What Surprised Me Most About Life After the Military
In the time leading up to my husband’s retirement from the Air Force last year (he’d been in a total of 31 years, and I’d been along for the ride for 29), I did my best to prepare like I do for any major life event. I rotated between devouring the bajillion pamphlets the military dispenses on cheerful topics like why you should sign up for the survivor benefits plan and the eleventy seven steps you need to complete to maybe possibly receive VA benefits, Googled helpful phrases like “what the frick do I do now after being a military spouse for three decades??”, and munched chocolate while staring out the window of ancient base housing and trying to imagine what life would be like after years of living in base housing like this.
Pretty sure that last one was easily as helpful as any other ‘preparation’ I could manage.
Still, we treated this final transition almost like a PCS, which is helpful in some ways, except for the fact that it’s not a PCS. The reality of this hit home when, after the flurry of retirement dinners, the ceremony, gifts, and well wishes, we left Virginia and rolled into San Antonio and met...crickets. No one was there to meet us, introduce us to the base, or even give a flip that we were here. There was no newcomers’ orientation, no friendly spouse asking if I wanted to join the spouses’ club, no one there to make his way smooth as he jumped right into his next military job (because there wasn’t one!).
And while your experience may vary, after over a year now of post military life, I’m gaining a little hindsight and will share a few other things that surprised me about life after my husband’s retirement from active duty service.
(NOTE TO THE TROLLS who’ve left such ugly comments on this post that I deleted and will continue to delete: Please read on if you actually want to understand how military life affects a longtime spouse. I doubt that’s your purpose, but at any rate, no I am not saying I only identified as a military spouse. That’s not my point at all. But that was part of my life for 30 years and we have been through a lot as a military family. Also, get over yourself and don’t pretend to think you know my life based on one single blog post. If this doesn’t resonate with you, then what difference does it make to your life? Feel free to move on.)
How much military life defined mine. My friend Lana Simmons noted on a recent Instagram post that her husband’s retirement felt like “I almost lit a match to the last 20+ years of my life.” This!! While I’d taken care to craft my own identity, I hadn’t realized how much I did revolved around the military. Military life provided me instant friends, gave me instant activities, and actually made things pretty easy in the social realm. Now there was a void I would have to intentionally fill. And what do I call myself now in military circles? I’m not technically a milspouse. Retired milspouse? Am I to forever be defined by what my husband does...or did?
How exhausted I was. The last 10-15 years of Steve’s career had been fast moving--a new assignment every two years or less, which included 6 overseas and back from overseas moves, constant TDYs on his part, and long deployments. I. Was. Spent. Once that stress was lifted, I felt run over. I slept a lot those first weeks.
The relief. Along with #2 a weight came off, realizing I wouldn’t have to face that life again. I won’t ever have to wave goodbye again as my husband ships out to a dangerous place, tear a child away from all they’ve known for the past few years, or restart a career because of a move. Wow.
Feeling disconnected. Though our oldest son is in the Air Force and I continue to work for a military oriented company and write for military publications, the sense of disconnect from the military spouse community was something I couldn’t foresee. They’d been part of my life for so long. I suppose I could attend a local milspouse group, but my desire for that right now is about zero.
That I needed to make space for my husband. Even after 30 years, our marriage is still always a work in progress. However, we'd both become so accustomed to being apart regularly, that when we were suddenly together all the time, some work needed to happen. For my part, I had to welcome him back into decision making and not resent his input on everyday decisions I'd made alone for years. I needed to remember how thankful I was that he was here, and that I had someone to rely on again. I was so accustomed to figuring everything out myself and filling him in later, and I needed to make room for "us."
My reaction to the word “forever.” As we shopped for a home to buy, I can’t tell you how many times a well-meaning person said to me, “Are you so excited to find your forever home??” These words made me want to flee. I wasn’t prepared to make that sort of commitment after years of temporary quarters and military housing. When we finally agreed that we would stay in the house 5 years (still a long time) and then reassess, the pressure lifted.
How long it would take for my husband to find a second career. I had visions of executives knocking down his door before he left active duty to take advantage of his well honed skills and education. Instead, it took some months for him to land in the right job. While he savored the time puttering around the new house and repainting the deck, I had moments of panic. In fact, at one point he reminded me gently, “God’s always taken care of us before. Why would He stop now?”
Trouble making decisions. From choosing a church to where we should live to hanging up pictures, I have a surprisingly hard time deciding as I'm naturally assertive and usually know what I want. My upstairs loft is still not decorated!
Changes in relationships. Knowing that a friendship will require long term work on my part is different, too. I’m more cautious about jumping right in, which seems silly after all my years of preaching “bloom where you’re planted,” but I’m aware of it and working on it.
Permanence. When I place a box of Christmas ornaments on a shelf, I don’t have to worry about whether it’s packed well for the next move, because it will be on that same shelf next Christmas season, unless I move it. When I say goodbye to the hairdresser or dentist, I’m not counting down how many more times I’ll see them. If I so choose, they’ll know me for years. This is weird, while also comforting. (I think, is this how people live? Is this how I used to live before I got married? I’ve forgotten.)
What I'd miss. Little things really, like hearing "Taps" at bedtime or the National Anthem at the end of the duty day. Running around the corner to the commissary or the small town feel of living on a military base. Our first night sleeping in the house we bought was strange, since we'd lived in the equivalent of a gated, guarded community during all our years of living on base.
How much I don’t miss. This is perhaps most surprising of all. I truly thought I might pine away for what was. I haven’t, really, after the initial shock of civilian life. I don’t miss the often fishbowl existence I felt during the last years or my calendar constantly filled with events not of my choosing. I thought I’d miss it more. Maybe I will someday, but for now, I’m enjoying the more laid back lifestyle of working from home and going out when I feel like it.
As we face the coming years, I’m sure there will be even more I realize I miss or don’t miss. Military spouse life will always make up part of the fabric of who I am. But looking forward, I’m excited.