How Kate Bonded with Military Families in California

The duchess (and new RAF wife) quizzes spouses and laments long deployments

Photo: Tim Rooke/Rex USA

When the Duchess of Cambridge engaged a throng of military wives gathered at the ServiceNation: Mission Serve’s Hiring Our Heroes event last weekend in L.A., they wanted to know about life as a princess. But what did Kate want?

“She wanted to know about what it was like to be a military spouse,” says Kathy Roth-Douquet, CEO of Blue Star Families and wife of a Marine colonel.

“She smiled and said, ‘I can’t imagine a long deployment,’ ” Roth-Douquet tells PEOPLE. But soon, the duke will be heading to the Falklands for just that: a two-month mission. “She blushed, and said the last time [Will] was gone for four weeks, she missed him a lot.”

Adds Greg Propper, ServiceNation executive director: “The duke and duchess asked many questions about the military family experience.”

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Despite the hardships, the duchess is very excited about being a newly crowned member of the military spouse community, says Patty Shinseki, a board member of Joining Forces, a White House initiative to support military families. Shinseki’s husband, Eric, is the Secretary for Veterans Affairs under Barack Obama and a retired general who served as Army Chief of Staff. “We all welcomed her to the military family community. She thanked us and said, ‘It’s an honor,’ ” says Shinseki.

Lise Schmiegel, whose husband Kevin is the vice president of Veterans Employment Programs for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and served in the Marines, told the duchess how she moved to California from the U.K. with a 1-month-old and a 15-month-old and she felt terribly lonely for several months. “[Kate] said, ‘Oh my gosh, how did you do that?’ I told her I really connected to the other military wives and I built up new friendships each of the five times we moved after that,” Schmiegel says.

While preparing care packages filled with teddy bears, games and journals for military children who have a parent deployed overseas, the duchess also peppered questions to volunteers Meghan Whieten-Scott, 27, an Army wife whose husband is stationed in Anchorage; and Stephanie Himel-Nelson, 38, of Norfolk, Va., whose husband is a 20-year Navy veteran.

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“Kate asked a lot of questions about what it’s like to be a military spouse,” says Himel-Nelson. Adds Whieten-Scott: “She said she was upset that she hadn’t got a chance to help military spouses in the U.K. I said, ‘You just got married, you got some time.’ ” Kate laughed. And Himel-Nelson kidded: “We’ll give you a few months first.”

But as the duchess left the building and said her goodbyes to her hosts, she not only thanked Shinseki for educating her about service projects for military families, but confided that she was eager to get similar programs underway back home. “She’s one of us now,” says Shinseki.

For much more on the royal couple’s triumphant tour, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday

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