the bush, it sucked royally.  Because of my strange work schedule, I could Skype with my husband and the boys once a week.  This got a bit frustrating because I’d want the boys to talk to me, but they were more interested in the Skype software itself.  They’d constantly ask me to change webcam backgrounds and they’d goof off and be silly.  But upon thinking about it, I’m sure they took comfort in seeing my image on the screen once a week…and the rest of it was gravy.  They knew I was okay.

I came home at about 2am on Easter Sunday, April 12, 2009.  I was waiting with my sons’ Easter baskets that morning…homecomings are rather tricky, so we didn’t tell the boys about it ahead of time, in case my flight was delayed.

I blogged about what deployment items I could while I was over there.  Don’t get the wrong impression, I did a TON of work, which I wasn’t allowed to discuss in detail.  But I could openly discuss the trips I made into Doha, Qatar five or six times, along with some pictures of the base I was living on.  I had some laundry service issues, and I did a step-by-step journey through growing a Chia Homer in my dorm room.  About 2 weeks after I came home, I wrote a big “Thank You!” note on my blog and it offers more perspective on why I chose to voluntarily make this trip.

I don’t regret it, and I thank my husband and children even to this day for giving me the chance to do it.  A trip to Disneyworld for Christmas 2009 with some of my deployment money softened the blow some too!

I also never forget that I had it easy relative to the thousands of servicemembers who have deployed and continue to deploy into the more dangerous locations in Iraq and Afghanistan.  And I also never forget those who never made it home.

Happy Veteran’s Day!

What Veterans Day Means to Me

My son Michael, Master of Ceremonies at the Veterans Day Ceremony at his school.

A few days ago, my son Michael had the privilege of being the Master of Ceremonies at the Veterans Day Ceremony at his middle school, Caddo Middle Magnet. He did an excellent job, and I am very proud of him. Why did he get picked to do it? Because the person organizing knew that he is the son of a Veteran that has given so much for our country.

Today is Veteran’s Day, and my sons are sans their dad. He’s not deployed this time, but away for training that he needs to transition to a new job in his full-time Army National Guard position. He’s been a full-timer since about one month before 9/11. Since then he has deployed two times, been to several schools and trainings, and been away quite a lot due to his job obligations. My sons have come to terms with the fact that dad won’t be here for some birthdays and important holidays.

Our boys have learned the fine art of how to Skype with dad, how to deal with an emotional mom, how to make their own fish sticks or hot dogs for dinner when said mom just wants to sit on the couch and watch re-runs of The Golden Girls when having her own personal pity party, and how to be just a little more resilient to some things in life that a lot of kids their age don’t have to deal with. They’ve also learned how to get ready for an awesome day: Dad coming home. They know how to help in getting the house clean and ready, make welcome home posters, make chocolate chip cookies, rake the yard, and make the best of a great situation.

Sammy readies his sign for dad's bus to arrive!

Last year, their dad was deployed for the entire year. The boys, especially Michael, were very nervous the entire time. Sammy was four and Michael was six the first time he deployed, so Michael remembers the events better than Sammy does. Their dad had trained in country for six months, then was in Iraq for six months before he was badly injured by a vehicle-bourne improvised explosive device (VBIED) and came home earlier than the rest of his unit. It was a tough time; he had to recuperate and we had to deal with explaining it all to our young children. It was pretty funny when he came home, all wrapped in bandages and looking pretty rough, when Sammy, only four years old, said, “No offense Daddy, but you look…kind of ugly.” We still crack up about that every time we talk about it.



It’s extremely heartwarming to see the average citizen walk up to a member of the Armed Forces that is in uniform, simply shake their hand and say, “Thank you for your service.” It means a lot to the families and friends of Veterans and currently activated military members, that the sacrifices of our military are appreciated not just today, but everyday.

Heather E. Schwartz Inspires Young Girls to Serve Their Nation

Heather Schwartz’s books about women in the armed forces inspire elementary school-aged girls. Images: Amazon.com

Earlier this year, GeekMom Kathy recommended I contact one of her colleagues, children’s author Heather E. Schwartz, about reviewing her two books about women in the U.S. armed forces that were published earlier this year.  She thought I’d be an appropriate candidate, not only as a military member myself, but because I have elementary-school aged children of the appropriate age-level for the books — even if they aren’t girls.

Ms. Schwartz graciously sent me her two books and my sons read them this summer with enthusiasm.  They especially enjoyed Women of the U.S. Air Force: Aiming High, since they live in an Air Force family in an Air Force community.  They were less interested in the Marine Corps version, Women of the U.S. Marine Corps: Breaking Barriers. That’s certainly no fault of the author.  My oldest son read it anyway to help with his Accelerated Reader goals for his 3rd grade class.

These are perfect non-fiction books for elementary-aged children who are on the cusp between picture books and chapter books.  Both books are similarly laid out.  Aiming High and Breaking Barriers both have 32 pages in 4 chapters, plus a glossary, timeline, internet sites and an index.

The first chapters feature recent notable military women, who have worked hard and both had opportunities to to be the first women to perform high-visibility roles.  In Aiming High, Ms. Schwartz interviewed Major Nicole Malachowski, the Air Force’s first female pilot for The Thunderbirds, the service’s aerial demonstration team.  In Breaking Barriers, chapter one featured Major Jennifer Greives, the first-ever Marine One VH-3D pilot.  I enjoyed these particular choices of role models for the books because in both cases, these are women who could excel and break gender barriers in a more reasonable point in their careers, rather than as General officers.  Kudos to Ms. Schwartz to giving girls a more of a goal than “I want to be a General in the armed forces.”  I know that sounds rather odd, that we should always tell our girls to be whatever they can be, but I think to be a pilot is a very attainable goal with very clear intermediate objectives.

The second chapters feature histories of women in their respective services.  The histories are brief and are written to a 4th-5th grade level, which means that although much detail is omitted, there’s no doubt that a child will learn a lot here, thanks to the age-appropriate word choices.  Definitions of several military jargon words, such as “deployment”, are defined as breakout-boxes on the same pages.  Ms. Schwartz did a great job pulling historical images; I especially like the “Lady Leatherneck” cartoon about Lucy Brewer she found for Breaking Barriers on page 11.

The third chapter discusses the current process by which a young woman can join the service, attend training, and learn a skill from pilot training to engineering to even serving in the astronaut corps!

Finally, the fourth chapters cover the future of women serving and provides gems of inspiration for how girls can themselves serve in the armed forces.  It provides some statistics about women serving, some insights into women in combat, and some other inspirational role models in the Air Force .  Great inspiration for no matter what she wants to be when she grows up — it’s just as applicable to the armed forces.  At the end of Chapter 4 in both books are a “Fast Facts” section and a timeline.

In summary, if you see a future Zoomie or Jarhead in your daughter or other young lady in your life, these books would make great gifts!

P.S.: It’s a coincidence that the day I wrote this review, the U.S. Air Force press service published this article about an all-female cargo aircraft crew flying in support of Operation ENDURING FREEDOM.  This now happens more often than one might think, and to the girls on board, they barely even notice they’re all-women.  To them they’re all Airmen!

Education Week: University of Phoenix and Military Dependents

University of Phoenix is the United States’ largest private university. It has over 400,000 students split between a robust online learning program and 400 brick and mortar campuses. Through GeekMom, I have been offered the opportunity to take an online class (of my choosing) with UOPX and write about my experience. This post is part of that ongoing series.

When I became a military wife twenty years ago at the age of 23, I had no understanding of what I was “signing up for.” I knew that my husband and I would be moving to three different regions of the country in the first two years of his commitment and that he’d be required to work 60-100 hour work-weeks as he progressed through the Navy’s nuclear power training program (fact: the United States Navy actually operates over 100 nuclear reactors–split between submarines, aircraft carriers, and nuclear training facilities–and trains most of their nuclear staff in-house). What I didn’t understand was how difficult it would be to create my own career around my husband’s.

At the time, the nuclear training program was split into two components–a year of classroom instruction (for us, in Central Florida) followed by six months of prototype training that could occur at one of four nuclear training installations around the country. At the end of training, students would then receive orders for active duty at any of the state-side navy bases. The upshot of this was that in the span of twelve months in 91-92, we moved from Central Florida to upstate New York to Norfolk, Virginia–and with the ink still wet on my first paycheck at a new, hard-won job, we were told that my husband’s boat was being redeployed to San Diego.

Now, there is a reason that I write for GeekMom and not Glib(GetsInvitedToSwankParties)Mom. At my core, I am an introvert that requires “a good bit of time to grow accustomed to new people and places” (as Robin mentioned in her April post on introversion).  There are, apparently, people who can handle this level of upheaval in their lives but I am most definitely not one of them.

Which is why we didn’t move to San Diego. I explained to my husband in decibels that had dogs up and down the Virginia Peninsula gnashing their teeth in anguish that his boat might indeed be moving to San Diego, and that he might even be a crewman on that boat, but that the only way I was joining him on the West Coast was if he trussed me to the front of the car and drove me there–and even then, the sainted ghost of Admiral Hyman G. Rickover himself would be unable to stop me from hurling myself bodily and with ill-intent into the spume-y Pacific upon arrival. I needed to grow roots and stay in one place for a while.

In a brazen (and let’s face it: concerned) omnia vincit amor bid, my husband procured an unheard-of transfer to a Norfolk-based submarine and we were able to remain in the same home for the next four years. Even with this “victory,” however, these active-duty years were tremendously challenging. My husband was attached to a fast-attack sub with no set schedule that was often out at sea for months at a time–one year, the boat was out to sea and out-of-communication beneath a polar ice cap for almost ten months, cumulatively. Even when he was in port, “the nukes” pulled duty every third night, staying aboard the boat to monitor its reactor. (All this, I might add, on a salary that would have qualified us for food stamps had we gotten pregnant at the time.)

We’ve been out of the Navy for 11 years now but all of these experiences came rushing back to me when I was offered the opportunity to take an online class with University of Phoenix for GeekMom last spring. Back in the 90’s, I’d felt trapped by geography–none of the colleges in our region offered media programs. It seemed I had a choice: I could physically separate from my husband to attend school and pursue my own professional dream or I could stay at home and put my education off until we were out of the military. One summer, I actually tested the idea and enrolled in a course in a media/journalism three hours away in Washington, DC, but ultimately, it didn’t feel like the right choice for that time, either personally, financially, or professionally, and I returned home.

Would University of Phoenix have been a good option for someone like military-wife me, I’ve wondered?

Since we’ve left the military, more attention has been paid to wives’ professional lives–at least in part because the numbers of military personnel coming home injured from Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom mean that some military wives are put in the position of becoming the primary wage-earner for their families. As a result, in 2009, the government began allowing a transfer of GI Bill benefits to a dependent spouse or child for the first time. Previously, the government had also created the Military Spouse Career Advancement Accounts Program (MyCAA) program for spouses of military members in the lowest pay grades to help cover costs associated with an accreditation or undergraduate degree. Financial access-wise: we’ve come a long way, baby…

Cost-wise, like many schools, University of Phoenix actually charges active-duty military and their dependents lower tuition fees–undergraduate classwork is generally assessed at $250 per credit and graduate work costs between $465 and $575 per credit (depending on the program), while non-military students will pay hundreds of dollars more for each class. According to eLearner.com‘s comparison of online education costs:

At the University of Phoenix​, tuition for online business programs is $345 per semester-hour at the Associate’s degree level, $530 per semester-hour at the Bachelor’s degree level, $655 per semester-hour at the Master’s degree level, and $745 per semester-hour at the doctoral level.  There are also additional fees, including a registration fee for each course.

As I now know, to enter the military is to become a member of a cultural minority–there are behaviors, language, and experiences unique to military life that are difficult to appreciate and comprehend from the outside. University of Phoenix has been criticized for unfairly enticing military members and depending too much on federal student aid but as a former military-dependent I see its willingness to adapt programming to the needs of active-duty military and their spouses through their Military Division as one of the school’s greatest justifications.

What do you think?

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“We’ll Get Around to It Eventually”: Fitting a Wedding Into a Military Lifestyle

"Getting hitched" in Leesville, Louisiana, August 1995. I still have the dress and even still wear it on occasion. The best $39.99 I've ever spent! Photo used with permission.

What happens when you cross two overachieving meteorologists who chose to join the Air Force — and happen to be in love?

You put “Get Married” on your To Do List, in between dry cleaning, getting an oil change, and the oodles of military training trips the two of us had.  We visited the trailer home of Arlene, the Justice of the Peace of Vernon Parish, Louisiana, and got married among four of our closest — um — office mates.

My boss's wife made the beautiful wedding cake. That's my boss's office, which should be everyone's first choice for a wedding reception location. We still have that token Wilton-brand topper. And I remember that poster hanging up behind the cake: it's the Fort Polk, Louisiana quick-reference phone directory. Photo used with permission.

This is common in military life.  Especially when it comes to fitting wedding and wedding planning in between trips to the field, trips for additional meteorology training, etc.  Military couples “get hitched” and put off the real church wedding with family and friends for a later date.  Typically this is done so a couple can get stationed together, or to get military medical and housing benefits transferred to the new spouse.

In my case, I simply couldn’t handle the stresses of planning a wedding while living so far from our friends and family…and my future spouse who was living in Pennsylvania while I was just getting set up in Louisiana.  Our schedules were so busy!  My husband was actually still in college, and was awaiting orders for Air Force Officer Training School, so to plan a date simply wasn’t going to work.  We didn’t want wedding plans to get in the way of his entering the Air Force, the work force, his earning potential.  In addition, my father was stationed in Guam at the time with the Navy.  Flying my parents and sister back to the states wasn’t an insignificant expense — about half of what I was willing to budget for a wedding!

That was 15 1/2 years ago!  We contemplated renewing our vows for our 5th anniversary, having a church wedding and a classic reception.  Oops, in August 2000 we were just returning to the states after bring stationed overseas in Seoul, Korea.  In fact, our furniture was being moved into our new house in Ohio on our anniversary itself!

How about our 10th anniversary?  Probably not…we were again in the middle of a move from Florida to North Carolina — complete with a toddler and newborn!

This still weighs heavily on my husband and me — that we haven’t had a traditional wedding with the chance to exchange vows in front our friends, family and God.  No pretty dress, no beautiful wedding portraits…I’ve never gotten to experience that special day that’s supposed to be “All About Me Us”.

Army Aviators Ball, Seoul, Korea, May 1999. Instead of a wedding dress, I had to invest in a dress uniform. Photo used with permission.

My wedding day was not an “all about me us” kind of day.  We got married in the morning, then I had to work an overnight shift that night.  Really!

But as reality and practicality sets in, I wonder how to tastefully go about inviting the now-hundreds of friends (after living in 7 different communities, you pick up a lot of great friends) and family to a church wedding after 15+ years and two kids.

I think about others who have similar challenges, but make it a higher priority than Dave and I apparently did.  They made the wedding happen: the choose the date, the location and the wedding party.  If guests can make it, great, if not, so sorry.

There’s also the matter of budget.  I consider the wonderful things my husband and I have done over the past 15 1/2 years…we’ve traveled the world, had great experiences and have led a pretty darned good life…despite a lifestyle of deployments and frequent moves.  Do I want to invest $10,000-20,000 for a lavish party?  Now that we’re that much older, I certainly don’t expect the parents to do it!  After all, our parents now have their 50th Anniversaries in their scopes and perhaps we should be investing in their celebrations instead.

Help me out readers!  Should we have the later-in-life wedding?  Or should we save our money?