Now that the U.S. military is an all-volunteer force, the days of having a service member in your family or even knowing someone in the service are a thing of the past. For many of us, military life is what the media shows us: damaged soldiers returning from war, secretive ego driven commanders, and troubled, broken families. The truth is, not every soldier is a ticking time bomb and plenty of families are living happy, fulfilling lives on military bases around the world.
Before I joined the Army, I imagined stiff uniformed service members discussing government secrets inside grey cement fortress with blacked out windows. When I finally passed through the gates on my way to basic training, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that a military base is not much different from the outside world. Soldiers walk around in shorts and flip flops when off duty, families live in regular houses in "suburb type" neighborhoods, and children play in the parks. Bases are actually like mini cities and include just about everything you need to survive. There is a grocery store (called a commissary in military terminology), a base exchange, which is like a small department store, a hospital, movie theater, library, gym, restaurants, schools, gas stations, and even campgrounds.
Of course, there are a few differences from civilian life in the military. For example, if you are living on base you may hear unfamiliar noises: gunfire and mortar explosions at 1:00 a.m. from a unit on a night training exercise, helicopters or fighter planes buzzing overhead at all hours, even a cadence or two at dawn from the early rising units in physical training. You may get a knock on your door if you forgot to tend to your yard that week and you will probably get a scolding for parking in the base commander's reserved parking spot at the commissary.
Military bases are one of the safest places you can live and troublemakers do not make it very far. The MPs (military police) have a small area to patrol and respond quickly to problems. Expect to be pulled over for driving even 5 miles over the speed limit, but also be assured that patrols will be on the streets when your children are released from school.
Some have heard about all of the benefits of military life and yes, there are some fabulous perks enjoyed by service members and their families such as discounted and tax free groceries, and free on base housing and utilities, health care, education, and gym memberships. Service members and their families can travel for free on space available military flights and have the chance to be assigned to many exciting locations around the world such as Japan, Italy, Germany, or Hawaii.
Life on a military base is very similar to the world outside the gates. Most military families find that the minor inconveniences of military living are outweighed by the generous benefits, amenities, and adventure the military has to offer.