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How this military spouse found her purpose in Africa

Brunella Costagliola Avatar
(Photo courtesy of Julie Tully)

Mal d’Afrique. It’s the French term that describes a love of Africa that never leaves one’s soul, even though the person has physically left the continent. It’s what military spouse Julie Tully has felt in her heart since she left Africa in 2018.

“Would you move to Africa?” Her Navy husband, John Tully, asked her one day at dinner. To her, the answer was a no-brainer: Yes! After all, for Julie Tully, a cowgirl who grew up in rural Northern California on her family’s ranch, moving to Africa was a childhood dream come true.

“I’ve always had a good dose of wanderlust inside me,” she says. “While the entire world captured my imagination, Africa spoke directly to my heart. Watching shows like Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom and Shaka Zulu, then seeing Out of Africa—the people, the animals, the landscape! I just knew that it was the place for me, even if that was a far-reaching fantasy at that point in my life.”

Tully Family in Lac Abbe in Djibouti.

During an assignment in England in the early 2000s, Julie’s husband transferred into the Navy’s newly developed foreign area officer (FAO) program, designated an Africa specialist. What the Tully family initially thought was a short 18-month tour overseas, the first for them as a family of three (their son, Quinn was born shortly before moving to England), quickly turned into a new reality. Since 2004, they have served six consecutive tours overseas, with three of those being in Africa.

“Our first set of orders in the FAO community took us to AFRICOM in Stuttgart, Germany,” she says. “The rest of the trajectory to Africa was just a simple progression — my husband was an Africa specialist, so it was only right for him to accept assignments on the African continent. And in the FAO community, families can often accompany their service member to remote locations, so we jumped at the opportunity.”

The move to Africa not only allowed Julie to fulfill her childhood dream, but it also provided her with a chance to reinvent herself: “At that point in my life, I was a bit at loose ends. I had left my career in public relations because of the demands of my husband’s job, and I was a stay-at-home mom, but my child was now at school most of the day. I was stagnating, so moving to Africa seemed like a chance to at least experience something new.”

Julie Tully and her husband, 4th of July in Cameroon.

And experience something new, she did! The Tully family spent eight years at embassy postings in Sub-Saharan Africa, living in Cameroon, Nigeria, and Djibouti. “My role was unlike any military spouse role I had experienced. My husband worked in various jobs that required us both to be official representatives of the United States. I was encouraged to work alongside my husband when appropriate to the situation, fulfilling the role of unofficial diplomat.”

Given how small the foreign area officer community is, Julie often found herself at odds with the rest of the military community as well as the civilian one. “It’s always an interesting situation when you’re that far from the flagpole, when even the larger military community doesn’t understand your job.” She says, “There’s a perception that the FAO world is all about cocktail parties and fancy dinners, and while we do get to do a few very cool things, there is a lot of intense important work that is done. We are a small component of the military, but we are mighty.”

Julie Tully doing some writing.

To explain what her life in Africa was like to her family and friends, Julie turned to an old love of hers: writing. “Once a month throughout our time on the continent, I would write emails home, little vignettes about our adventures.”

Eight years’ worth of emails detailing her life in Sub-Saharan Africa eventually turned into Dispatches from the Cowgirl: Through the Looking Glass with a Navy Diplomat’s Wife, a memoir that will be published by W. Brand Publishing on September 13, 2022.

After 18 years living overseas, Julie Tully and her family are now getting ready to leave Italy and move back to the United States. Coming full circle in her great military adventure, she is enriched by the indelible mark that Africa has left on her: “The people, the food, the culture, the music, the vibrancy. Africa is just part of who I am now.”

To learn more about Julie’s adventures and stay updated on her book release, follow her Instagram @dispatchesfromthecowgirl and Facebook @julietullywriter.