Driving North on the I-5 in Southern California’s coast, there are two views you can’t miss. To the left, you’ll be in awe by the panoramic view of the blue ocean mirroring the luminous sun. If you look to the right, you’ll drive about twenty miles of undeveloped hillside where the largest Marine Corps base on the west coast is located.
Before entering through the main gate, you’ll either be greeted with a courteous smile or bluntly told to pull aside for further inspection. Paradise is a continuous desert road with hills, towering palm trees, and an occasional rattle snake slithering in the middle of the road. We share the road with different vehicles. It’s not rare to see a soccer mom driving her minivan next to a humvee, a seven ton truck, or even a LVSR 16/870. Highly explosive munition trainings can shake up a house. Loud booms all due to mortar fire can be heard up to fifty miles away. That’s what people who live on base refer to as the sounds of freedom. It is a training base, but it also houses many military families. Camp Pendleton is like a small diverse private town with a beautiful front row sunset view.
Camp Pendleton is about the size of the state of Rhode Island with different housing areas throughout base. Housing is assigned based on eligibility and the service member’s rank. There’s officers’ housing, which is private and gated. The officers usually get the best housing area on Camp Pendleton because it is right next to the ocean. Living by the ocean is a big deal because most houses don’t have air conditioning, so they rely on the ocean’s breeze for cooling during the hot weather. Higher ranks are Officers and Staff NCO Marines E6 and above. Their houses are bigger and newly renovated with spacious floor plans, three to four bedrooms, and no attached neighboring walls. They have walk-in closets, dual sink bathrooms, large backyards, and double car garages. Junior enlisted marines live in two or three-bedroom, town-home style housing with small backyards. It’s located inland and further away from the ocean where it can get ten to fifteen degrees hotter in the summer. The houses are smaller with razor thin walls. You can pretty much join your neighbor’s conversation. Street parking can be a hassle for those families with more than one car. Diane and her family live in a decent housing area at Camp Pendleton. “Living on base is fine,” she says. “This particular base, I’m not too fond of because of the desert and canyons. The giant spiders and snakes in my backyard scare me. Living at Camp Pendleton has been an experience. We’ve had it all, but I think we learn to be content with whatever you have. Our family is always happy to make it our home.” Living on base is adequate for those with limited income and it’s a personal decision that depends on personal circumstances.
Hundreds of military families reside at Camp Pendleton from all walks of life. There are people from the East Coast, Midwest, and the South. An average amount of time for those who live on base is about three years. To some people, it may seem like a long time, but it really isn’t. It’s difficult to make friends because families move so often. I made a wonderful friend while living in Georgia. Her name is Monique. She is Guyanese originally from Vegas, Nevada. Her husband, Giuseppe, is Puerto Rican and Italian from Cleveland, Ohio. Both of our husbands worked at the same recruiting station near Atlanta. When her husband’s recruiting duty was over, they moved to California. Two years later, my husband received his permanent change of station orders to Camp Pendleton, and I was so thrilled because I already knew my friend Monique was living there. Unfortunately, her family only had a year left before they had to move again.
She was my only friend at the time. We would go check out local restaurants and dessert bars based on their high Yelp reviews. We both agreed that not all good reviews are true. When my husband was gone for weeks to the field for training, I would hang out at her house, watch TV, and drink wine. Monique knew well the dreary feeling of walking into an empty apartment, that’s why she would always invite me over so I wouldn’t feel alone. My husband and I got to spend Thanksgiving at their home. We got to hang out one last time at the Marine ball and had so much fun. Military families hardly get to go back home and spend holidays with their own families. The friends we make become like our family. It was bittersweet on the day I went over to her house and saw those brown moving boxes everywhere. It was moving day again. I realized that once she moved out, I wouldn’t have anyone to hang out with anymore. However, I was excited for her because they were moving to an actual paradise, Hawaii.
The Marine Corps birthday ball is the most formal social event Marines celebrate in November. Ball season is also a time of the year that the spouses anxiously look forward to because they get to dress up in beautiful fancy gowns. It’s like going to prom but for adults. I used to get excited to go dress shopping, but shopping alone isn’t as fun. I saw a post on the Armed Forces YMCA Facebook page where they were seeking for volunteers for their dress giveaway event. In my attempt to make new friends, I built the courage to break out of my comfort zone and signed up. I didn’t sign up for a free dress. I took it as an opportunity to mingle and possibly meet other wives to hang out with. These dress giveaways are very popular among young wives where hundreds of them show up for the event. They offer a sense of community where you can meet and interact with other wives who are also preparing for the ball. Unfortunately for me, out of the hundreds of faces that I came across, I only interacted with two other ladies. I think trying to make friends as an adult is hard. You can meet people either from work, volunteering, or from school. At least, for me, I want to build a friendship with someone who is loyal, that I can trust. I don’t feel discouraged because I know there will be future opportunities to attend other events.
Life on base can be simple. You have to remember to keep yourself out of trouble. You have to learn acronyms and abbreviations as second language. Military time always confuses me. If I ask for the time, my husband likes to complicate my life and tells me in military time. He says, “Marine Corps loves to use acronyms, I don’t know why, but we have acronyms for every freaking thing out there. Like I, sometimes I get confused on what we’re talking about. I know, hmm… I can tell you hey, if I say ma’am I’m going to BAS, most people would be like the f**** you’re talking about? You know… but when you’re on base is like, oh BAS got it, cool. In other words, you’re going to medical, got it. BAS stands for Battalion Aid Station, so therefore, oh ok man, going to medical, good to go. You know, hey I’ll see you at 2100, outside be like, the hell is 2100? You now, 2100 is 9:00pm”. I am one of those people that looks at him crazy because I am not fluent with their lingo.
Being cordial to everyone is a must. Basically, you’re in a military world, you are a reflection of your spouse. You can’t go around speeding on base. If you get a ticket, it’s like him getting a ticket, it looks bad on him. My husband always tells me not to get in trouble, not curse anybody out. “Don’t go fighting anybody.” I’m not going to do that, but you do have to be on your toes.
Marines would come in for a haircut while accompanied with their spouses. I enjoyed my job working at the Mainside barbershop on base. It was always busy on the weekends, and for many, getting a haircut on Sundays was like a ritual even if it meant waiting almost two hours for a ten-minute haircut. The barbershop was no exception for the dress code policy. The dress code is not a strict one. It enforces an expectation of decency for both marines and dependents. I would see a few junior marines getting called out by a Staff NCO and sent home to change clothes because they were wearing sweat pants, basketball shorts, or sleeveless shirts. PT attire inside a facility is frowned upon. The Marine Corps takes pride in being the most elite branch in the military. This is why it enforces good order, discipline and morale among those at Camp Pendleton.
Uncertainty becomes part of life. Therefore, time is a valuable thing. There is an approximate idea of the length of time that families spend at a duty station, but dates always change. As Diane, a fellow military spouse said, “There are times when you can’t, you can’t schedule things way, way out in advance and that can hinder life at times. It gets to a point where if family asks when is the next time you’ll visit, or where are you going to get stationed next, the only thing you can say is, I don’t know. I say to people, I don’t know a million times. If your husband doesn’t know, you don’t know. You don’t know what’s going to happen in a year, you don’t know if you’re going to move, if he’s going to get off early or stay late for work, you can’t plan vacations or other things because you never know what’s going to be going on, what’s their mission at that time.”
It is an illusion to believe that being apart from your spouse, relocating every few years, being away from family, constantly having to make new friends, learning new habits to fit in, changing jobs or putting careers on hold gets easier over time. Families do as much together and create memories because the service member always needs be ready when duty calls.
Corporal Martinez is a Marine who was married and has experienced that emotional strain. I asked Corporal Martinez if he could tell me something about a military relationship, and he said, “It’s just different stuff that puts, really tests that marriage. So, before you get married, just make sure that your significant other is willing to put up with that.”
It’s an ambivalent lifestyle in which we have reached a place of acceptance because we know that supporting your spouse, taking care of your family, and being together is all that matters.