What is home, really? Is it a building, where one lives with family and surrounds themselves with belongings? Is it a town or a community, where one has friends and ties and a job? Is it where a person puts down roots? Or is it really something else?

Surprisingly, the best answer might come from people who would seem to have the least connection to a home ― modern day military gypsies.

Members of the military tend to change duty stations every two to three years. Sometimes just the service member deploys, but often, the entire family moves to a new post, sometimes domestic, and sometimes overseas.

“Technically, the time at station is supposed to be four years in the Air Force right now but you can't tell it from what we’ve done,” said Air Force chaplain Bruce Glover, who has a wife, Carol, and two daughters. “Since 2008, we’ve moved five times. What happens is you go on an unusual assignment or you get promoted out of an assignment.”

Sometimes, short notice can make things chaotic. The Glovers say the shortest notice they've ever gotten for a move is two months, but Air Force chaplain Mitchell Holley said he was given one week and six days notice to report for active duty.

Collette Shedd, wife of Army chaplain Jack Shedd, said when her husband was called to active duty, like Holley, he was given just five days notice to report, leaving her to pack up and move on her own. She ended up handling the unpacking alone too, as her husband was already deployed by the time she arrived at Fort Bragg.

For Collette Shedd, the biggest challenge was theft, something she says happened on both the first move, and on the family’s most recent. Shedd is a Native American and lost a number of tribal artifacts that were never recovered on the first move. She learned from it though, and like all military families, began to keep her most valuable items with her.

On the last move, though, she says even this didn’t work.  In the chaos of moving into their new house, the Shedds found the boxes they had personally moved ― which contained tribal jewelry among other valuables Collette Shedd had inherited  ― had been hauled away by the movers.

The first theft left Collette Shedd with just one tribal drum out of all her artifacts. “I brought the drum down and I began to chant like a wild Indian in the 21st century. After the police left, both of us drained, still in shock, I went out to the backyard and I just wept like I never wept before,” she said.

Collette Shedd with her tribal retrieving drum.

Collette Shedd with her tribal retrieving drum. —courtesy Collette Shedd

This second time, however, things turned out differently: Shedd says some nine months later, she found the boxes, with all of the lost belongings, unwrapped but still there, on her porch.

She doesn’t know what prompted their return, although she speculated, based on something she learned during a family visit a short time later.

“I visited a great uncle and he’s got this photograph on the wall and it’s a picture of the drum I still happened to have.” Now in his 90s, her uncle “was almost two and he was standing by the drum” in the photo, she said.

Her uncle explained to Collette that it was a retrieving drum for the tribe. “He said when something is taken from our tribe, the elders and the shamans play the drum and it comes back to the tribe. So I told him the whole story of the jewelry and he very calmly, nonchalantly said, ‘Oh the drum still works!’”

The Glovers have never had problems with theft, but they also hand carry precious mementos so they don’t get lost along the way, particularly when the move involves ship transport overseas.

“Sometimes … we have heard horror stories of a whole container falling off the ship,” said Bruce Glover. “That happened to a friend of ours. They lost everything.”

“Even if they retrieve it, everything is ruined or sometimes they can’t retrieve it,” said Carol Glover.

Even when items aren't being shipped overseas, they still take a beating. Moving is generally a three step process: household goods are picked up, downloaded temporarily into a warehouse, then reloaded and delivered to the new residence. Along the way, the goods aren’t sometimes handled particularly carefully.

“I remember a senior chaplain at my first base who said, ‘Yeah, you have your Air Force stuff and then when you retire you get your new stuff,’” said Bruce Glover.

Each move also  involves personal expenses. The military pays for the bulk of the move and shipping belongings, but there are some things that can’t be shipped and have to be purchased for every move, like cleaning supplies and general household items.

The Glovers have twice moved overseas with pets, as have many military families who keep cats and dogs just like anyone else, adding another shipping expense the military doesn’t cover. There are also fees associated with documentation like insurance and driver's licenses and utilities hookups.

“We figure it takes us between $1,000 and $2,000 just to set up the house every time,” Bruce Glover said.

Add to that the emotional drain and energy of having to set up a new household with each new assignment. Constant relocation can also be rough school-age children: having to start over, establish identity and make new friends every few years.

“I know our older daughter, Claire, when we moved from Colorado Springs to Georgia, she was in high school, she’d had a really good year, lot of good friends and we told her we were moving to Georgia and that was not a happy night,” Glover continued. “She had a really hard time.”

Claire did adjust, make new friends, and still accomplished all of the things she'd hoped to in high school, according to Carol Glover. 

With all of those negatives, are there any positives to the military lifestyle? Plenty, say the Glovers, and many of them far outweigh the inconveniences. It turns out every member of their family treasures the experience.

“I would say it also happens, too, that we are less materialistic,” Bruce Glover said. “It’s helped us have the right priorities and we are a much closer family, a much stronger family, and we’ve had wonderful travel and enrichment and educational experiences in the military. I would not choose to go back and spend the last 21 years sitting in one place.”

Carol Glover noted that their daughters ― both of whom are grown now ― have developed a sense of world citizenship. One spent the past summer in Turkey while the other led a youth group in Africa, and she notes that both are comfortable in their travels.

“They just see the world very differently. Sometimes I am kind of envious. I grew up in the same place,” she said. “I thought it was fabulous at the time and didn’t know any better, but then I look at what they've been able to do and I think wow!”

Asked if they regretted all the moves, the girls, according to their parents, said there was not any one location where they would have wanted to stay. They noted they have friends all over the world and when they’d go back and visit those friends, who’d stayed all that time in the same place, nothing had changed while they’d gotten to have rich experiences in other places.

It does on occasion lead to odd experiences for grown children, coming home, say, from college, where “home” is no longer in the same place it once was. This happened for one of the Glover girls.

“She had to come ‘home’ to San Antonio and now she’s fine and she enjoyed it but at the time it was like, ‘where's home?’ She’d never been to Texas. It is kind of a weird feeling,” said Carol Glover.

So,what exactly is home? How can a place you’ve never been before be home? There was a  running joke among the chaplains here during the annual conference of Presbyterians Caring for Chaplains and Military Personnel earlier this month that military children come home to the furniture because it’s the only thing that stays the same.

That’s not quite it though. It turns out military families have perhaps a better understanding of what home is than many civilians do.

“People define home in different ways. When you think of home you think of a building, a place,” said Carol Glover. “Our kids think of home as family. It’s where your family is, it’s where your community, your church, your support is. That’s home. Home is relationships, it’s not a building.”

Toni Montgomery is a free-lance writer in Statesville, N.C. who also serves as church secretary for Statesville’s First Presbyterian Church. A frequent contributor to Presbyterian News Service, Toni is a military veteran.