The Importance of Intergenerational Military Friendships
by Meredith Flory - August 12th, 2022
One of the major difficulties of military life is being separated from your extended family and community. Part of a healthy community is intergenerational relationships, where we learn from the wisdom of our elders, help care for one another, and mentor those younger than us.
While professionally, some soldiers may have opportunities to be mentored by their superiors, and some officer or NCO families offer their homes for holidays and events, creating intergenerational relationships in the military is often difficult due to frequent moves and fraternization rules. Many military families will cluster around those of similar age and rank to provide community, and while these friendships are valuable, making sure to bridge generational gaps in our relationships can increase our resiliency and ability to feel invested in our home-away-from-homes.
How do we make and keep friendships with others at different points in their lives? And why should we make this effort?
Rely on retired service members and veterans
Retired U.S. Army Capt. Robert Jones and his family live near a major military base and have befriended several younger military families (including this writer’s family) through church or the community.
When asked why he finds it important to support these families, Jones shared, “when I was a single soldier, various military families in my unit made sure to invite me into their homes on holidays and special occasions. This helped me feel connected and that I belonged. I realized being young and away from home without your support people and family is difficult, even more so when you have children. I want to help other younger military families like I was helped so many years ago.”
Retired families are a major resource, often untapped, for military families. For many military children, retiree families may end up feeling like an extra set of grandparents who can help with babysitting, holidays, and fun activities when their own grandparents are far away.
Rebecca Alwine, Army spouse, and her family have developed a relationship with an older, retired couple. She explained, “My children call them our ‘Georgia Grandparents.’ This summer, they organized two days of summer camp for my kids. They swam in the pool, made sensory boxes, studied maps, and read books. It was so good for my kids, and they loved it!”
Younger families can help these retirees stay connected to the military community and feel honored for the advice they have to give. Jones shared that side as well, stating, “the Army camaraderie gets to continue, and it is so much fun to be around children, be able to be a part of the extended family, and be able to provide some support when needed. These friendships enrich my life and bring me great joy.”
No one knows better than a military spouse the conundrum of who to put as your emergency contact. Maybe there’s a retired family, settled into the area, just waiting to care for you and allow you to care for them.
Found family: supporting new and marginalized service members and military families
Each military family has their own unique set of challenges to face. Many soldiers and spouses may be looking for a community where they share specific experiences such as handling a disability or injury, being a male or LGBTQIA+ spouse, or being a religious or ethnic minority in the military.
Finding those we can laugh, cry, seek out support, and celebrate with can give us a chosen family that makes weathering the storms of military and daily life a little easier.
Welcoming new military families
Dr. Pamela Soto, PT, DPT, OCS, is a former military spouse who did not grow up around military families, while her husband did. The first time she had to move farther than a few hours away from her family, another military family was waiting for them with a meal, welcoming them into their home for a month. This couple was only a few years older, but further along in their military career and marriage.
Soto says of them, “I would have run back home had it not been for Amy and Adam. They helped with the culture shock, they eased the anxiety and panic of being away from home, and they made a shocking transition from civilian life to military a smooth one.” Their friendship has lasted longer than her spouse's military career as they share visits, heartache, holidays, and celebrate graduations, and babies.
Military families who feel more settled into this lifestyle do a big service when they welcome new families to a unit. Not every outreach will lead to a lifelong friendship, but you can help ease the loneliness of a PCS, particularly for younger or new military families.
Seeking off-post support
If you are in need of these relationships, looking for support groups and organizations off-post might lead you to resources in the community, including connections with veterans and retirees. (Check out this blog for some ideas to get you started!)
Many communities have LGBTQIA+ support groups, parenting support groups, religious organizations, support groups for caretakers, and more. Many service members and military families feel alone when PCSing to a new place, but marginalized communities even more so. Connecting with others going through the same experience is an excellent way to feel less alone.
Start with resources, but expand to relationships.
Online resources for military families
Several national organizations with an online presence can help you meet other service members and spouses with similar stories to yours, and sometimes you may be lucky enough to be stationed with an online friend in real life!
Military mentoring relationships
One of the major difficulties with being a military spouse is molding your career with constant moves and spouse absences. Many spouses are underemployed, switching to freelancing or pursuing openings below their experience level in order to work.
Spouses who have successfully navigated these employment challenges can mentor younger or less experienced spouses and share resources, job openings, professional development opportunities, and encouragement.
This collaboration can help military spouses who work from home feel less isolated. Joining a social media group for military spouses in your field, starting regular check-in calls with another spouse, or working together at coffee shops or unique locations can help you encourage each other through challenges that your civilian friends may not understand.
Speaking from personal experience, as a writer, I’ve had veteran spouses share job opportunities with me that they can’t take on due to a heavier workload. I’ve tried to pass that along, introducing other younger spouses to editors or publications that might be a good fit for their writing. These relationships have led to personal friendships, bonding over our writing.
Broaden your horizons
While it can feel comfortable to stay in friendships with people who are at the same stages of life as us, expanding out and looking for intergenerational relationships can lead to rewarding, rich friendships. They take off the pressure of competition and instead allow you to focus on what you can give and receive from someone in a completely different life space.
As Alwine shared of her experiences, “Give every friendship a chance, even if they seem to be an unlikely fit. Older generations have so much to give, be willing to receive it.”