Living alone in Europe when your spouse is deployed

Mother and child dressed up as super heroes playing together
Mother and child dressed up as super heroes playing together

Living alone in Europe when your spouse is deployed

by Jen McDonald
Stripes Europe

It was a normal summer day in Germany. I heard the familiar music of the gelato man’s truck tinkling its way down the cobblestone street in front of our house, while the muted shouts of my kids playing with the neighbor children served as a backdrop to the warm stillness. After a year of living in Europe, life was beginning to feel normal again, and the culture shock all military families face after an overseas PCS had lessened.

Then my husband broke the news. “Babe … I’ve been selected for a deployment. And I leave in three weeks.”

He’d received orders for a one-year deployment to the Middle East to help stand up a new Air Force wing. After the initial shock of the news wore off, I realized this deployment was also considered a new assignment for him. This meant that, when he returned, our family would once again PCS.

Our hoped-for several years in Germany were now completely off the table, and our family faced a choice: move back to somewhere in the U.S. to be near extended family and then pack up and move again at the end of that time … or stay put.

Since we wouldn’t know his follow-on assignment until the end of the deployment, there was no real option for the rest of us to move on to the new location and settle in.

The typical Should I stay or should I go? dilemma military family members often face during long deployments was suddenly kicked up a notch, leaving us with only days to decide.

Living alone in Europe when your spouse is deployed

We decided to stay.

Extended family members wondered aloud whether it was wise for us to stay overseas and probably even wondered about my sanity, choosing to live alone in a foreign country for a year with four children when I didn’t have to. Whether or not you’re in the same scenario, a deployment for the military member may come up while you’re living abroad, and you’ll have a choice to make, too. I hope our experience can help you.

Why we decided to stay

Stability for our children: This reason alone was enough to sway me towards staying. Though we’d lived in Germany just over a year, our family already had a support system in place with friends, teachers, neighbors and sports teams. I had a network established with other military spouses and friends. It didn’t make sense to move somewhere and begin again, while also dealing with the regular issues of deployment, when we already had such a good system in place.

Community and continuity: Along with wonderful neighbors and familiarity with the local community, our children enjoyed the proximity to their friends and base services like the pool, library and sports. We decided that having as much remain the same as possible for our children during the year apart from their dad would be a benefit.

Not moving again: We knew that if we decided to move the rest of the family back to the U.S., it would mean we’d be moving every year for three years in a row. While we’ve had to do this in the past, this time would be our choice, and we decided if we had the choice, staying put made sense. For some people, moving closer to family for a short time is worth it. For us, with our oldest son in his senior year of high school, staying in Germany meant one less transition for us all.

Ease of seeing my deployed spouse during his R&R

During my husband’s mid-tour leave, it was so much easier for him to get back to us in Europe, and even allowed a bit of extra time he’d have spent traveling if we were in the U.S. If you’ve been through a deployment, you know how precious every extra hour together is.

How we made it work

Connecting: We’ve been stationed overseas several times, and I’ve always said the sense of community that develops is like no other military assignment. This was proven doubly true for us during this deployment. The advice I’d give any spouse during a deployment is to make an effort not to stay cocooned at home. Overseas, you’re not near anything familiar, so it’s important to maintain connections and continue activities that bring you joy. For me, it was time with friends, continuing to attend my weekly Bible study and volunteering.

Using benefits for deployed families: Deployed dinners, benefits such as the free oil changes often offered to deployed families, and support and info from our Airman and Family Readiness Center were a lifeline for me. Those bright spots helped break up the long year apart.

Explore!: Since our expected time in Europe would be curtailed, we made a point to travel and see as much as possible. We planned day trips, booked tours with the USO and MWR, and were mindful of how fleeting time would be. We wanted no regrets when it came time to leave. With access to such services, traveling wasn’t prohibitively expense. Going along with a tour group eased my mind in unfamiliar places and let us visit locations we probably wouldn’t have otherwise. It also gave us something to look forward to.

The challenges

Every deployment is difficult, whether it’s your first or you’ve weathered multiple deployments. As a long time military family, we knew what to expect but challenges still sprang up. Simple issues like dealing with car repairs or handling the PCS alone at the end of his deployment become complicated with the language barrier, extra paperwork and requirements. I was thankful for the help provided by the Transportation Management Office and other helping agencies (Tip: make sure you have specific powers of attorney in place ahead of time).

Loneliness: While we had amazing support, there were still times I wished I could hop in my car and head to visit extended family like I would have if I’d been in my own country. Being proactive about heading off loneliness through planned outings or time with friends helped, as well as lots of calls and Skyping back home.

Accepting help: As much as I’d rather just “do it myself,” I learned to say "yes" when friends offered to drop off dinner or give my kids a ride to soccer practice or gymnastics. During a prolonged spell of cold, grey weather, we had several car issues which coincided with a long bout of bronchitis for me. I finally laid aside my pride and asked my neighbor to help our son switch out his car battery. Asking others for help isn’t easy, but I learned that people usually want to help during these times but often aren’t quite sure how. The end of that year found us with household goods successfully packed and sailing on their way to our new assignment and my husband safely home once more. While not easy, it had been a full, rich year with new memories made and my kids surrounded and supported by a wonderful community.

We still look back on that year apart and know that we made the right choice for our family. 

Jen McDonald is an experienced editor and writer who’s been featured in several books and numerous national publications, including Good Housekeeping, Redbook, and Military Spouse Magazine. She’s the author of You Are Not Alone: Encouragement for the Heart of a Military Spouse, a book for military spouses born from nearly three decades of experience. She’s currently the Content Editor for MilitaryByOwner Advertising.

Jen and her amazing Air Force husband have lived all over the world and are the parents of four grown children, including one who is also serving in the military, as well as brand new grandparents. Find her at her site Jen McDonald: You Are Not Alone, on Facebook, and on Twitter and Instagram as @jenmcdonald88.

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