I’m from Texas, and in case you didn’t know: TEAXS IS BIG. If you haven’t driven across it, it’s hard to comprehend how BIG it actually is. I used to tell people that it is SO big that you can get from Beaumont, TX to the Atlantic Ocean faster than you can get from El Paso to Beaumont. You can also get from El Paso to the Pacific Ocean faster than you can get to Beaumont. Yes, you can get to the other side of the country faster than you can get across the state. Let that sink in…
What does that have to do with today’s blog?
I feel like unless you have driven across the state of Texas, you can’t really comprehend how big it is. The same holds true to living on Okinawa. Unless you’ve lived out on this little rock, you just don’t get it. You can look at a map and see how big Texas is, and you can look at a map and see how small and how far Okinawa is, but you won’t get it until you make the drive or until you live on the island.
The pandemic started almost 2 years ago. Okinawa is close to China, so we had a few cases on island early on in the pandemic (January/February 2020). It was scary. The unknown is often times scarier than the reality. By March, I told my sister to cancel her flight to come visit in April, and I told her that the island would shut down, that the Olympics would be cancelled, and that I would end up getting trapped on this island. I sounded like a crazy person; I felt like a crazy person. I was 100% in all of my grim predictions.
The island went through various iterations of lock-downs. Some seemed fair and legitimate. The fighting force closest to the enemy lives on this island; keeping them healthy is top-priority. Some of the lock-downs and restrictions felt untimely and many times over-the-top, but I am not a doctor. I am not an epidemiologist. I am not a person who knows what is best for a population of people, living on a small island, on the other side of the world from their families and comfort-zones, so I complained a little, and I followed all of the rules. I never rage against any machine, and like the good little military spouse that I am, I remained positive and optimistic that we would stay safe and healthy, with all of our isolating measures.
Christmas 2020 came, and I was depressed. This would be the first Christmas of my WHOLE life that I would not be with my family. Christmas 2021 came, and I knew I could survive it without them.
Between those two Christmas holiday seasons, I finally became so desperate to see my family that we paid the bill, spent thousands of dollars, and we made two trips to Hawaii to see our families. We chose Hawaii because it is almost half way between Texas and Okinawa. I began the planning for the July 2021 trip in March. I paid for the Airbnb, and held my breath. In April, I paid for my family’s airline tickets, and I held my breath. Finally in late May, I felt confident enough to book my own flight, and once again, I held my breath. My husband didn’t book his flight until late June. Living in an environment, where any point in time you could be told that you can’t travel makes you do a lot of breath-holding. I got lucky for the November trip because my mother-in-law planned most of it, so I would hold my breath, but I had done it before, so I felt like I could do it again.
Getting to and into Hawaii the first time involved a lot of money and a lot of tears. Hawaii, like Okinawa, is a very small island so their rules change and feel as arbitrary as Okinawa’s rules. They didn’t want to accept my vaccination or my negative Covid test results because I didn’t get them done in the United States (even though they were done at a United States Naval Hospital). They finally allowed me to enter the state, when I said that I would stay at my AirBnB for the entire week. Fine, I would say ANYTHING to see my family!!! (Now I know how torture people get others to talk. Hold what they want most in front of them, and they will say anything.) I got to see my family, and it was glorious.
In November, getting to Hawaii was still wildly expensive, but it was a lot less stressful. Being in Hawaii with my husband’s family was another dream come true. They have been in my life for most of my life. They are my good friends, and they are people who I love deeply. We explored. We ate beautiful meals. We enjoyed Kauai. This time, I didn’t have to say that I would stay in the AirBnB for the 5 days, and the trip was magical.
The return trip was a living hell.
You only really understand IF you live on Okinawa. Japan has not allowed travel in or out of the country since the pandemic began. No one from outside the country is given a travel Visa, so only residents are traveling in and out, and once we come in, we have to quarantine for 14 days on our dime. It is expensive to travel, and it is even more expensive to sit in a hotel room for 14 days. After months, maybe even a year, senior military officials figured out a way to get us back to Okinawa out of Tokyo so we would quarantine in our own homes, which would save us hundreds or even thousands of dollars. It was late coming, but at least it was something.
Basically, you fly into Tokyo, go through hours of Covid screening, then when released, get on a military shuttle to a military base, quarantine there until a Space Available flight has a seat for you. As a military spouse, I pretty much rate pretty close to LAST. As you sit on the military base on mainland Japan, you refresh your screen over and over, trying to see if any new flights have posted. You don’t really unpack because you may need to pack up quickly to make the mile trek up the road to check into a flight that you may or may not get on. You pay $109-$125 per night for a basic hotel room. You pay for food and drinks, and if you are a parent, you buy toys at the BX for your kids because you are all are stuck in a hotel room for days. Every refresh and every day you stay there, your bill goes up. There were not enough flights for families, but the people who determine the number of flights are not the people who sit in a hotel room, refresh their screens, bleed out hundreds of dollars in quarantine, so they just don’t get it. Once again, you don’t get how big Texas is until you make the drive. You don’t get how hard it is to travel in and out of Okinawa is until you have done it. One plane a day would have probably solved this challenge.
FINALLY, after 2 years, a reprieve has come to our families. It is called FEML.
Me: when I am the healthy-brained person wants to say, “thank you military leadership for helping our families.” The other, not-healthy-brained-and-very-frustrated-me wants to give them the bird and say, “Why the hell did this take so long? Over the course of the past year, we have had young families spend upwards of $10,000 to see their families!!! How dare you take so long to help us!!!” When you are desperate enough to see your family you will spend anything, and for the people who have been here through the pandemic, they have spent their savings, racked up credit card bills, begged and borrowed. Desperation will make you do things you wouldn’t do otherwise.
I’ll write about FEML next week because this blog is already too long, and honestly, I should have kicked and screamed long ago. I should have chosen to not been the good, quiet, compliant military spouse for this long. I should have written about the challenges. I should have written congressmen. I should have been raising hell because senior officials have made this beautiful, amazing island more challenging and more frustrating than it ever should have been. People who have never even been to this island dictate what happens on this island.
If I could talk to those people, I would say:
Drive across Texas sometime with a deadline; it’s big, and that drive isn’t fun. Live on a remote island and get trapped there for a year or two; see what it feels like; feeling trapped isn’t fun, and if you don’t want to do either of those things, then at least REALLY LISTEN to people who have done it.