The lowdown on military housing culture

Guest post by Jenn
Life after EBG: USACE, Army to continue quality-of-life improvements for Grafenwoehr © by USACE Europe District, used under Creative Commons license.

Here’s the thing about military houses that is unwavering: they are what you make of them, just like military life in general. Having run around the military block for some time, I realize it’s hard to have any base house feel like “home” when within a month’s notice your family could have to pack up. It’s inevitable and unstable. Plus, it’s not yours. You’re renting, and under strict rules about what you can and cannot do to it to make it your own. There’s often a void where roots should be planted, especially for children. But if you take the time to fill your home with laughter, love, and just the right amount of Target accessories, it can harness some semblance of “home.”

I have been a military spouse (between two husbands –hush!) for over 16 years. I have moved into nine homes, five of them being on-base military housing.

After the third base house we vowed to never live on base again.

Of course, we are living in base housing once again.

But you know, it’s not all bad. We live currently in a brand new single-family two-story house that is absolutely gorgeous by our standards — which may or may not be standard!

However, we’ve lived in our fair share of less-than-standard or ideal homes. Our last military house was a 900-square-foot townhome built in the 1940s. For our family of four, plus a pooch and a kitty, it wasn’t an emblem of space or modernization or anything else for that matter, but it was cozy and had a je ne sais quoi.

Expect it: neighborhood drama

Of course, no matter how much you accessorize, bake, and adorn your home with odes-to-Americana, base housing can come with a heap of obstacles. Namely, your neighbors.

Many base houses are duplex or townhome styles, and living in such close quarters can be a blessing and a curse. Your neighbor can become your best friend — or make life extremely difficult. There is certainly a stereotype of rampant drama in base housing, but sometimes stereotypes exist for a reason.

I suppose there is such a thing as being too close. I’ve heard neighbors in all manners of situations from horrific screaming matches to explicit rounds of marathon sex. Making eye contact the following day can be difficult, especially when you remember that if you’re hearing them, they’re hearing you. But this is likely no different for anyone who lives in an apartment or non-military duplex.

What is different is the shared military lifestyle. You can grieve and relish in the same things concerning your military lives. I have always found a sense of safety and camaraderie, even among the neighbors I don’t know.

Love it: convenience

I love being near the commissary, clinic, post office, and my husband’s job. I love that my kids can better understand what their dad does and what it means to serve because it is close to their lives daily. Sometimes I wish their lives and the Job were farther apart, though; especially deployments, moving often, having to say goodbye to friends, drama, and having to start over in new schools.

The few times we have lived off-base there were certainly things I did like (like being able to paint my house any damn color I pleased and not having to deal with drama-mamas), but I distinctly always remember feeling isolated from the military. We didn’t live near other military members and the only semblance of being associated with it was seeing my husband in his uniform. We didn’t hear the national anthem every day at 5:00pm or Taps at 10:00pm. My kids didn’t have friends who understood being a military brat. I didn’t have neighbors to call (or rely) on when my husband was gone.

Some military members and their spouses like being removed from the military and that’s perfectly fine. I did not. It’s the only life I’ve known since I was 20 years old and I find extreme comfort in being near those who are living similar lives. Although I don’t know many of my neighbors, I do know that I could go to them for anything I needed in any situation…because they’ve been there.

So I think in a long list of pros & cons the sides are pretty evenly matched. We chose to live in base housing this time around because the housing market was crap and it was cheaper for us to live on base. Sometimes this is not the case, so members do have to be diligent in weighing the financial aspects. Contrary to popular belief, we do pay rent. The rent & utilities (BAH) comes out of my husband’s pay automatically every month. If we were to live off base the BAH would be reinstated into his pay and we’d use that for our mortgage, utilities, and any extras that come with home buying/renting.

No matter where you live or who you live next to, the key to home happiness is doing your best to capture the essence of “home” and keeping a positive attitude…but if you live next to a drama-tornado, no one will blame you for wanting to run for the hills!

Comments on The lowdown on military housing culture

  1. As the daughter of an Air Force officer, I can totally sympathize with feeling “disconnected” when living off-base. I still get homesick for that feeling of community and safety. I must admit, the closer I get to graduating college the scarier civilian life looks!

    • Ah, nostalgia. My mother joined the air force when I was an itty-bitty little thing, and I spent most of my life in base housing.

      I don’t know about other military brats, but there are such little things about being a civilian adult that I wouldn’t have expected. For instance: I love apartment complexes, because they remind me of the cookie-cutter thing I hated about base housing. Give me beige walls and ugly carpet and I feel at home.

  2. Thanks for posting. I don’t have any experinece with this, and I find it interesting to learn how other peopel live. Also, I really had no idea you had to pay rent. I’m not sure where it came from, but I thought folks got more money for being married, and got cheap housing.
    I do have one question slightly off topic: What do you mean by “between two husbands”? What is the secret? I’m so nosy!

      • Heh, you just cleared that up for me! I read the entire thing in a male-voice, assuming (he) meant they were more or less supposed to not tell. But then, me and my lady-fiancee had talked about her going into the military and what that would mean for us/future family, so my brain is oriented that way.

    • Military members do receive additional benefits being married to a civilian dependant. However how much is completely dependant on the location of the base not where you decide to live. You can Google BAH pay and just look up the area code that the base or post is located at.

      In most situations the base location has lower housing standards than the surrounding area causing you to have to pay “out of pocket” for rent or mortgage. For myself, my BAH is 1050 while I pay 1350 for rent.

  3. I’m about to go through my first PCS with my husband, and I am so nervous right now. I’m fairly “offbeat” for the military, and we are childless by choice, so I’m really worried I won’t make any friends on post. But what you said about feeling isolated off post makes sense too. My husband and I haven’t decided where to live yet (we’ll likely spend a bit of time in temporary housing). How difficult do you think it would be for someone like me to find a social life on post?

    • Lara, I have been married to my military husband for 11 years and we have two kids.

      It shouldn’t be hard for you to find friends who are in a similar situation. I suggest finding a group via facebook or even meet up for the area. I know a lot of wives in my area via facebook who are childless as well. Good luck with the move and feel free to email me anytime.

  4. My parents were in the (Australian) Air Force when I was a kid, so it’s interesting how that life looks to an adult. We lived off and on-base at different times and, although I hated moving (due to having to start a new school), it was the most exciting thing to choose a new bedroom.

    My parents carted their stuff all over Australia, so each house still had a familiar feel to it. To this day, I’m more attached to my household things than to the dwelling itself.

    You’re right about drama though – my mum eventually took off with one of the other officers!!

  5. You know that adage that says, “You can’t go home again.”? I always laugh and say it’s true for me … literally true. They won’t let me on the base.

  6. It’s funny, I miss base housing sometimes. I grew up an Air Force brat; we never lived in one place for more than about 3 years, and though my mother left the military when I was 11, we still kept moving every couple of years after that. I’m 30 now with a husband and two kids and I still haven’t lived in one house for more than three years. We’ve settled down, though, and own our house (which is a really strange feeling), so I guess we’ll be here for a while, and I’m still not sure how I feel about that.

  7. Base housing is terrible. The gap between what officers and enlisted soldiers are given is obscene. Living in Fort Lewis, I’m really happy I’m still a single soldier. I’ve been on a lot of bases, and every enlisted home that I’ve seen has the same thing in common: mold, mildew, something cracked in the bathroom, and god help you if you have a kid- there’s barely enough room for you and your spouse. Unless you’re an officer. Then you’re given a house (a real house, not half of a ranch home. I mean two-bed two-bath two-story house with a full kitchen and a yard.) But for enlisted soldiers… I’ve seen government-subsidised apartment complexes that weren’t in as bad shape as on-post housing. I wouldn’t let a dog live in those “houses.”

    • That’s funny…my husband spent his first 10 years on the enlisted side of the house, and the last five on the officer side. Our housing hasn’t changed, even though his BAH certainly has.
      I grew up as an officer’s brat, while my husband was an enlisted member’s brat. He can remember being told about the huge difference between what Os get and what Es get, but for the life of him he can’t remember a single solid example of this inequality. In my house rank was never an issue that was worth discussing, but I do know that most of my neighborhood friends’ parents were enlisted…and we had the exact same housing even then.
      I don’t think it’s fair to make such sweeping generalizations – branch affiliation, the specific installation, even the mood of the people at the housing office the day you show up to see the offered house can all play a role in the kind of housing you’ll get.

    • I agree with Kristine. We are on Ft. Bragg, and the newer housing is the enlisted housing. My husband is a field grade officer, and we were shown an older ranch style duplex with about 1100 square feet while a SSG with the same number of kids is authorized a brand new 2300 square foot home. I will say that the maintenance is excellent here.

  8. Never again with base housing. Our last house was covered in mold and they would not fix it unless someone was diagnosed with asthma. The toilet would never work and after months and months of them coming out, “fixing” it, and then it not working the next day we threatened to call in authorities if they did not fix it right. Apparently there was a huge tree root as thick as your arm growing into the pipes. The A/C would never cool the house below 80-85 degrees (We live in Florida) and we were basically told to suck it up and deal with it. The fridge seal was never repaired right so the food in both the fridge and freezer would spoil – of course it was somehow our fault for it not sealing right after they “fixed” it. The roof was leaking in our bedroom and they came out and “fixed” it. Soon afterwards there was an obvious mold line in the bathroom wall that was next to where the leak was in our room. Never never again will I ever live on a military base.

  9. I would never live on base. Perhaps it’s a different perspective from a spouse versus an active personnel. My husband and I are both active duty air force and chose to live as far as we can from any military housing. Although with that choice, we see so many military members living in our neighborhood and the same was our last location. We believe in having some sort of normalcy versus living in the military 24/7, as an active duty we have to be an airman 24/7 but doesn’t mean we live like one. I think it has to do with our more liberal leanings and childless choices, we don’t have much in common with other military families. We also don’t shop at the commissary or BX unless we’re working on base that day. I can’t stand the amount of retirees and huge families running around.

  10. Thank you for posting this. As someone who is marrying into the military lifestyle I’m having a hard time accepting different things that are beyond my control. Things such as where we live isn’t going to be decided by either my fiance or I, we are just told where to go and we go. My future, my home, and where I decide to plant my roots has never been out of my control before.

    I did live on base for a while before my fiance went to remuster and I moved to China to teach while he’s at training. As someone who doesn’t have children, I found it really hard to connect with the other “wives” on base and ended up spending a lot of time by myself. It was quite the lonely summer.

    • You don’t have control (maybe your wish list helps a bit) over the base your husband gets but you have a choice on everything else. With the current DoD budget most moves with be four years or longer. (I love moving all over so I wish I could move sooner but I’m stuck for four years)

      I see this a lot with childless spouses and maybe that’s why military families are always large, so the spouse won’t be lonely lol. Just get yourself out there and find a volunteer group or meet up group.

      Also get to know your husbands or future husbands coworkers, more than likely they’ll be other wives or girlfriends like yourself. Or just active duty women to hang out with. I used to hang out with most of my coworkers wives who were of my age and childless.

  11. Something to think about. Please let me say I support the military and always will. I live in an upscale private community – not on a military base. I was pleased when a Marine moved in on one side and a Navy family on the other. Just a few months later the Navy family has a car parked in front of my house with with 4 flat tires that hasen’t moved in 3 months. The Navy guys dog is lead on to my lawn to relieve himself ( #1 and #2) and they do not clean up after it. Their grass is overgrown and unsightly. Keep in mind I am 62 yes old and these young men are in their early twenties and thirties. They have desk assignments and pretty much stay at home and are not deployed. When they were sent out of town I mowed their lawns like a good neighbor does. One of these young men agreed to mow my lawn once when I was away for ten days in exchange for me mowing his lawn for 5 weeks. Unfortunately, my act of kindness did me no good as, I came home to an overgrown lawn. Last fall I had my lawn torn up and replaced with sod. With the help of my military neighbors it looks unkept and is being taken over by crab grass! My lawn is horrible thanks to my neighbors on both sides. My advice to military families- If you want to present yourselves as the true heroes you are it might be a good idea to stay inside the fence in military housing. This experience will make me think twice when it come to our military. Sorry.

    • Don’t change your mind about the military due to shitty neighbors. There’s going to be shitty neighbors every where and a percentage of them are going to be military.

      Does your neighborhood have an HOA? I would have reported them instead of dealing with everything you had.

      I’m active in the AF, so I have some branch rivalry against the Navy and Marines. We’re all taught specific standards to abide by and if they weren’t doing that at home, they’re probably not doing it on duty either.

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