By Natalie Hayek

I was in a hurry.

I’d offered to bring dinner to my new neighbor, who was moving in around the corner from me. Her family looked like any military family at the end of moving day: tired and hungry.

I didn’t have much time to cook, but I was trying to make friends, so I quickly threw together some chili.

Standing over the stove, I stirred with one hand and fanned my face with the other. You might think I was getting anxious because I was cooking under pressure, but that’s not the case. I was charged with adrenaline. Things were finally falling into place.

That was when the epiphany hit me.

Discovering My Purpose

Three months earlier, we moved from Fort Hood, Texas, to Alexandria, Va., where my husband, who is in the Air Force, began work at the Pentagon. After a rough adjustment, I began the ritual of any military spouse following a move: I pushed past shyness and discomfort to form new connections. I unabashedly struck up conversations with strangers on the playground. I asked for people’s phone numbers in a way that resembles the precursor to a date. I offered to cook meals for new neighbors … in exchange for their friendship.

Writer and Air Force spouse Natalie Hayek recognizes the essential role spouses play and how the strength of a community back home helps deployed service members focused on the mission. | Photo credit Andrea Cecil

The majority of military spouses have experienced some form of this, and we might laugh at our tendency to pounce on each other. In fact, the thought of it gave me a laugh as I finished up the chili.

But then it occurred to me – I was doing something much more important than cooking a meal.

This is my purpose, I thought. My purpose is to build our community.

Cooking a meal, a gesture that is second-nature to military spouses, is an intentional act of service. It’s one of the threads that weaves the fabric of our communities.

And though it’s a simple gesture, it serves an even higher purpose.

Communities Are Mission-Critical

When our service members deploy, they leave behind everything that makes them whole to serve a mission. Deployment demands excellence and uninterrupted focus, seven days a week. Many service members work through the night, under extremely stressful conditions.

But the well-being of their families is still on their minds. If their families aren’t surrounded by a well-knit community, service members might feel like their families are unprotected. To say the least, this is an unsettling feeling, which can interfere with their ability to make sound decisions.

When my family and I were stationed at Fort Hood, my husband was gone for 23 out of the 38 months we lived there. During that time, pipes burst, the roof leaked, I injured my neck, and we had a baby. The community around us was my lifeline and my husband’s peace of mind.

“If it weren’t for them,” my husband once said, “I would have felt like I had a problem to fix back home. And I couldn’t have been two places at once.”

When I recognized my role in weaving together a strong community, I also recognized that I serve an even greater purpose: I enable my husband to focus on his mission by relieving him of worry at home.

That is one way I show him how deeply I love him.

Continuing a Legacy

I’m just one of over a million military spouses who weave together these communities. We continue a legacy left by military spouses from decades ago, when community-building was an organized system. Our foremothers stitched together communities with formal coffees, focused mentorship and personal visits, monitoring each other’s well-being and coordinating local efforts to boost morale.

Today’s picture looks different, with less formality and more working military spouses. But the need for strong communities persists, and today’s military spouses weave a fabric that is just as strong. Some of us build communities at the national level, finding innovative ways to provide crucial support and connect massive numbers of military spouses. Others build communities through small but essential acts of service, friendship, and compassion.

However grand or simple our methods might be, they weave military spouses together in the spirit of selflessness and unity. We serve each other, so that our service members can serve our country.

Photo credit Sandi Moynihan

At USO Military Spouse Networking events, military spouses have the unique opportunity for face-to-face interaction with other spouses in their same situation, instantly making connections with one another and to their communities.

Serving A Higher Purpose

There are moments in life when we realize that, although it might seem we’re doing something simple, we’re actually connected to something much bigger, something much more meaningful.

Making dinner for a new neighbor was one of those moments for me. It wasn’t just about cooking dinner for a new friend. It was about the DNA that connects me to all military spouses. It was about the great calling we have to serve each other, support each other, and strengthen each other.

It was about realizing, for the first time, the noble and mighty way we serve the mission, too.