I am not going to lie. The thought of being away from my routine for five days was troubling. Although I would just be on post, I prepared for my hiatus from continuity by gathering my favorite notebook, pens and iPad. I figured a week-long, nearly full-day program implied an academic mindset was expected.
I was way off the mark.
On May 7, I entered the Thunder Mountain Activity Centre to participate in the five-day Army Community Service Resilient Spouse Academy coordinated by Jennifer Rickert, an ACS volunteer, who helped launch the first-ever RSA at a previous duty station.
“Welcome! You are going to have a great week! We are going to have so much fun!” said Evelyn Uncel, financial readiness and outreach coordinator and master resiliency trainer for ACS. She handed me an academy gift bag full of items, which seemed to rival what is provided to Hollywood stars at the Academy Awards, but in ACS fashion. Although I like to travel light, I certainly didn’t mind being saddled with gift items such as a leather binder with a calculator, a water bottle, and a note pad.
Despite the coffee supplied by TMAC, we needed a little nudge to open up. The encouragement to share was facilitated by Eva Fletcher, an ACS victim advocate and a master resiliency trainer. Fletcher introduced the concept of “hunt the good stuff” as a way to build resiliency.
Every morning we discussed a moment that made us happy. “This morning, my husband and I were very busy trying to get ready and get out of the house,” said spouse Amber Ottersen. “We were each doing our own thing. He was just about to go out the door and stopped, put his stuff down, turned around and came back and hugged me and said, ‘good morning.”’
Fletcher, Uncel and fellow ACS master resilience trainers Elizabeth Speck, Audrey Peterson-Hosto, and Lois Sagmoe challenged us throughout the week to incorporate resiliency in our daily communication with others. One resiliency tool introduced was the “PIIP” technique. According to “PIIP” (Putting It Into Perspective) materials provided in our two-inch reference binder, “the goal is to lower anxiety so that you can accurately assess the situation and deal with it.”
While there were ample opportunities for note-taking, there were just as many occasions to learn from experiences shared by fellow spouses. It was this sharing of personal experiences that brought us together. During one of our lunch breaks, a spouse next to me mentioned that her husband was deployed to Afghanistan. Without hesitating, another spouse at my lunch table, Jeremy Bjerke, the first male spouse to attend the academy, said, “I’m available if you need anything done. I can help you.”
Before the start of the academy, I read a quote from a past participant: “It will change your life.”
I didn’t get it. Now I understand.
I believe the life-altering benefits are three-fold. First, you have the opportunity to learn from a cross-section of spouses. The academy is open to military spouses from all branches, National Guard, Reserves, for eign nationals and retirees. Second, you learn about installation programs that maybe you never needed at past duty stations. For instance, if you are a new parent, you may find the Baby Boot Camp or Parent Tot Play Group helpful; or after many short-term moves you are now ready to re-join the workforce since you are stationed here for a significant time. The ACS Employment Readiness Program can get you started. Third, learning why we think the way we do and how we can learn to change was absolutely fascinating to me.
I have lived on post since February 2011. I thought I knew everything it had to offer. I did not. It’s difficult to always be an installation expert. You move, your priorities change, and you forget. Sadly, knowledge I could have gained in five days if I attended the academy when we arrived took me months to learn on my own. As a new arrival, if I stopped at ACS during my first few weeks here I would have received a two-pocket welcome folder full of information about the post. I also could have borrowed a handcart from the ACS Lending Closet for household goods that the movers deposited in our living room, which were meant to go in the shed.
Yet, the knowledge a spouse obtains from the academy goes far beyond where to find a post map or a list of upcoming ACS classes. The academy taught me that being resilient does not happen overnight. We need to practice. That sentiment was shared by all in my class who ranged in military spouse experience from just one month to 22 years.
There were a fortunate few in our group: those who have been spouses for five or fewer years. They had the opportunity to obtain military resources that will set them on a path for early success. But about two thirds of my fellow academy classmates have been married for 10 years or more. Throughout the week I heard them say, “If only this was available when I was a new military spouse.” As a military spouse for 12 years, I, too, was in the “if only” group.
By the end of the week, previous strangers exchanged phone and email contacts. We had built a “we are classmates” supportive mentality. No one ran for the door after ACS Director Stacy Jones announced the program had concluded. We lingered, as if trying to take one more sip of coffee with old friends. Driving home I thought, “If I was asked to knock on every door on post to encourage spouses to attend the academy would I do so?” Yes. It was that good.
The next ACS Resilient Spouse Academy is Aug. 13 – 17. Free childcare is available for children registered in Child, Youth, and School Services. To register for the August academy, call 533.2330.