About 10 years ago, I grew weary of military life. Well, honestly, I had grown tired of it before then. When I was still my Navy dad’s dependent and in college, I said I’d never marry anyone in the military and live that kind of lifestyle again. Pretty much the next day, my now husband asked me on a date, and we were married a year later.
But it was 10 years ago, when we were due for another military move and probably more deployments, when I really began to resist. And if there’s one thing the Department of Defense knows, it’s this: when the spouse isn’t happy, the service member is probably looking to get out.
Which is why the military likes to throw bonuses at families at critical points in their career. By “critical points,” I mean those crossroads where the service member, having already served back his or her time commitment, can technically get out and have no more obligations to the military.
Conversations around that time usually go like this:
My husband: “We’re halfway to retirement, if we just stay in, then we get all the benefits at 20 years.”
My husband: “Ten years really isn’t that much longer.”
My husband: “It will go by quickly, and you’ve gotten a routine with deployments …”
The Department of Defense: “How about this nice bonus?”
My husband: “Yes, please.”
As we came up on 20 years, however, Dustin knew the gig was up. There was literally nothing he could do to sell me on one more year. (I bow down in awe to women like my mother who were military wives for 35+ years!) I think my exact words to Dustin were, “I want to get out at 20 years, not 20 years and one month or 20 years and 2 weeks, but 20 years.”
Dustin had laughed. “It doesn’t really work that way,” he said. “If they need me to stay to finish up a job, I have to stay.”
As someone who takes 20-minute showers and dyes my hair on a whim, I cannot wrap my mind around that kind of discipline. “But you only promised them 20 years,” I’d say, to more chuckles.
But, yes, Dustin also agreed that 20 years would be the right time to get out.
Then one day, when we were at a social event, someone asked Dustin over cocktails, “What are you going to do after your next assignment?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Dustin said. “I guess I’ll probably get out.”
My eyes locked onto his like laser beams. “I guess?” “Probably?” “I don’t know?”
All the way home that night, I grilled him: “What do you mean, ‘you guess’? You said you were getting out at 20 years!”
“I was just being polite,” he said. “I was making small talk.”
Meanwhile, I’ve had a countdown clock on my phone since approximately the year 2008.
But if I think back to that conversation over cocktails, I remember that the rest of it went like this:
Friend: “And what will you do when you get out of the military?”
Dustin (after a long pause): “I don’t know.”
My husband has been in the military since he was 17 years old and entered the Naval Academy for school. Every day of his adult life there have been regulations that tell him everything, from how to wear his hair to which uniform to put on. And on a regular three-year basis, the military has also told him which job he will go do next. The military has entrusted him with everything from student pilots to entire commands, all from an early age. And his entire identity has been formed by that service to the Navy. He can’t really envision anything else yet.
This is a common dilemma for military service members as they come to retirement, and until recently, the military didn’t invest much time in preparing its people for the transition. Luckily, that has changed today. Many programs offer service members assistance when it comes time to write resumes and look for careers outside of the uniform. That at least makes the transition easier on paper, if not in the service member’s mind. Old habits die hard.
For example: We are weeks away from Dustin’s retirement. The kids and I are counting down with a paper chain hanging in our living room. And just a few nights ago, Dustin said these words to me (I’m not joking): “Sometimes I miss going out to sea.”
You can take the man out of the military, but then, apparently, you end up having to buy him a boat.
Maine writer and columnist Sarah Smiley’s writing is syndicated weekly to publications across the country. She may be reached at facebook.com/Sarah.is.Smiley.