Military Spouses Far from Home in Puerto Rico Connect With Each Other Through the USO

By Danielle DeSimone

Caitlin Smith hadn’t initially planned to move to a new place every few years. In fact, picking up her entire life and constantly having to adapt to a new city, new state, new home was a challenge that she didn’t exactly enjoy – but like all members of the military community, it was a lifestyle that she had to get used to.

“I don’t particularly like change, so being a military spouse is really challenging for me in that aspect,” Caitlin, whose husband is a pilot in the U.S. Coast Guard, said. “But I feel like you kind of just have to make the best of it and do what you can.”

This can-do attitude is a common one among the military spouse community. Despite the immense difficulties that can come with life in the military, many spouses have become adept at rising to the occasion and building an incredibly rewarding life for themselves – and much of that has to do with the support they find among fellow military spouses.

So, when an opportunity came for the USO to support a group of military spouses stationed in a remote, rural location in Puerto Rico, we jumped at the chance.

The Challenges of a Remote, Rural Duty Station in Puerto Rico

As a U.S. territory and famed vacation spot, Puerto Rico might not immediately come to mind as a challenging duty station for those in the military. However, for many service members and their families who are stationed on this Caribbean island, which is located approximately 1,000 miles southeast of Miami, Puerto Rico is very far from home. And those stationed in San Juan, the capital of Puerto Rico, have a much different experience than military spouses like Caitlin, who are stationed on the west coast of the island in Aguadilla.

Aguadilla, which is home to Base Detachment Borinquen and Air Station Borinquen, is a smaller town with fewer resources and amenities on-base than San Juan. As Caitlin explained, Aguadilla is a rural area, mostly known for its beaches, and the effects of Hurricane Maria, which devastated Puerto Rico in 2017, are still visible in this northwest corner of the island.

“Many of the buildings on base are not livable conditions because they were ruined in the hurricane,” Caitlin said.

Military spouses stationed in Aguadilla must deal with the usual challenges of being stationed somewhere new, including finding their footing in a new town, making new friends, moving all of their belongings to a new house, finding new jobs or attempting to continue their previous career via remote work in a new location, to name a few.

But these challenges are made more difficult by the unique trials that come with being stationed in Aguadilla.

Members of the Coast Guard at U.S. Coast Guard Air Station Borinquen in Aguadilla, Puerto Rico, conduct operations out at sea. | Photo credit U.S. Coast Guard

Because of the destruction of multiple hurricanes hitting the island in recent years, infrastructure in Puerto Rico is still being rebuilt – and occasionally has problems. Simple things like reliable internet, electricity, or even water is no guarantee – all will occasionally shut off with little warning.

The base itself has limited resources – to access things like the dentist or a grocery shopping trip to Costco, military families stationed in Aguadilla will often have to drive more than two hours to San Juan. There is also no brick-and-mortar USO center in Aguadilla.

“So, when you couple [these challenges] with a lack of access to USO programming and those other things, it can seem bleak sometimes,” Caitlin said.

However, these challenges have brought the military spouse community in Aguadilla even closer together.

“I would say the silver lining is, because of all that, we are all very close because we have to depend on each other,” she said.

In the hopes of fostering this community and boosting morale, Caitlin reached out to the USO and asked if the organization could deliver USO military spouse programming in Aguadilla. So, we hopped on a plane and made it happen.

How Military Spouses in Aguadilla Relied on Each Other and the USO for Support

With no physical USO center available at Aguadilla, the USO relied on its USO Expeditionary Team to travel and deliver programs to the military spouses located in Puerto Rico. USO Regional Expeditionary Specialist Allyson Kelly traveled the more than 1,000 miles from Florida to deliver support to the military community on the island.

Having grown up in a military family, Allyson understands how important programs like these can be.

According to Allyson, one of the highest-requested USO programs by military spouses in Puerto Rico is USO Coffee Connections. USO Coffee Connections are gatherings that allow military spouses to relax in a comfortable setting, share advice, learn about local events, network for job opportunities, or simply make new friends over a cup of coffee. Since the program’s inception, some of these events have grown far beyond coffee, offering military spouses with a variety of activities and community outings that help military spouses meet other spouses within their community.

Photo credit USO Photo

USO Coffee Connections events allow military spouses to meet and spend time with each other in a casual environment.

At this particular USO Coffee Connections event, more than 20 spouses attended, gathering together in the base’s “Spouse House” – a building designed specifically for MilSpouses to use for gatherings or events. However, the building had been under construction and on this hot day in August, the air conditioning wasn’t working.

But as their community so often does, Caitlin and the other spouses rallied and were determined to still host the event and have a good time.

“It was hot … but everybody was a super good sport about it,” she said.

The military spouses gathered over coffee, tea and other refreshments. Several of the spouses already knew one another, but many newcomers were able to use the USO event to meet their neighbors for the first time.

A few spouses had recently arrived in Puerto Rico and were still adjusting to life in their new duty station, so this event was an excellent way for them to meet new friends. Another spouse shared that she had actually been stationed in Puerto Rico for two years, but because her service member spouse was a member of another military branch that does not have a contingent on the island, she felt somewhat like an outsider and never felt that she could attend events that were largely for Coast Guard spouses. But the USO supports all branches of the military, and so this event – which happened to be the spouse’s first-ever military spouse event in her entire two years on the island – was the perfect place for everyone to finally meet.

One spouse at the USO Coffee Connections explained that she had previously not attended any military spouse events on base because they were all geared toward activities with children – and she had no children. As a result, she had felt somewhat cut off from her own MilSpouse community. But this USO event, while child-friendly, was designed specifically to support and connect military spouses with one another, so she finally decided to attend an event and was able to connect with others.

Caitlin was excited that the event was able to forge bonds between military spouses of different backgrounds.

“It was kind of just a really low stress, low-key way for them to meet in an informal manner,” she said.

Even Allyson was moved by how happily and eagerly all of the spouses shared their experiences with one another.

“Obviously I was there on behalf of the USO, but as a [member of the military community] I felt connected to them and just being able to support them fills my cup,” Allyson said.

Caitlin Smith and other military spouses also tie-dyed tote bags together, adding another activity for spouses to bond over during the USO Coffee Connections event. | Photo credit USO Photo

Aside from bonding over coffee and snacks, the military spouses also utilized the USO’s Program in a Box and tie-dyed tote bags and bandanas together. For military spouses like those in Aguadilla, who live far away from a brick-and-mortar USO center, it can sometimes be difficult to access USO programs and services. These USO Programs in a Box offer service members and military spouses alike with the opportunity to still experience USO support, no matter where they are stationed or deployed.

In 2023, Allyson will begin regularly returning to Puerto Rico to deliver more USO expeditionary support to the military community stationed there. At the end of the highly successful, hours-long event, all of these military spouses went home with new connections and friendships within their military community – a crucial part of overcoming the challenges of a remote, rural duty station.

“We have come together as a community,” Caitlin said. “And I think that’s common for the military anyways – that we always are just dependent on each other.”

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