By Melonie Kennedy
This is it. We’re handing in the keys to our on-post housing in a few days, then my husband will begin terminal leave. After sixteen years of marriage, seven duty stations, several deployments, and so many TDY’s I can’t even remember them all, it’s over. He’s out. The End.
Retirement is a huge transition for him, of course, after twenty years in the Army. I didn’t expect, however, what a big jump this would mean for me. This is a scary new beginning, perhaps the scariest of them all. I’ve tried to avoid wool-gathering and prepare just like any other PCS. As ready as I am to get into this next chapter, though, I’m also not feeling ready. It’s not just another PCS. There’s so much up in the air, and that leads me to lesson one:
Remember military retirement is a major life change! As accustomed as we are to moving frequently and reestablishing a home base every few years, this time there’s a big difference. We’re in a new division of the military community: The Retirees. Our mission now as a family is to figure out what comes next and create a new battle rhythm that may be like nothing we’ve ever experienced before.
Additionally, as with normal PCSs, there may be a grieving process, especially if you’re moving from your final duty station as part of the retirement process. We’re saying goodbye to friends, getting those last tourist bucket list things marked off, taking steps to find a job, and shepherding a teen through the same changes all while getting him ready for college. As exciting as this new adventure is, it’s full of questions. That takes me to lesson two:
Communication is key – and not just with the various agencies your service member is dealing with on the military side! It’s okay to say you’re not okay. Consider scheduling in downtime for yourself and as a couple. We, military spouses, are incredibly resilient people, but resilience is built up when we have purposely created a buffer zone. Whether it’s a facial or a coffee date, sometimes talking to a therapist via Telehealth or simply curling up with a book for an hour – account for the fact that this is a huge transition period that automatically comes with stress, and account for the fact that mindfulness during the transition is vital. Having grown up an Army brat, then spending this long as a military wife, I kind of don’t know where I stand anymore, and I’ve had to observe and unpack those feelings. This takes us to lesson three:
You’re not alone. It may feel like it some days, just like it may have at times in your spouse’s military career. They, and you, are not cast aside and left to drift and figure this out on your own! From the moment retirement appears on the horizon, start finding your support folks; as Mr. Rogers advised, “Look for the helpers.”
I was pleasantly surprised to learn how many resources there are out there for transitioning families. Get in touch with the folks at your branch’s Transition Assistance Program (TAP) office early. We spouses are invited to attend as well because TAP isn’t just about military paperwork. The TAP office my husband worked with offered links to resumé workshops, seminars on VA home loans, and much more. Going through TAP early leaves you time to go back through if you’d like to dig deeper and ask the TAP reps questions on a second go-round.
Another great option is the USO, which sponsors a wide variety of in-person and virtual seminars. They cover more topics than I can even list here, and the schedules accommodate for locations worldwide. There are also the Veterans Service Organization (VSO) representatives, who are individuals accredited by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to help ensure service members have access to qualified representation during the VA claim process. The Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) and several other organizations have accredited VSOs available; a full list of VA-recognized VSOs is available via the Veterans Affairs website.
Lastly, don’t forget to start making connections within military retiree organizations and civic groups within your community, especially if you are moving with children. They will gain assistance putting down new roots through community options just like they’ve done every move, and now those roots can include a nice taproot into their home turf!
As you may have noticed, the more lead time you have before retirement, the better. We made the decision for my husband to submit his retirement request about eighteen months out from his projected departure date, which left time to get things rolling on several fronts. That takes us into lessons four through seven, which have a big point in common: make use of any waiting period you have until retirement!
Get your house in order, especially your finances. If you’re not already debt-free, try to get there. This will help you get a solid footing when the service member’s pay changes from their active duty rate to their retirement pension. This foundation also provides an assist with the timing of the first retirement check, any VA benefits the military retiree is awarded, and the arrival of paychecks if they will be employed after their military time ends. If there’s a lag time on funds, you’re still good to go if you aren’t living paycheck to paycheck at this stage.
Save, save, save! As with any other PCS, there will be costs affiliated with your move. If you own a home away from your final duty station, you’ve got to get there. While certain costs will be reimbursed after a move, you may be in a situation where you’re receiving BAH during terminal leave, so hotel stays will be accounted differently. Then of course there are the usual things that feel like they nickel and dime us to death every move: getting groceries again, the random little things that are needed in a new home, meals on the road, and so forth. Even if you are already living in your forever home, with all these changes, costs will come up. Having as much put away for a rainy day as possible is always to your benefit.
Speaking of financial matters: while you’re anxiously awaiting The Big Day, make the most of your time and get life insurance before the service member gets their VA physical. In some cases, automatically switching from Servicemembers’ Group Life Insurance (SGLI) to Veterans Group Life Insurance (VGLI) may not actually be your most cost-effective plan. The same applies for spouses and other dependents currently insured through Family Servicemembers’ Group Life Insurance.
While sticking with the known entity with no medical questions or exclusions may be tempting, if you’re in fairly good health, it is well worth your time to sit down with a few companies and get some quotes for coverage. My husband contacted three companies for quotes and we were able to compare all coverage, terms, and costs over a weekend and choose the one that was the best fit for us. (Why do this before the VA physical? Findings documented by the VA may affect rates and coverage availability.)
On our last point about time and money: encourage your service member to use this time to use Credentialing Assistance and Tuition Assistance if at all possible. Don’t leave money on the table! They can earn certifications to build their resumé and build their employability, or work toward a college degree without using their GI Bill on active duty. There are also many free and low-cost certification and schooling options available for military spouses to take advantage of; you’ll learn about some of them through the TAP sessions and the USO’s offerings, but another great place to find helpful organizations and programs is LinkedIn.
That takes us to lesson eight, one that was a real shocker for me: LinkedIn is your friend, milspouses! I’ve personally had a LinkedIn account for over a decade and really didn’t get much use out of it. Like many people, I thought LinkedIn was “social media for suits”. Since getting more active on the platform in early 2021, I’ve had my eyes opened to the many possibilities LinkedIn offers, particularly for those of us with military affiliations.
There is a wealth of opportunities for networking with other folks in our community; start with #militaryspouse, then look for groups specific to spouses or to your area of employment interest. There are also job listings, information about hiring fairs (on and off base and virtual), and ways to find franchise opportunities specifically for veterans. Add in the fact that we spouses can receive a year of LinkedIn Premium for free through Military OneSource’s Spouse Education & Career Opportunities (MySECO), and you’ve got another great reason to sign up or really start using your LinkedIn account to its full potential. The Premium version allows access to LinkedIn Learning and a variety of other professional tools that users may find helpful in networking and job hunts.
My two cents, with no affiliation to the company on my part: LinkedIn is worth it for you and your retiree-to-be, whether you’re looking for work post-military or want to be able to mentor and guide others following in your footsteps. It’s actually the way I connected with Julie, our wonderful hostess here at Soldier’s Wife, Crazy Life, and can share these thoughts with you about our retirement journey!
And now we’re at lesson nine: Have the Ceremony.
My soldier is not big on pomp and circumstance. I’m an introvert, quite content that the bulk of my “peopling” is done via email thanks to working from home for two decades. There was to be no retirement ceremony. We were simply going to load the U-Haul and quietly ride off into the sunset.
My husband’s commander saw things differently and put his foot down. You don’t give twenty years of your life to the military and just slip away; you deserve recognition and closure. There had to be some sort of ceremony.
We huffed and puffed and gave in on the matter, setting up a fairly intimate shindig at a favorite restaurant. We added in a presentation of a military “brat” coin and a certificate of appreciation for our son. Some family members were able to make it, as well as a large group from the unit, and some good friends we’ve bumped into at multiple duty stations. As luck would have it, we had soldiers there from the beginning of my spouse’s active time, the middle, and the end.
There were stories told, plenty of laughs, and more tears than expected. We introduced our non-military family members to a side of my husband that they hadn’t seen during visits and the usual tours of housing and the Exchange; it gave his friends a chance to celebrate with him; it gave us a chance to recognize the resilience of our son, who like me, has been a dandelion child floating around the world at the behest of Uncle Sam.
Barbecue and cake were served, and in the end, we were incredibly grateful to the leader who called for the touching sendoff. So no matter how large or how small you make it, please schedule in a time to celebrate your service member, yourself, and all involved in getting you to this point. You’ve made it. Happy military retirement – here’s to your next adventure!
Melonie Kennedy is a military wife, homeschooling mom, author, and small business owner. Connect with her at https://www.linkedin.com/in/meloniek/