Saturday, November 30, 2013

Military Moments: A Wing Commander's Wife

Let me introduce myself.  I'm Laura Beene.  I'm a strong Christian girl from the Deep South who was raised by parents who have always been married to each other.  I'm a soccer mom to two boys born 17 months apart -- planned. I have two masters degrees, one in learning disabilities and one in counseling and I use them both every single day. I'm an avid scrapbooker. I'm an Auburn fan but I live in northern Virginia and I am never moving again unless there's an Estate Sale! 

Eric and I put our children first as the command family. Pictured is the first day of school. Eric released everyone from work to walk their children to school. 

Most Wing Commanders show up at their base with high school or college-aged children.  Our boys were kinder and 1st grade, abnormally young for Eric's rank. I announced to protocol that I needed at least a week's notice to get a babysitter and that I was only going to RSVP "yes" to two events from Friday night through the following Sunday night. For one thing, I needed to find a sitter from a family a few layers of leadership removed from Eric. WOW, this was an adjustment because the outgoing commander's wife had an empty nest and could go anywhere at any time. How do you think I was perceived at first? It was how Eric and I wanted to be perceived across the base that was important: "It's okay to put your children first. Watch us do it."

We were rarely pictured together, Eric and me, other than official events because we divided and conquered. He had the wing, I had the children. We met each week at the wing calendar meeting to synchronize ourselves. ;)

I am married to Eric Beene who has been in the US Air Force for nearly 30 years.  Last assignment, my husband was the wing commander at Incirlik Air Base in Adana, Turkey, which made me the commander's wife. See how that works? While there is no job description and no expectations for that position, being the wing commander's wife is like being the preacher's wife. You're everywhere and you do everything. You wear a smile on your face constantly and you wear uncomfortable shoes for long periods of time. 

Actually, I loved it. 

I felt like I had meaningful "work" to do alongside my husband and that I could help young airmen and their families both directly and indirectly.  Let me tell you something about my experience in Turkey with Eric, as the wing command spouse.

I was friendly to everyone but I was not supposed to have local friendships. Being the commander's wife is tricky because you can't have friends associated with his chain of command and since there was only one wing on the base in Turkey, everyone fell into that category. It sounds ridiculous but it's true.  

Did you hear me?  

You can't have friends who are in any way associated with your husband's job when he is the wing commander. I have to say that I had a few special relationships which I treasure still today. I just have to ask for forgiveness because I needed fellow moms to talk to about childrearing issues. Afterall, I was in the Middle East with little boys and I needed another "boy mom" to share my trials and tribulations. I guess you'll have to dock my pay for being friends with Amanda Feeser because I needed her for that year both spiritually and as a fellow mom. 

(And who better than to support you spiritually than the chaplain's wife, right?)  

I admit to being close with Mary Ellen Peterson and the other senior leadership spouses. Some of those relationships continued after Turkey and others were based on the "work" and social things. I am grateful that I didn't make too many mistakes with friendships while I was there. 

It's really best to bring some old friendships with you to the wing command house. It's very lonely at the top. The AF Chief of Staff's wife, Mrs. Schwartz told me that her best friend from college always helped her decorate her house for Christmas. Perfect, right? She couldn't access her support staff because she would end up in the headlines and she couldn't choose a fellow military spouse because she'd be showing favoritism. 

I listened to my iPod all the time with buds in both ears. 

I had a neighbor once who asked me what I was listening to all the time. I responded, "I listen to The Closer episodes from TV, all seven seasons, over and over. It staves off the loneliness." The person who asked me teared up saying, "That is so sad."  She felt sad for me? I was okay with it because I knew it was going to be like that from the start. My husband had been a commander at several different levels before. First, he was a squadron commander and then a group commander over the largest Mission Support Group in the Air Force. Other than being overseas and being THE only command family on the base, the limitations for me weren't that new.

It's mainly about appearances and awkwardness. It's about representing your husband and modeling the way your husband would like other spouses to function, act, or behave. Like it or not, that's the way it's supposed to be and that's the way it works best. On the other hand, there are no rules nor regulations which lay out expectations for the spouse. 

The oldest rumor in the book is that the Wing Commander's wife broke in line somewhere on the base and announced, "I'm the Wing Commander's wife. I should go first." That is the most popular rumor around and it's at every base about every commander spouse. It's never true. I tried to laugh it off when I heard it about me but it hurt my feelings anyway. The rumor was that I broke in line at Pizza Hut to which I answered, "I might have broken in line at Taco Bell but not at Pizza Hut." Not being able to straighten out ridiculous rumors about myself was the worst thing about being a commander's wife to me. Think about it. If you try to defend yourself to rumors, you just look stupid. It's so high schoolish to be talked about and to feel hurt by the rumors. I just had to prove myself over time and show who I really was by my actions. It's all anyone can do, right? I can't tell you how many women came to me and revealed what they had been told and what they knew to be true about me. I tried to be Teflon and let it all slide, but I admit that I got my feelings hurt a lot by that kind of situation.

Someone asked me once to have a talk with some neighbor spouses about their behavior saying that what they were doing wasn't appropriate nor good for their husband's careers. I responded, "All I can do is model what I think is best and hope they're watching. What they do and how they do it is up to them." I think that spouse was surprised that I didn't march down into housing, bang on some doors, and give the stink eye to those people. I just knew that my job as the senior leadership spouse was to stand firmly beside my husband in his beliefs, priorities, leadership, and that we were a team. I didn't do anything without checking with him first either so any tomatoes that were thrown at me, I took with confidence. 

Think about it. If you are married to the commander and he has to formally reprimand your friend's husband, it is awkward. And promotions? The commander recommends people across the base to be definitely promoted, promoted, or not promoted. It is part of the job. The commander also removes people from the Air Force, issues court martial, sends family members back to The States, and has people arrested. If he has to do these things to people whose wives are friends of yours, things could get really uncomfortable. He's trained to do these things, us wives have had only a week long class on how to handle things that might come up. 


Relationships can be awkward in both directions too. Wives of men who worked for my husband wanted to confide in me from time to time. They wanted to ask me direct questions about their husband's career or seek advice from me. I would always begin by saying, "Does your husband know that you are talking to me about this? Has he tried to work his chain of command? I am going to tell my husband everything that comes out of your mouth. Is that okay with you? Is that okay with your husband?" Most everyone would then turn and walk away. I learned this strategy the hard way! Fellow military spouses would get hacked at me because I didn't have the answers they were looking for or I just didn't know what to tell them. Sometimes I didn't know anything about what they wanted to know. Other times, I was just unable to share what I did know (which was never very much, by the way.) Sometimes when I took what I knew straight to my husband, he had to get involved and not in a good way either. Yikes again!

Appearances are important even if you don't care. Some leaders' wives have had the attitude, "The Air Force isn't going to tell ME what to do. It's HIM who is in the Air Force. I'll do what I want to." Let me tell you how fast that attitude will fail. There are no general's whose spouses function like that.  See, he needs you. 

He needs you to be classy and calm, stylish and loving, open and friendly, professional and "grace on a stick!" He needs you to sharpen his edges and to be part of the wing leadership team as best you can with your children as top priority. He needs you to listen to his speeches before he delivers them. He needs you to have a relationship with his exec, his protocol team, his security folks, his PR people, and all his other handlers. He needs you to be someone others like to work with because there's a lot of work to do. You should be easy to work with too because all of these people have the potential to make him look awesome or foolish. He does not need them hacked because you are irritating or assuming.  He also needs you to clap for every airman graduating from Airman Leadership School (ALS) and to follow him down the receiving line with a firm handshake, eye contact, and something to say to every graduate. So how about muster all your style and grace and step to his side or you can pass the baton to the next wife in command. Besides, it's HIS command. The role of the spouse is to follow his lead and to smile through it all.

One time I ordered a bunch of art kits from The States and then invited all the children from my house down through the next street in housing to come to Art Camp at my house. The older children read books related to our project to the group. Some children helped with the project and others held the tiny babies so Mamas could help with toddlers, etc.  It was great fun plus my boys got to do some art projects during the summer.  I think we had popsicles. I invited some babysitter-aged girls so they could pass out their contact information.  It was a great series of afternoons in the summer. A neighbor of mine called and confronted me saying, "I saw all those cars in your driveway. I think I should be included in most everything you do because of my husband's position. Next time, I would like to be included."  As the commander's wife, you must be kind and tactful, full of grace and understanding. I responded with, "Oh, you're so right and I am so sorry. The next time I host Art Camp for my children at my house, you will be the first I invite. I will call you as soon as the next shipment of supplies comes in so you can sort through it all and help me get ready for all the little children who will be coming."
Model what’s important and let others watch. Michael had never seen the traditional military salute and he was fascinated after seeing the official Change of Command. For a long time, he saluted everything to include the soccer ball. 

Command is an honor.  The opportunities are hard to come by so when they do, one must put everything else on the back burner. As the wife, I wasn't surprised by that. I knew that once Eric put his name in the hat and once he was given a command position that we were committed. Once you've said, "Yes, I'd like my name to be added to the command list," there's no saying, "Oh wait, Turkey?  No thanks.  How about something else?"      

While I loved the two years Eric was the wing commander in Turkey and my "work" as the wing commander's wife, I was glad to return to The States and a more traditional lifestyle "under the radar." I put my uncomfortable shoes away. Now I can reach out to people I'd like to be closer to on purpose instead of randomly sitting by people so they might talk with me. (Guilty. I did that.)  Those two years changed me and how I view friendships and individual people.  I'm thankful for my experiences and for both my old and new friendships. 

You can never have enough friends.


Jenn Price said...

Great guest post! Laura was an inspiration to us. Love her!!!

Amanda Feeser said...

Laura, I had so much fun with you in Turkey! Thanks for a thousand things, but most importantly... Flynn and Prevenza!! Love you... See you when I get back!