Sunday Stories: “PCS Season”


PCS Season
by Ilana Garon

I moved to Clarksville, Tennessee from New York City in July 2017, just six months into the Trump presidency. My soon-to-be husband Tim, an Army Major, had been assigned to the 101st Airborne Division of Band of Brothers-fame, now stationed out of Fort Campbell—a sprawling, industrial-looking 50,000-person garrison made up of old bunkers and concrete administrative buildings that straddles the state line between Tennessee and Kentucky. 

“I need to warn you about something,” Tim called to tell me, when he scouted out the area a couple of weeks before my arrival.

“Okay,” I said, bracing myself.

“Well, there’s a mega-store here called ‘Lifeway Ministries’—I’m pretty sure that’s not our people.” 

He was right. I’m Jewish; Tim’s a religious non-adherent.

“Well, that’s not too bad,” I said. “Anything else I should know about?”

“So, there’s still a Trump-Pence 2016 tent…actually, tent isn’t really the right word for it, it’s more of a carnival canopy? Sort of like Chautauqua? It’s taking up the whole strip mall parking lot next door to our apartment complex.”

I was leaving New York City under my own power—but very reluctantly—because of “Soldier Tim,” as my friends called him. (Active duty Army officers were a rarity in our circles.) Tim and I had met two years prior in New York City, where I had been living for over a decade. I was a high school English teacher in the Bronx, and he was enrolled in a master’s degree program at Columbia University—all expenses footed by the American taxpayer, thank you very much!—in the military’s gambit to retain ten-year officers who might otherwise duck out and head for greener pastures: “We pay for your master’s anywhere you can get in, preferably in something useful, along with your regular salary; in return, you’re ours for five more years after you finish.” 

It struck me as a Faustian bargain, but Tim was accustomed to those kinds of deals. He’d graduated from West Point and headed straight to Iraq, then Afghanistan. For him, this program was a chance to mess around in New York City for two years, taking hefty advantage of nightlife opportunities and a class schedule that allowed him to sleep until 10am most days of the week, even when he tacked an internship on top of it. It seemed to him a fair trade.

We met at a group run in 2015. I noticed him first: Tall, barrel-chested, and surprisingly blond, Tim had a sort of healthy, corn-fed look that stood out in the sea of sometimes effete New York City hipsters I’d been dating for the past decade and a half. I asked him a question, and though he responded courteously enough, he seemed disinterested; I only understood later he was simply possessed of an unreadable poker face. But near the end of the night he asked for my number. 

Over the next few months, I found myself growing fond of this temporarily displaced soldier, who had a habit of knocking at my door at odd hours looking hungry for a sandwich and conversation. Sometime in the next few months we realized we were dating. A year and a half later, we were engaged, he had resumed his rightful place within the Army juggernaut, and I—a liberal northeastern Jew—was planning my move to the agro-industrial heart of the American Bible Belt in the most politically divisive time I could remember.


Clarksville had not been my first choice; it hadn’t been my second, third, or fourth choice either.

The lead-up to our move demonstrated an axiom of Army family life: It is a constant lesson in weathering disappointment. That fall, Tim was issued a list of possible locations for his next assignment, which he was to rank in order of preference. In theory, the Army was supposed to take a look at Tim’s list of favorites, consider their own needs, and strike a compromise.

Tim sent me a screen-shot of the list the moment it came out, and I was all over it. I was determined to “game” this system to make sure we received an assignment in a location I thought I could make a life for three years—preferably avoiding getting stationed in rural parts of Georgia, South Carolina, and Louisiana, where Army posts are disproportionately located due to the availability of cheap land, as well as post-Civil War concerns about secessionist states. (This latter resulted in a conciliatory effort in which these bases are all named for Confederate generals.) The key, I thought, would be not to rank highest the options everyone was in love with, such as a popular base in Colorado Springs. Rather, we would prioritize lesser options that I was convinced would be tolerable: a base in El Paso, which was ensconced in a diverse southwestern metro area, or one in way upstate New York, which was a 5-hour drive back to the city.  With this strategy, of prioritizing the mid-range choices, I was sure we’d be fine. 

So when Tim called me that January and informed me that we were being sent to some post in southern Kentucky called Fort Campbell, I was unpleasantly surprised.

“Was that even on the list?” I asked him, through tears. “I don’t even remember us talking about it.”

“It was. They only had one slot—and since it was in a Cavalry unit, and Branch had said they wanted me in Strykers, I didn’t even think I was eligible for it,” Tim said. (Branch is Army HR.) Axiom number two of the Army: Never assume the predictable. “I put it 43rd on the list…out of 60.” 

“But what am I even going to do down there? There’s not going to be anyone else like me.” I imagined people asking me with some regularity if I had filed down my horns, as another Jewish friend reported to me that a suspicious southerner had inquired of her at a summer camp back in 7th grade.

My mom’s take on the situation was markedly different from mine. While I cried on the phone with her from the elevated subway tracks in the Bronx, she got on GoogleMaps and looked up Fort Campbell.

“Well, I think you could’ve done much worse,” she said.


“Have you even looked where Fort Campbell is? It’s just an hour’s drive to Nashville. And Nashville’s a great city! They have Vanderbilt University. They have country music. They have Trader Joe’s. They have five synagogues. They have a Jewish community center.” 

The woman had her priorities.

“And what’s more…” She paused for effect. 

“What?” I sniffled.

“You can even buy kosher meat!” she announced triumphantly.


The problem with something being just an hour’s drive to Nashville—or to anywhere, for that matter—is it’s still an hour’s drive. And Clarksville was not like Nashville, or like anywhere I’d been before. After I got over the shock of the Trump tent, the Lifeway Ministries store, or the questionable zoning regulations that permitted a Red Lobster right outside our residential apartment complex, I still struggled for months with the culture shock of leaving New York City for a place that—as I glibly remarked to friends back home—had all the nuisance of small town life, with none of the charm. 

The town was replete with strip-malls, big-box chain stores and restaurants; though I’m told this has improved in recent years, few independently-owned establishments existed. Even the tiny downtown area—which had the bones of a quaint 19th century commercial center, all brick buildings, lampposts, alleys, and small storefronts in about a three-block radius—was mostly either boarded up with “FOR SALE” signs or appropriated by law offices, due to its proximity to the courthouse.

The law did a brisk business in Clarksville, which I attributed in part to its housing of a giant military base—lots of 19-year-old enlisted guys downing too many Jägerbombs and getting into fights on their nights off, or getting caught in flagrante delicto with some young lady in port-o-potties outside a local bar (as one of our JAG friends told us was a common occurrence)—and in part to a civilian section of town north of the river that seemed to contain all the warehouses and most of the trouble. ClarksvilleNow, the bi-weekly digest of goings-on about town, was never short of headlines about criminal goings-on in that one area. 

But crime here was at least creative, as one acquaintance glibly pointed out: It was just as likely to involve grand theft auto as exposing oneself to police officers or assaulting a neighbor’s goat. (All three things might happen in the same week.) When driving in town, the official “Grumpy’s Bail Bonds” bus was a frequent sight as it made its daily rounds between the jailhouse and the homes of clients whom the company had just bonded out: It was a regulation size bus, Barbie-pink and bearing the logo of the town’s premiere bail bond service, with a life-size photograph of a scantily clad blonde woman on the back—the company’s owner, a former Army lieutenant, now a self-titled “bond girl.”


We lived “off-post”—meaning in the surrounding town, not on the base proper. I still managed to befriend mostly other Army spouses, since people who were currently or previously affiliated with the Army made up half of Clarksville’s population at any given time. The majority of my Clarksville friends, wives of both the enlisted men and the officers, had gotten married at ages that to my east coast experience seemed quite young—during college, if they’d been, or right after—and now had kids in elementary school. This made me, a mid-30’s newlywed with no children of my own, an anomaly. That I was able to find a full-time job teaching at the local community college was an even rarer thing (even at 40% of my former New York salary.) To land on-location employment was an unbelievable stroke of good fortune for an Army spouse. 

Due to the demands of repeated PCSing (that is, moving from one duty station to another), most of the army wives had given up on erstwhile professional ambitions. To juggle a career while incurring multiple moves was a highwire act of not just tenacity, but incredible luck. You had to be able to find a portable job, or one that was willing to take a chance on an employee who might move on short notice; you had to be able to transfer any professional licenses wherever you went, repeatedly; you needed impeccable access to childcare, particularly if your spouse was deployed.

“I used to want to be the next Barbara Walters,” the wife of a high-ranking officer confided in me once, after we’d had a couple of glasses of wine at an event. “I think I’d have been really good at interviewing people.” She sighed regretfully. She was the head of one of the spouse groups on the base.

“When I was in college, I dreamed of being an immigration lawyer,” another one told me. She had earned an undergrad history degree from a prestigious college on the east coast and was now coaching Couch-to-5K programs out of the local running store; her husband was on the 4th deployment of their fourteen-year marriage. 

As predicted, I was the only Jewish person anyone knew in Clarksville. I got lots of questions about whether I was “a full-blooded Jew,” or when Tim and I would finally, jointly, get with the program and accept Christ as our savior. One woman, a fundamentalist Christian, kept asking if I wanted to celebrate Jewish holidays with her, in the absence of any local Jewish community; she meant well, but I couldn’t get over my squeamishness at my sense that she was morbidly fascinated by the Holocaust. (She asked me several times if any of my relatives had died in concentration camps.)

So, I spent my first year in Clarksville and as a military spouse experiencing profound culture shock, despite the fact that I hadn’t actually left the country. I missed strolling down the New York streets on a weekend morning to an independent coffee shop, browsing in eclectic book stores, or being constantly surrounded by hoards of professional men and women who were ideologically, educationally, and socially quite similar to me. 

While I felt guilty for my undeniably bourgeois nostalgia, and basically for being a snob, I also couldn’t deny how displaced and lonely I felt. Save for my colleagues at the community college (most of whom lived down in Nashville near the main campus, as opposed to up by the local Clarksville satellite where I taught the majority of my courses in order to avoid a terrible commute), I didn’t regularly encounter many people “like” myself—even though I knew it was unfair to begrudge my new peers the sacrifices that had prohibited them from having the life I’d had. 


“Well, you’re here,” one of the Army wives I knew pragmatically observed. “Might as well make the best of it.”

The best of it, for me, involved digging into the local running community.  I would meet up at 7am on a Saturday with a rotating group of women to knock out some miles together—usually with one or more of them pushing a stroller—and then whoever wanted to would reconvene at the nearest Starbucks for iced coffee and an egg sandwich. The simplicity of this weekend ritual was something I didn’t know I’d derive so much comfort from until I’d been doing it for a couple of months, and started looking forward to being with “the crew”; we were (almost) all Army wives, and the shared commitment to pounding out our frustrations in miles bound us together with a tightness that even less cynical women than I didn’t expect.

So, I started to carve out something that resembled a life for myself. When I wasn’t at work, or hanging out with Tim, I spent a lot of time with the running crew.  I also joined a book club which turned out to be a sort of conclave for the tiny liberal voting block of Clarksville, a group of women (mostly in their 50s, 60s and 70s) who liked getting together with the ostensible goal of talking about whatever book we’d just read, but also to gripe about politics. Many of these ladies belonged to the local Episcopal church; in fact, the pastor was in our book club. When a shooter walked into Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in late 2018 and massacred 11 people, several members reached out to me—saying they knew I was alone as a Jewish person in Clarksville—and offered that if I needed someone to grieve with, their community welcomed me with open arms.

Not all my interactions were as unremittingly positive, though they were consistently eye opening. I sometimes met with an elderly gentleman named Bill, with whom I’d struck up a conversation once while waiting on our drinks at Starbucks. Bill was a devout evangelical Christian who told me that the greatest issue facing America today was “the number of babies being massacred through abortion,” and that he would literally vote for anyone who would push to reverse Roe v. Wade and put a stop to it. (The Supreme Court decisions of 2022 seemed at that point highly implausible.) Bill was something of a Robert E. Lee aficionado; he had written several books about Lee, and periodically dressed up as Lee to give local historical society presentations. Bill’s contention, with which he regularly needled me, was that General Robert E. Lee was one of the good guys, who “treated his slaves right,” seeking to free them and care for them in their old age. 

“How can you possibly say that?” I would ask him, aghast. “The guy was quite literally the commander of the biggest and most important Army of the Confederate States of America. Why were they seceding? Oh waiiiit!” I face-palmed in a mock gesture of recognition. “Not enough slave states being created after the Missouri Compromise!” 

“That doesn’t mean he believed everything they stood for,” Bill huffed. “Does your husband believe in everything the US Army does?”

“False equivalency. One, he’s a major—nowhere near top dog. Two, he’s not diametrically opposed to their number one raison d’etre. You can’t actually believe that Robert E. Lee was some kind of secret abolitionist—that’s just garbage.”

We’d stare at each other across the table, seething, the conversation stilted for the rest of our visit. Eventually I’d decide I had to be somewhere else, vowing to myself that I’d never have coffee with this guy again, as it was clearly a complete waste of time. Then, two weeks later, he’d text me one word, “Coffee?” And I’d find myself meeting him again on a Friday afternoon.

“So why are you meeting this guy? Is this some do-gooder project for senior citizens?” one of my co-workers asked.

I had a hard time explaining it. Though I found many of Bill’s views reprehensible, and often found him personally infuriating, I somehow felt like he was the exact person I needed to be talking to. I had spent the previous two decades in a near echo-chamber of my own beliefs. If I were really as open-minded as I wanted to be, shouldn’t I talk to this person, I reasoned? Shouldn’t I actually learn what he thought, even if I didn’t agree with it? 

There was another aspect to it, though. Some basic part of me believed I could flip him; that if I just talked to him clearly, patiently, and well, he would see things my way. 

I realize in hindsight that he probably believed the same thing.


Sometimes, if it was a small group, I would feel emboldened to talk to the other army wives about politics—a touchy subject, since while most people I knew were not as extreme as Bill, I was clearly in the minority. “I’m curious—could you talk to me about why you voted for Trump?” I would ask, as neutrally as possible. I was always interested in their responses, though many were what I considered typical “red-state America tropes”: Distrust of big government, critical interpretations of the 2012 Benghazi attack, or feelings that the Democrats would eagerly throw rural farmers, coal-miners, or other blue-collar workers to the wolves. All these positions I understood, though I didn’t particularly agree with them.

The true moment of clarity for me came later, when one woman called me, clearly upset. “So, this is kind of awkward,” she said as a preamble. “But, I know you’re a teacher, and so I thought you might understand these types of things.” She explained that she was enrolled in a BA program in a local state college to get certified to teach elementary school physical education classes. For a capstone project, she had to write a 10-page single-spaced document explaining how she would incorporate neuropsychological principles into her practice of teaching basketball dribbling techniques to eight-year-olds. At this point, she’d been working for days on this document, the due date rapidly approaching. She had no idea, she told me, her voice breaking, if what she was writing “even made any sense anymore.” But, this requirement was from on high—something to do with the bureaucrats in the Department of Education, back east—and she wouldn’t be able to become a teacher without completing it. She asked if I wouldn’t mind taking a look.

 This woman was one of the crew who had been following her spouse for a decade and a half. Now a mom in her mid-30s, she was trying to gut out this program so that she could have the chance at a career. Her request tugged at my heartstrings: I knew she could be a wonderful PE teacher, with or without this dumb capstone project. She was passionate about fitness, great with kids, and deeply committed to the idea that if more children could have positive early experiences with sports, they’d ultimately lead healthier lifestyles. 

Moreover, the incident served as a crystalline example to me of how rust-belt denizens felt the east coast “elites” looked down on them. Some big-wig back east, likely a relic of the Obama administration (whose policies such as Common Core and Race-to-the-Top I had regularly complained about in my years as a teacher), had decreed that she wouldn’t be good enough for this job unless she leapt over these academic hurdles, which even I had to admit were largely irrelevant to her eventual day-to-day work. I could see how condescending and fundamentally alienating that must be.


We ended up living in Clarksville for two years. In late 2018, we filled out the Army location preference list again; having evidently learned nothing from our first go-around, I remained convinced that we could game the system. It didn’t work. We got notice in early 2019 that we were being stationed at a base an hour north of Kansas City.

I was pretty bummed out, and not entirely about the scenery, weather, or political disposition of the area. By the time of our June move, I was four months pregnant, and particularly dismayed at the prospects of both trying to find a new job and settling into an area where I didn’t know a soul in my current condition.

Still, I tried to put on a brave face. I met the book club ladies one last time, even though I was off wine, and the club disbanded soon after my departure due to half its remaining members feeling uncomfortable with night driving. I had a series of goodbye events with the runners, with my work colleagues, and even with some members of my gym. 

Near the end, I met Bill one last time at the Starbucks. Amid our usual conversation, he said, “You know, I’ve stopped playing Robert E. Lee.”


“Yeah. It’s gotten a little stale—I don’t think people like it as much as they used to.”

It was a qualified victory, to be sure, but I wasn’t complaining.


The first member of my core group of Clarksville friends had PCSed a year prior, so I was the second to leave. 

Soon after, when I looked at Facebook photos of that crew—still running, eating at Starbucks, mugging for the camera in obnoxiously bright running tights—I noticed something: Another Army wife had effectively been moved into “my” place, showing up with my friends in all the same activities (runs, birthdays, ladies’ nights out) I’d have attended if I’d still been there. 

It didn’t bother me as much as I might have expected it to. I’d always thought the wife in question was sweet; I was happy that they’d all continue having a good time together. Moreover, my quick replacement simply represented another axiom of Army life—a sort of “out of sight, out of mind” mentality that was the only way to persevere in a situation wherein everyone was regularly forced to create new friend groups. You couldn’t dwell. When a circle was broken, you simply had to close it again—or, if you were the break, find a new circle.

Our time at the Kansas-area duty station would end up being somewhat lonely and disorienting: a baby in the NICU, the early days of the pandemic, a two-month deployment for Tim to do emergency relief for COVID-19 while everything was locked down (leaving me stranded alone in Kansas with a young baby), and the inevitable Army wife career upheaval finally catching me—all with almost everyone I loved at minimum eight hours away.  Parts of it were amazing, but a lot of it was hard—much like Army life as a whole.

But, when we left Clarksville in June 2019, I couldn’t foresee most of that. All I knew was that this was yet another stop in Tim’s and my winding Army journey. Together, we’d make the best life we could, wherever we ended up, even as we always hoped that the next PCS would finally bring us home.


Ilana Garon has been a teacher and writer in one form or another for the past two decades. She is the author of “Why Do Only White People Get Abducted by Aliens?” Teaching Lessons from the Bronx (Skyhorse Publishing, 2013) and numerous essays about teaching and education. Ilana, her husband, and three children are currently stationed in Stuttgart, Germany.

Image source: nathan kosmak/Unsplash

Follow Vol. 1 Brooklyn on TwitterFacebook, and sign up for our mailing list.