By Danielle DeSimone
The challenge of military life is not only in the big, dramatic moments of deployments and homecomings – it is also in the daily ins and outs of what it means to be a military spouse stationed in a completely unfamiliar country. The experience can be incredibly isolating, and military spouses often have to find community in unexpected places.
Sarah Gross is all too familiar with this.
When her husband, Air Force Maj. Scott Gross, was unexpectedly stationed in Stuttgart, Germany – the family had previously been told for a year that they would be moving to Africa – she had to weather the last-minute change, pack up her house and children and cross the Atlantic Ocean with him. Although the sudden change from Africa to Germany made the move incredibly stressful, to her friends and family back home, a duty station abroad could seem ideal. After all, living in Germany would provide her the opportunity to travel and to immerse herself in German culture.
Gross initially found the reality of living overseas in Germany to be incredibly isolating. When her husband is on temporary duty travel, Gross is left alone with her children in their off-base housing, far from everything and everyone familiar.
“European living is supposed to sound ‘romantic,’ right? It’s all castles, cathedrals, food and adventure,” Gross said. “But there is no room for discussion around the fact that [our active-duty service member] spouses work a lot and are typically away from their families, often in other parts of the world.”
Additionally, because the family had originally thought they would be receiving orders to Africa (they had spent a full year preparing by learning French) Gross arrived in-country without any knowledge of the German language. It has been almost impossible for Gross to communicate with the locals in her surrounding community.
“Unless I go to base, the only people I can speak to on a regular basis are my children (they’re two years old and 10 months old, so you can imagine what those conversations sound like) and my husband, when he is home,” Gross said.
Being so secluded from both her communities in the United States and the one she lives in while in Germany can take its toll, and explaining this to civilians can be difficult, as many don’t understand the realities of an overseas duty station.
Most friends and family back home only see the highlights in Facebook posts.
“When he is home, we try to plan trips to new places, both in and out of the country, and those are the memories that often get shared among family and friends,” Gross explained. “The long days of dealing with babies without any sort of relief or the nights of putting the kids to sleep without their dad to read them a bedtime story is not at the forefront of conversation.”
However, despite the challenges of her overseas duty station, Gross has found relief and community in one other place: the USO.
Finding a Safe Haven
Before this tour to Germany, Gross had only ever visited USO airport locations, which are more tailored to the needs of traveling military family members. USO locations on military installations, like Gross’ home USO center in Stuttgart, Germany, offer a wider variety of amenities and programming to foster community overseas.
“The USO has been amazing! It has been my little ‘getaway’ place ever since we moved here,” Gross said. “Since we do not live on base, we do not have a local space to go to where my kids can play, or where I can sit and have some tea and just relax while feeling like I am at home.”
It is not only the comfy couches, space for children to play and free tea that makes USO Stuttgart a safe haven for Gross and her family – when distant from your own communities, USO volunteers and staff also have a huge impact on military families’ experiences in Germany, and other overseas duty stations.
“The people who work and volunteer there are incredible and so invested in everyone who walks through the doors. They know my kids’ names and have even spent time playing with them,” Gross said. “I have just been treated so well by every single employee and volunteer each time I go to the USO.“
Gross is now a dedicated visitor of USO Stuttgart, where she has been going almost twice a week with her children. Other military spouses and their children also meet Gross at the USO with their own children so that both the spouses and military kids can socialize.
Despite the isolation and culture shock, Gross remains upbeat about her tour abroad. She is grateful for the opportunities it has given her, for her ability to travel to new places and for the resiliency she has built through it all.
And she remains passionate – above all else – about the importance of the USO for military families.
“I cannot stress enough what a positive impact the USO has been on myself and my family throughout this season of life. It [has been] a safe and encouraging space for us to escape to when we needed to feel at ‘home,’” Gross said.
“I can honestly say it has been a saving grace for us ever since we moved here … I hope that they continue to be supported so that they may provide the same opportunities to families and service members in the future.”
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