15 Ways Living on an Air Force Base Is Nothing Like Typical Suburbia

published Sep 16, 2020
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I swore I’d never marry a pilot—let alone a pilot in the military. My father’s own career as an airline pilot began 10 years after his graduation from the Air Force Academy. The stories of my parent’s life on an air base were legendary in our home, but were nothing I ever dreamed of recreating as I grew up in the sweet, sweet comforts of suburbia. Fast forward to 2012, when I sat next to my husband of four years—a newly sworn-in officer in the United States Air Force—as we drove on to the Air Force base that would become our home while he completed pilot training.

My husband flashed his freshly printed military ID to a gate guard, who saluted him and sent us on our way. We had driven for all of three minutes before the clock changed to 5 p.m. and all the cars stopped in their tracks on the road. I looked around confused as the faint sounds of the National Anthem seeped through the cracked windows of our car. Children stood frozen in the parks with their hands over their hearts, men and women in uniform were motionless on the sidewalks, and I scanned the horizon in horror that something awful had just happened and I had been the only one left behind.

Moving on to an Air Force base was almost like moving back to the 1950s; children rode bicycles in the streets, neighbors popped in unannounced, and families stood in driveways to wave goodbye to Airmen headed off to work. Although the white picket fences may have looked the same as they did in my previous suburban neighborhood, I have since discovered 15 ways that living on an Air Force Base is nothing like typical suburbia. 

  1. Locking doors is considered optional. Air Force bases are guarded by armed Airmen who check everyone’s IDs before entering the base. Couple that with the fact that every household on the base has sworn a common oath, and you’ve got one pretty safe living environment. 
  2. Wake-up calls aren’t optional. Reveille blares over a loudspeaker every weekday at 6 a.m. sharp, though times vary by base.
  3. Life comes to a halt when we hear the Big Voice. The Big Voice is the loudspeaker on an air base that warns of an incoming attack, thunderstorm, or routine drill, often leaving families to wonder, “Was that alarm a test, or do I need to grab my gas mask?”
  4. Every day is an air show. I’ve conducted phone interviews as T-38s zoomed past my house, shaking the walls and drowning out the other end of the line. But the real test of living on an air base is teaching kids to sleep through those low-level flybys.
  5. Yard sales are constant. The average assignment ranges from one to three years on an Air Force base, so neighbors are constantly moving in and out. Regulations on what’s allowed to be moved depend upon the new destination and a rank-based weight limit, so yard sales are almost weekly, and it’s not uncommon to come home to a box of free cleaning supplies, half opened liquor bottles, paint, and perishables on your doorstep when the neighbors move out.  
  6. Life is done together. There’s an unspoken acceptance that “we’re all in this together,” and the likelihood of a neighbor stopping in to borrow an egg or cup of sugar is high… very high.
  7. The local gym is free, and the classes are killer. All military members are required to pass regular fitness tests, so running tracks and gyms are rarely empty and the classes are designed to kick your butt. I once took a spin class from a former Pararescue Jumper that I still get sore just thinking about. 
  8. The National Anthem plays every weekday. It signals the end of a duty day and a direct halt to any outside activity. Cars stop driving and anyone outside faces the sound of the music (or a flag) while standing at attention and saluting or placing their right hand over their heart during the song.
  9. Respect is huge deal. Kids still address adults as “sir” and “ma’am,” and are often the first ones to welcome newcomers to the neighborhood. 
  10. Hand-me-downs aren’t just for siblings. Walkers, strollers, toys, and clothes are often left on curbs with a “FREE” sign on them, meaning most baby items get used by multiple military families over the course of their lives.
  11. Petty crime is low. Bikes and other toys are often left on street corners overnight and are rarely stolen. 
  12. Visitors have to get a background check. Visitors are sometimes allowed on air bases, but they’ll need to be sponsored by a military member after completing a background check at the visitor’s center. 
  13. There’s a built-in lullaby every weekday. Times vary by base, but generally around 10 p.m. “Taps” plays over the loudspeaker, and many families use it as part of the bedtime routine or as a cut-off time for projects. 
  14. Grocery shopping requires an ID. Commissaries are tax-free grocery stores on air bases for military members and their families. Along with special military brands (Freedom’s Choice canned goods!), the stores are often stocked with local produce and other major brands.
  15. Grooming standards are higher. Lawns and flower beds are often maintained by a contractor.

    Update: An original version of this story included language that implied personal grooming standards in the military are better than others. This was an editorial oversight, and the article has been updated to reflect this.