Holding Down the Fort
The life of a military family is unpredictable. It’s not only the active duty family member that sacrifices for his or her country, but also the family members that stay behind and keep things together on the home front.
By Amy Gordy, Photography by Kylie Farmer Photography
The military family is one who must always be ready to move, start a new school, make new friends, decorate another house so that it feels like home and jump into the role of single parent with little notice. Karissa Clausen has been part of a military family all her life. Her father was a marine, so she knows a thing or two about what being part of a military family means. She met her husband, Capt. Jon Clausen, in Pittsburgh in 2010, and after a short engagement the two were married the following year. It’s been a whirlwind of moves, babies, new friends, deployments and all the emotions that come along with it.
“Jon was commissioned into the Air Force a month before we married. Basic training was in Alabama. That March, pilot training was in Oklahoma. I got a part-time job and finished my degree at Oklahoma State,” Clausen said.
At six months pregnant, the Clausens got orders to pack up and move to Little Rock in 2012. “The day after we arrived at the Little Rock Air Force Base, Jon got orders to report to survival training, which is basically a month in the woods. So at six months pregnant, I had to receive all of our things and move them into our new home,” Clausen said. The couple had their daughter, Emery, in November 2012, and shortly after Jon started C-130 training.
It was at the Little Rock Air Force Base that Karissa found her niche after becoming involved in the Key Spouse Program, which is an Air Force wide initiative led by spouses that helps encourage community within the base. “Through this program we bring meals for and organize potlucks, we go through training, we plan the holiday parties for the base, organize fundraisers, we call in to check on deployed members and make sure their families are OK. Sometimes it goes deeper than that, though,” she said.
Clausen has her finger on the pulse of base life as Key Spouse Mentor. “Usually the commander’s wife has this position to lead the key spouses, but this year we got a female commander, so I was promoted into that role.”
In addition to parties, potlucks and fundraisers, Clausen’s group of spouses tackles all kinds of issues that are wrapped up in the ever-moving lives of military families. “We get calls from families having financial issues and having readjustment problems post-deployment,” Clausen said.
Most frequently, she encounters wives just looking for somewhere to belong. “Some women are just 19 or 20 years old and have never left their home before. It can be very intimidating—like joining a new school. Just imagine having to look for a new best friend and then knowing you have to leave that friend in only a couple of years.”
In addition to hosting ladies nights, Clausen and the Key Spouses also organize playgroups to help kids ease into these transitions.
She feels lucky to have been stationed in Little Rock for four years, and because of that extended time she’s been able to really tap into the base community. “Typically in the Air Force, you can expect to be moved every two years, and it took me two years before I really felt like I was 'in' here. They are hard transitions for the whole family,” she said.
Deployment is another military family struggle Clausen is no stranger to. Her husband has been deployed twice, and she acts as a mentor to others as she’s experienced all the unexpected hardships that come along with these extended periods of separation.
“Pilots are blessed to only have four-month deployments; other branches of the military can be gone much longer. The deployments don’t ever get easier, just different. I had just had our son, Knox, when Jon had his first deployment. It was hard, but you get in a rhythm when they are gone.”
Part of the military spouse life, according to Clausen, is being able to adapt when your partner is gone, and also being able to adapt when he or she returns.
“The hardest thing about deployment is them coming home. Every homecoming is hard. You set up a life for yourself and your kids, and you basically become a single parent for a while and you get into a groove, and he comes home and has to work back in. It’s a change and the kids are bickering and not listening to him, and everyone is frustrated. There are all these expectations on what a homecoming should be like, but it’s messy. And it’s OK, and it’s normal. We try to reach out to spouses and guide them through this complicated time.”
Karissa is a full-time stay-at-home mom to Emery, 4, and Knox, 2, with a master’s degree in education. While she may see a future going back to teaching, for the time being she’s put her professional career on hold to raise her family and give back to her squadron.
“My Key Spouse work has really morphed into this massive volunteer thing that I’m doing. Its really fun and I like it. At the end of the day it’s really that I love my squadron, and in the military your squadron is your family. You have to stay connected. The squadron gave me so much when I was new here. You’ll have people step out of the woodwork to volunteer. I had a guy get emotional telling me how much he appreciated when his wife had surgery that the spouses stepped up and brought all these meals, and the next thing you know that family is involved and bringing meals to our programs. It brings everyone closer and has such an impact on so many airmen in our squadron.”
Unfortunately Clausen’s time at the Little Rock Air Force Base is coming to an end soon. Her family has received “soft orders” to move on to Texas in April. They’ve lived in three different houses in their four years in Little Rock, made it through two deployments, and built some unforgettable relationships. One piece of advice Clausen has for new military spouses: Get involved in anything. Meet people. Put yourself out there. Community and camaraderie on the base goes a long way.
THE INSIDE SCOOP with KARISSA
Where were you born? Fort Wayne, Indiana.
Who is your role model? My in- laws, they've raised their kids with such attentiveness and grace.
What is the hardest thing about being a parent? How much you have to THINK about being a good parent. Every second of every day.
What is the best thing about being a parent? Not ever having to think about the unconditional love you have for your kids.
What is your fantasy career? A college professor.
What do you admire most about your husband? His calm demeanor and level head.
What are three words that best describe you? Spastic, chaotic, generous.
What are three things still on your bucket list? Visit Salem in the fall, New York City at Christmas, and skydive.
Which three people would you invite to a fantasy dinner party? Harry Potter, Evgeni Malkin and George Washington.
What do you do to relax? Read a book!
What is one good piece of advice you've picked up along the way? Grant yourself grace.
What is one thing most people don't know about you? I look organized, but really I'm unorganized and only I can understand myself!