[EDITOR’S NOTE: The following story continues our series Benelux Family Legacy, which features multigenerational stories from U.S. Army Garrison Benelux and tenant unit partners. This series explores the people who comprise the garrison and delves into the legacy they have created in the Benelux.]
ZAVENTEM, Belgium – Liz Schuster, a school nurse at SHAPE Middle School, sat behind the front desk of the Brussels Fitness Center April 7, visiting her daughter Nicole Shoaf, a recreational aid at the fitness center and nursing student, as both waited to take part in an evening fitness class.
Schuster, whose life and career had taken her to West Virginia, Belgium, Bavaria, Spain and Thailand, was familiar with U.S. Army Garrison Benelux – Brussels, where her daughter works, because Schuster had spent several years of her own childhood there when it was NATO Support Activity.
Liz’s father, Pete Schuster, a German by birth from Neumünster, earned American citizenship by joining the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War. As an intelligence officer specializing in linguistics, he met Liz’s mother Loan Thi (pronounced Lonn Tee) in Vietnam.
Loan Thi and Pete Schuster had two sons during his tour, which lasted until 1973.
Six months after he redeployed, he had a heart attack at Fort Carson, Colorado. Medically discharged from the Army, Pete Schuster went to college. The Family had a daughter – Elizabeth or Liz. After finishing college, Pete became a door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman.
In 1980, the Schusters moved to a small town northwest of Brussels in Flemish Brabant called Kampenhout, after Pete took his first U.S. Army civilian job at NATO Supact as a contract specialist. Loan worked for the small commissary on site.
Among the buildings at NATO Supact was what is today a crèche across the street from present-day USAG Benelux – Brussels. Smoking indoors at the time was legal, and Liz recalls that her mother did not want her or her brothers to visit her father’s office there because her father’s boss often smoked.
“My mom hated for us to go over there because we smelled like smoke when we left,” she said.
That was not the only dismaying thing for Liz’s parents. Before NATO Supact occupied the building, the building had been a brothel. Most of the offices came equipped with bidets, a bathroom fixture most American children have no familiarity with. Liz used the bidet to play with her dolls.
“I thought it was my Barbie swimming pool!”
Schuster recalled that living in Belgium and working in support of NATO had been tense during this period of the 1980s due to the Communist Fighting Cell’s terrorist campaign. Often her school bus to and from the Brussels American School would be escorted.
“That’s how serious it was with the car bombs,” she said.
When the NATO Supact was bombed in the early hours of Jan. 15, 1985, Liz said it was to her mother’s chagrin that she and her brothers were still able to visit Pete Schuster’s tobacco-fumed office building across the street.
Life went on. Liz’s oldest brother’s graduating class from Brussels American School in 1986 was 12 people, which was a sizable for its time. Liz was part of the cheer squad there. Then in 1986, the Family left for Garmisch, Germany, where Liz recalled their school would be let out Wednesdays in winter for “Wunderbar Mittwoch,” so the students could go skiing.
Liz’s other brother graduated from Munich American High School, and then the Family moved to Torrejón Air Base, Spain.
Liz grew up, earned a degree in nursing, and began a Family herself. She married and had Nicole. She moved to Thailand with her husband who worked for the Department of State, raising her daughter overseas in much the same fashion she had been raised. Eventually Liz divorced.
Liz and Nicole moved to Morgantown, West Virginia. Nicole, who had lived overseas a significant portion of her life, typically wore uniforms to school. She remembered moving to the U.S. as a preteen was difficult because she did not know how her fellow students dressed. She and her mother went people-watching at the local mall to figure out what clothes were in style.
“I was wearing vests over my T-shirt and a fedora,” said Nicole. “At the time, I thought I was going to be so cool. I was not.”
Liz remembered visiting fortunetellers following her divorce, which she talked about with her daughter.
“I went to this one fortuneteller, and it was funny, her fortune was that, ‘You are going to go to your father’s homeland,’” said Liz. “’You will have a new beginning in your father’s homeland.’ I remember talking to her (Nicole) about it, and we were like, ‘Okay.’”
Liz received two job offers at the same time: one to run the nursing program at a junior college in West Virginia, the other was for a position as a public health nurse at U.S. Army Garrison Ansbach, Germany. Liz’s mom reminded Liz of the fortuneteller’s prediction.
“When the job in Germany came,” Liz said, “my mom was like, ‘Your father’s home country! That’s what she was talking about. She saw the job for you.’ And I said, ‘Okay.’ I don’t know if that’s true or not, but for us we always giggle about it.”
It wasn’t just cosmic forces that pulled Liz to work for USAG Ansbach, it was wisdom from her father, who had eavesdropped in on the job interview for the garrison.
“‘Don’t be a fool,’” Liz recounted her father’s words. “‘You had a good life overseas; that’s a good life for your daughter.’ And I won’t deny it, it’s been wonderful.’”
Pete Schuster visited the family and even became a somewhat regular fixture of the community when he stayed. He would spend his time at the Urlas Post Exchange.
“He was just always a proud veteran, and he loved talking to Soldiers,” said Liz. “You know, just finding out what they were doing, asking ‘Are you taking advantage of your educational opportunities with the military?’ ‘You should do this, do this.’ He loved every bit of it.”
The transitions for Nicole had always been difficult, whether it was adjusting herself to real-world school fashion in the states or assimilating into new school cultures in Ansbach or at SHAPE, when she and her mother moved there in 2016.
“I thought the Spanish people are hanging out with the Spanish people, and then the Italians with the Italians, so I didn’t know where I fit in,” said Shoaf of entering the international scholastic environment at SHAPE. “So that’s when I started doing sports here, I joined the volleyball team. I did basketball, I did soccer. It’s a mix of everybody. I had friends from Spain, I had friends from Greece. I had American friends too.”
Shoaf graduated from SHAPE High School in 2017 with a graduating class numbering in the fifties.
“I went back to the states for university for a semester; that was as long as I lasted,” said Shoaf. “It’s not that it was bad: I lived in Denver in a really cool city, only an hour away from my grandma. I think it’s that I had gotten really used to living overseas. And also to be away from my mom, I think it was really hard. So, even for my first day when I started, I told her, ‘I want to come back. I want to come back right now.’ And she was like, ‘Do a semester, and then we’ll talk about it.’ So I remember just getting through those six months and then as soon as I was done with that, I was, ‘I just want to move back home.’ And I did.”
While taking some time away from college, her mom recommended Nicole start work, and so she became a child and youth program assistant for USAG Benelux Directorate of Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation.
“She came home and said, ‘I’m never having children, mom,’” said Liz of Nicole. “‘Never.’”
“It was exhausting, because I started working during the summertime, so it was when they had their summer camps, so kids were there the whole day,” said Shoaf. “I remember I would come home and I would just like collapse because they were just wearing me out.”
Nicole said she enjoyed the job, as exhausting as it was. Both Schuster and Shoaf worked for Shawn Ticho, the Child, Youth and School program manager.
“It was a good experience, and she was under Mr. Ticho, and he was a good boss,” said Schuster.
Ticho had offered Liz a position with CYSS, which, as a non-appropriated funds position, allowed her to continue working as an Army civilian outside the continental U.S. beyond her normal term. Following some time working for the CYSS program at SHAPE, the school offered her a position as a public health nurse.
“Sixty percent of my population is international, and I learn so much,” said Schuster. “Just the opportunity to work the different military Families and just to hear the kids talk about their experiences. I love it.”
During the summers when school is out, Schuster still works with Ticho and CYSS.
Shoaf took an immersive French language course for a year and took a job with the Brussels Fitness Center, something that is, in her words, “a little more my speed.”
“If I had a different job, I don’t know if I’d ever go into a gym; I don’t think I’d have the time,” said Shoaf. “Everyone is so nice. And it’s just really good vibes in this community. I couldn’t imagine a better job while I’m in school.”
Working in the Brussels area, she is now following in her mother’s footsteps and learning nursing at the Haute École Libre Bruxelles in the city. As one of the few Americans at her school, she often gets called out in class because of the interest in the different nursing techniques between Europe and the United States.
“‘Oh, yeah, where’s the girl from America? What do you think? How would you compare it?’” Nicole said her teachers would ask in French. “And you’re in an auditorium with like a hundred people, and I’m like, ‘Um… je ne sais pas.’”
Then, when Nicole saw her mother, Liz would ply her with questions.
“The program that she’s studying at, it’s not a pilot program, but they’ve changed the way nursing is done in Belgium, which excites me,” said Schuster. “They use a lot of American nurse theories, so I’m always like, ‘What’s going on in your class?’”
During free time together, the mother and daughter like to people-watch.
“But not in a bad way,” said Liz. “I love how European women are very fashionable, and in my mind they dress feminine. And I just like the styles. But if you’re staring too long in the U.S., they’re like …”
“‘What are you looking at!?’” both Liz and Nicole yelled together.
“I like that people take walks,” Liz continued on Europe. “On a Sunday, you’ll see families out. Or just go sit in a café. I love that lifestyle. You know, shopping at the grocery store maybe every other day for a few things, what you’re going to cook for dinner rather than a fridge full of all this food.”
Shoaf continues to turn to her mother when she needs personal and professional guidance. She has relied on her advice in pursuance of a career in nursing. She will call her mother when asking questions on Army procedure, such as an injury at work.
“I leaned on her a lot because I’ve always felt my mom is that person who is like – I don’t want to say connected – but she just knows everybody and everybody knows her,” said Nicole.
For her career, Shoaf is looking to become a travel nurse so she would have the opportunity to move for her job. Whether she stays in federal service may depend upon the availability of that dream.
“If working for the government takes me there, I would definitely pursue that,” said Shoaf.
Liz would sometimes entertain doubts about the global trajectory her life had taken her and her daughter, that Nicole did not see their father as much following the divorce.
“She’ll ask me some sometimes,” said Nicole, “And I’m like, ‘Honestly, not at all.’ Because had that not happened, we probably never would have come over here, I never would have met the people that I had. I met my best friend at SHAPE, and she actually works at the bank (at USAG Benelux – Brussels) now, and we see each other all the time. I never would have met her, never would have traveled to the places we traveled to. I never would have started learning French. I probably would have been in the states, only speaking English, getting into college debt. So I feel it was meant to be.”
Before Pete Schuster died in 2017 in Colorado Springs, Liz was able to visit him.
“I told him how much I missed him, that I didn’t get that time with him,” she said. “I felt a little bit cheated. And my dad always told me, ‘No, that was the best thing for you. Look how amazing your daughter is doing. Look how amazing you’re doing. Don’t ever regret that. Don’t regret that. Family is Family.’”
This series, Benelux Family Legacy, will continue to explore the many stories and experiences from the people who make up U.S. Army Garrison Benelux and its tenant organizations. Further stories like this on the legacy created through the garrison’s multigenerational workforce will continue to be published every Wednesday for the next several weeks.