Kristi’s children eating ice cream

Anticipating the TDY Routine

When we were stationed in Japan with two young kids, I learned to despise those little phases of separation. For some amount of time that usually fell between two and 30 days, my husband would bounce around the Pacific. Back at home, I would silently protest making dinner (because I’d be the only one eating it anyway since our kids were firmly in the chicken nugget and grilled cheese phase of youth), put on my fun mom hat until bedtime (to minimize the meltdowns and 20 questions about when Dad would be home), and then spend my evenings quietly relaxing with a dinner of popcorn or charcuterie in front of a binge viewing of my favorite TV show.

It never quite played out that neatly. For starters, it was never “charcuterie,” it was whatever cheese and crackers the commissary had stocked with zero points for presentation. But more than that, my planned TV session was always — always — interrupted. Every time one of our kids snuck down for a glass of water, or an abstract question about the meaning of life (why are those only after bedtime?) or just one more hug, my patience ticked down and my overstimulation meter cranked up.

Kristi and her child hugging

I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve felt crippling mom guilt looking back at this. What kind of mom wishes away a nightly hug? I quickly run to my rescue and clap back with –  a tired one. My husband’s temporary absences were disruptive for the ages our kids were at that time, especially for this girl who thrives on a well-oiled routine. It was a constant wave of, “Let’s do something special before Dad leaves,” and “Dad’s back! Let’s do something special!” There were always tears in the early days of my husband’s absence, falling to the soundtrack of “I miss Daddy,” while I was running myself ragged to do all the things. Just as we’d come down from the initial shock of the separation and hit our stride, Dad would come home and bring a backpack full of treats, and the cycle would repeat. It was draining, and my reward of silence and witty quips between my favorite TV show characters was my little gift to myself. It was how I cleared my head and recharged to do it all again the next day.

Little by little, I learned. I adjusted my expectations. I began to anticipate that the first 20 to 30 minutes of my evening rest and recuperation routine would be peppered by interruptions. Our kids slowly learned that Mom was pretty boring (and honestly, a little meaner) after bedtime. We navigated the TDY waves together, and they were absolute sports about it.

Kristi’s children smiling

Second Act

After Japan, my husband had a staff job with minimal travel — plus it was the COVID era. Travel was minimal for everyone. In his current gig, he’s gone here and there again. Not a problem — we’ve been through it. I am now a seasoned expert, and the kids know the drill.

The Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, said, “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” I assume that Heraclitus was referring to TDYs because it is not the same three years later. The major players are still there — interruptions, fatigue, overstimulation, tears, poor but convenient food choices — but we’ve gone from black and white to technicolor.

After about a year of feeling out the new routine, here’s what I’ve observed at our house during a TDY:

  • I still look forward to solo evenings binge-watching TV. Sometimes it’s still the same show, sometimes it’s a true crime documentary. It depends on the day! The designated quiet time is more fluid because bedtime slides now that the kids are older. We have an activity nearly every night of the week (which means I get to be in two places at once during TDYs — I get by with a little help from my friends and family nearby). Sometimes everyone is showered, fed and reading in bed by 8:30 p.m. On other nights, we eat dinner at 9 p.m., and homework still stands between us and sleep.
  • Independence is a beautiful thing. Now that our kids are old enough and responsible enough to stay home alone for a few hours at a time, it has become much easier to juggle everything every day. Knowing that I can lean on our kids to pitch in with household chores means it’s no longer on me to handle it all when my husband is away.
  • Our kids still get emotional in the early days. It’s rarely tears anymore since we have a teen and a tween, but I’ve noticed that on day one or two of a TDY, I tend to have emotional conversations with at least one kid — sometimes both. Whether it’s something they hold onto to share with just me or there are more emotions swirling while Dad is gone, I can’t be sure. A major difference is that I listen fully now because — as any teen parent will tell you — communication is key. I don’t ever want our kids to think they can’t bring something to Mom when it’s on their mind or their heart. Is it exhausting to absorb that at the end of an already long day? Yes, it is. Would it be equally exhausting for them to hold on to it themselves? Yes. Is it worth it? Without a doubt.
  • Dinner is served. Thankfully, the kids are slightly less picky these days. While we still have the occasional snack-dinner or takeout, I’ve gotten better at cooking during TDYs because I know it won’t go to waste. Sometimes we cook together, and most nights we eat together.
  • The send-offs and homecomings have settled down. Due to the fast pace of our schedule (including the frequency of travel for my husband), we skip the fanfare before he leaves and when he gets back. We’re still always sad to see him go and glad when he gets back. It’s more practical these days, like, “Will you land in time to handle pickup from lacrosse practice?”

Kristi’s daughter holding a pizza

While the routines don’t look anything like what they used to, I’m better (on average — I still have my off days) than I used to be, and I’m happy with that. It’s unrealistic to think everything will go smoothly each time we have to steer solo. The absence of someone who is normally there is disruptive, whether it’s for a day or six months. I’ve learned to cut myself some slack, but also to offer the same courtesy to our kids (including the dog and — I suppose — the cat). It’s like the weather: We can mostly predict how it’s going to go, but it’s wise to be ready for anything.

People walking outside

Summer Dilemma: Enjoy Down Time or Pack the Schedule?

Summer officially arrives in just a few weeks, even though scorching weather across the country says it’s already taken hold. Families are wrapping up the school year, eager to be rid of homework and school lunches. They’re also planning how to fill the days with day care, summer camps and grandparents’ visits before back-to-school events kick off again. And, of course, many military families are also preparing for a PCS.

Summertime is challenging for parents to balance quality downtime with obligations like cross-country travel to family reunions. In my experience, the best way to enjoy summer is to pair non-boring downtime at home with a hefty dose of activities and adventure. You can achieve both; you just need to pre-plan and take advantage of military family-related resources. Half the fun for me is planning and researching how we’ll enjoy our free time away from work and school.

Inside of the museum

  1. Have a fun staycation or explore your hometown. Enjoy sleeping in and staying up late without a schedule to keep! Summer is the best time to bend a few rules and plan something entertaining at home or in your area. Who says downtime can’t be relaxing and fun?
  2. Plan inexpensive games and activities at home. Try a few of these if you want a budget-friendly summer bucket list.
    • Splash into fun in the water by washing cars, bicycles and outdoor toys
    • Plan a night in a backyard tent and make campfire food
    • Paint small rocks and decorate your garden
    • Take a walk in the evening and count fireflies
    • Have a dance party
    • Build a blanket fort
    • Learn to bake a summer berry pie
  3. Research the MWR on your nearest base. You might be surprised by what type of adventures they offer, like golfing, swimming, camping and more!
  4. Explore your hometown. Every town, no matter how small, has unique features. It’s time to play tourist and enjoy activities in your neighborhood.
    • Check out the programs at your parks and recreation centers
    • Head to the library to learn a new skill, attend story time or make a craft
    • Visit ice cream shops or other interesting small businesses
    • Tour a local museum
    • Go to your chamber of commerce or tourism center for walking tours and city maps
    • Try a throwback activity like roller skating or watch a classic movie at a drive-in theater
  5. Leverage out-of-town travel resources. Life doesn’t necessarily slow down in the summer if you’re a military family. It’s the easiest time of year to travel and catch up with family and friends. Many military families also add vacation plans to their summer PCS routes.
  6. Look at some of the vacation resources the military offers. They could save you money and help with hard-to-find amenities like pet-friendly hotels.
    • American Forces Travel is the perfect first place to start if you want to plan a true vacation. It offers savings on rental cars, airfare, hotels, cruises and custom vacation packages.
    • MWR Recreational Lodging offers accommodations ranging from true hotels to resorts and campgrounds. Make sure to reserve early. These accommodations are popular during PCS because they’re affordable and have more space than traditional hotel rooms.
    • Blue Star Museums provide a cool respite from the heat and humidity while offering families free entertainment and learning opportunities.
    • America the Beautiful passes satisfy summertime wanderlust with free access to national parks nationwide. Go for a day trip or plan for an extended stay. Many parks have lodging options onsite.

Outdoor concert

You don’t have to choose between long, dull days at home and hectic weeks on the road. Plan and take advantage of military access and discounts. You can enjoy a summer that’s equally relaxing and adventurous.

Palm trees and ocean

Military Travel Resources

When you ask military families about the best things about the military lifestyle, they’ll likely mention the extraordinary people they’ve met along the way and their fantastic travel opportunities. Some travel adventures are PCS-related, of course, but there are a few other ways to enjoy seeing the world with military discounts.

The following programs are valid for military ID holders, so take advantage of your benefits soon — time flies!

1. Space-A Travel: Free (or extremely low-cost) flights to and from Europe, Asia and more sound like pretty sweet military travel perks, right? For many military families, Space-A (available) flights are the foundation of vacation travel they might not be able to afford otherwise.

When available, the Air Mobility Command supplies flights for current and former military members and their families across the country and abroad. However, AMC’s primary job is to conduct military mission flights, so your schedule must be flexible to enjoy Space-A benefits. Itineraries can change in an instant according to mission needs.

Most military families budget for at least one airfare ticket for the service member’s return flight just in case Space-A flights don’t work out. My husband’s schedule hasn’t let us take advantage of free flying yet, which is disappointing because we’re in the National Capital Region, and there are several convenient AMC terminals. It’s something we’re talking about after retirement.

There’s a pretty steep learning curve if you’re just starting to research Space-A benefits. Give yourself plenty of time to understand the ins and outs of the process.

You’ll need to learn about:

  • How to sign up
  • Eligibility priority
  • Documentation
  • Terminal locations and procedures
  • Flight schedules

2.  Armed Forces Recreation Center Resorts: Even if you’re new to military life, there’s a good chance you’ve heard about at least a couple of the resorts in the Armed Forces Recreation Center’s collection. These properties are so popular that they’re regularly booked months and months in advance, often with repeat military family travelers who appreciate the affordability and convenience.

Some families join an “unofficial club” after they’ve stayed at each property worldwide. We’re just one location short, Shades of Green, but we’re revisiting Edelweiss over the holidays this year.

  • Shades of Green (Disney World), Lake Buena Vista, Florida
  • Hale Koa Hotel, Honolulu, Hawaii
  • Edelweiss Lodge and Resort, Garmisch, Germany
  • Dragon Hill, Seoul, South Korea

Like Space-A travel, you must familiarize yourself with each property’s eligibility and pricing structures, but don’t worry; you’ll enjoy each resort’s website. They’re filled with informative and helpful descriptions and how-tos, not to mention amazing photos. If you want more insider information, join one of the many military family social media groups for each property. You’ll learn many hacks to make the most of your vacation planning.

3. American Forces Travel Discounts: Have you ever wished there was a one-stop shop for military discount travel services? There is! The American Forces Travel program, which debuted in 2021 and is operated by MWR and Priceline, offers eligible military families discounted airfare, cruises, hotels, event tickets and trip packages.

Note that before you can search the database for deals, the website verifies your eligibility through a DEERS portal. You’ll enter your birth date, the last four digits of your social security number and your last name. After you’ve been verified, you can search and sort through many airfare and cruise options and read reviews for hotel properties.

One of the best benefits of military life is access to travel. We’re lucky to have so many choices, but it takes some preparation time to become familiar with all the available options. Do yourself a favor and spend time getting to know these programs so you won’t miss out on once-in-a-lifetime travel opportunities.

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