In or Out? That Is The Question


“I’m thinking about getting out of the military.”

I’ve heard my husband say this many times before in his decade-long active-duty career, but it has never before been followed by, “I’m applying for a civilian job.” Suddenly, the possibility of a life outside the military popped into the spectrum of my reality.

I always imagined the end of our military life would taste like a gourmet meal of Relief wrapped in Excitement, peppered with Pride and served with a vintage bottle of A Life Well Lived. But as I sat at my desk proofreading my husband’s resume, I realized that the thought of his military career ending was far from a succulent gourmet meal. It was more like a deep-fried What Now? sandwich from a fast food joint that looked so appetizing at first glance, but left me tossing and turning all night with a scorching case of heartburn.

Quite honestly, I don’t have any idea how to be a plain old wife without the word military preceding it. My husband will be home all the time? He won’t get deployed to unpleasant places? He won’t wear a uniform to work every day? We’ll live in one place for the rest of our lives? I don’t get it. Do people really live like that?

For the last ten years, my husband and I have navigated the winding road of military life, sometimes together, sometimes a world apart. He’s had a pretty amazing military career so far, celebrating successes both professionally and personally. And while I can’t claim to be a big fan of deployments, or PCSes, or Murphy’s Law, I do owe the military a lengthy thank you note for allowing me to travel the world, collect an address book filled with friends, and transform me into the kind of woman I never knew I could be.

On the other hand, my family has lived at our current duty station for almost four years now, practically an eternity in the military world. And I have to admit I’ve grown accustomed to the cushy life of stability. My son has shared the same classrooms with one of his buddies from pre-K to second grade. I’m on a first-name basis with all the employees at my local YMCA. I transferred my state teacher certification AND taught at the same school for nearly two years. We know the best ER to go to, the best Japanese restaurant, the best grocery store, the best gas stations.

Is this how “normal” people live?  Really? Wow. Ok, sign me up because this normal thing is pretty cool.

Unfortunately, what passes for normal in most people’s lives doesn’t pass for normal in mine. Relinquishing my status as a military spouse would mean a complete makeover of not only my definition of normal, but also my definition of a wife, a mother, and an independent, self-sufficient woman. Over the years, I’ve told myself not to allow my title of military spouse become my complete identity. However, I can’t deny that it’s a large part of who I am.

For now, we wait. The civilian application is submitted. Plans B and C are waiting on the sidelines.

We don’t know a whole lot about our future, but there are a few things I do know for sure. I know that we’re extremely fortunate that my husband even has civilian job prospects when so many service members struggle with their transition to the civilian world. I know that regardless of whether I maintain my status of military spouse for another ten years or if I turn in my badge for good, my time as a military spouse has prepared me for whatever adventure we find ourselves on next.  And while the possibility of leaving the military life behind isn’t exactly a gourmet meal, I know that we’ll find a way to uncork that bottle of A Life Well Lived wherever our journey takes us.

Does being something other than a military spouse scare the tar out of you, or do you crave the stability it will give?

Heather Sweeney has been married to the military for 10 exciting, unpredictable, stressful, dramatic, tearful, adventurous, humorous, happy years.  When she’s not in the throes of raising her two military brats, she’s fending off tattlers and nose-pickers in her kindergarten classroom.  And if she’s lucky, she has enough brainpower left over at the end of the day to put on her freelance writer hat and jot down a few words to form somewhat coherent sentences.

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  • MikeM

    I left after 6 years, but I don’t know I would have after 10 or 15 or so. The military is one of the last places on the planet you can achieve a pension. And it IS the last place on the planet you can achieve a pension of that quality and that early in age. Unless you’re sitting very pretty in assets that can grow (real estate, 401k, bonds, etc) I suggest strongly considering the retirement decision.

    But if one is a soldier of this generation, he/she is capable of anything. A lot of ignorant people will try to convince him he can’t make it; when in fact, they’re talking about themselves.

    • Ed L

      MikeM, exactly why I stayed for retirement. At 16 years, I felt like my heart wasn’t in it any more. I had done Vietnam and everything else up to Beriut and missed Desert Storm by literally one day when I did retired. My head was wandering to my friends who had gotten out and were settled down with ONE home and the stability I longed for. I just could not pull the pin at that point and am now glad I didn’t. That decision is absolutely one each individual has to make on their own. Either way you go, God speed. Don’t let other’s decide what you can or can’t do or if you should or should not stay in or get out! You have already proven you can make it!!

      • Ed L

        (2 of 3) I did just over 20 retiring in 1990. The first ten out were normal pretty much, then it started catching up on me. I missed being a ‘hero’ ( label I earned by going every where in the world and in to virtually every conflict) and my ‘military family’ when I retired. Civilians just can’t make the ties GIs do. I didn’t retire in a military town, I moved out in to the country.

        Ten years after retirement, my disability got markedly worse-to the point I could hardly stand up and walk and even at the age of 49, I had a stroke!! It all came home them that I had made the right choice. While the retirement may not be millions, we do have decent health care and I also get a VA pension. Retirment and VA are pretty fair deal and coupled with Social Security, will carry us in to our retirement years in fair shape.

        • Ed L

          (3 of 3) I look back and over all, I loved what I did. I was and am proud to serve my country and especially proud of you guys. I left many ‘young troops’ behind that I still worry about sometime but know as I did then, we left it in good hands. No matter what the feather merchants and politicians try to do to our country, we all made the real difference. If you have over ten and can hang, our country needs what used to be called ‘lifers’. Those of us who have been there know them as career folks and that they are the thin line between us and tyranny. Stay the course if you can. If you just can’t, get out, be safe and have a great, blessed life.

  • leanne {the mrs}

    I’m mildly terrified of retirement. We have 5 years to go and while time together, no deployments, a sense of normalacy all sound quite nice. The normalacy is also a little terrifying, after all, this is our normal. I always find myself looking at civilian families at the ball park or the store and think “hmm so this is what it will be like”. Surprisingly not as comforting as I thought.

  • Cdr_Rogers

    Excellent article. I salute the military family. Having a serving spouse is not easy on the daily. Unfortunately our government doesn’t seem to realize the commitment and dedication our military members and their families have. As too getting out I can no blame a single person from leaving the service in todays environment. Looking at what the White House and Congress are doing to the military is a shame. I have no respect for those in government when they chop the military and exempt themselves. In fact they reward themselves with more pay raises and perks. WHat have they down?
    – Reduce the military budget by $500 billion – was that weapon system chopped? The once that could save lives from NOT being on the front line?
    – Reduction in force – Now we can send those who stay in the service on longer deployments (1 yr +) and less time at home between deployments (6 months?)
    – Caped pay raises through 2015 – military .5% – congress has no cap but you can expect 2%+ for them and their staffs (Let them go to the front line and see some action)
    – Retirement benefits being reduced – After putting you life on the line, working long hours, being on call 7/24, you will get less money in retirement and incur the cost of medical coverage.
    With that being said – I can’t blame a military family from leaving a place where their superiors (White House and Congress) treat them this way. Unfortunately we in the military serve without the recognition desired.

  • Heather Sweeney

    Thank you so much everyone for sharing your thoughts, experiences, and encouragment. The decision to stay in or get out of the military is not an easy one for so many reasons. But I know we’ll make the right decision for our family. I’ll keep you posted!

  • Tara

    Is anyone aware of how long it take to receive an answer after applying for the 90 day early out. My spouse and I have been waiting months and it would be nice to have an answer so we can start to plan our relocation.

  • octavianguzman

    I am about to hit my 9 year mark and considering getting out. My daughter has special needs and is receiving excellent care, which is the primary reason of my probable decision of staying in. Being halfway towards a retirement also makes me consider staying in even more. What do you guys think?

    • guest

      You’ll bankrupt yourself with a special needs child and private health insurance. Remember if you get a civilian job, you’re paying 300-600 a month in PREMIUMS for family care. Then you toss in 10-100 bucks PER visit to the doctor, 15-30-45 dollar per prescription co pays etc. One of my civilian co workers has a child with mild autism…it runs him in a good year 15-18k a year just for the families medical and we have a pretty good group plan at my company, his worst year it was 30k he said (and this is just his out of pocket expenses, it doesn’t include what the company and insurance company are paying). BUT if he gets fired and needs to purchase COBRA insurance, he’s looking at closer to 3k a month in premiums until open enrollment when he could pick up a private care plan on the exchanges, which when you are on unemployment I have NO idea how you are supposed to pay that.

      If they let you…stay in, even WITH all the changes to Tricare it’s still the best dang deal out there while active duty if you or anyone else in your family has severe medical issues.

  • chrisms

    I currently have 8 years, 3 deployments under my belt, and completely ready to move on with my life. The only issue is my wife wants me stay in, We have no kids, and I’m going to use the 9/11 GI Bill to not only get my bachelors in health science, but become a NREMT-P to not only work at the VA, but hopefully work as a first responsder. I can’t deal with changes the military is going through, and she doesn’t want to see where I am coming from, but the subject just brings up more fights. I’m just not sure what to do anymore, I feel soulless and empty just going through the motions, and doing just enough to not get yelled at by my higher ups (her usual response “you need to stick out for us”) Also I got the one assignment I never wanted anything to do with………recruiting so to me that was the final nail in the coffin in me being a soldier. Some advice to try to comfort her and let her know things will be ok ,and we will have a great life outside the service is what i’m looking for.