In September, I will have been a proud Army wife for 19 years.
I’ve had it easier than some as I grew up in a military family, watched both of my parents put on a uniform on a daily basis until they retired my senior year of high school. I traveled abroad and across this country. I embraced the good and then stuck alongside my spouse. Along the way, we’ve raised 3 amazing kids and the official countdown to retirement has begun. The light at the end of that particular tunnel is just under 2 years away.
As I look back over my time as a military spouse, there is much to celebrate, much to be proud of and only a handful of regrets. Surprisingly, the hardest part of this entire journey has only recently come to light.
Hubby and I sat at the kitchen table, him with a cup of coffee, me drafting the weekly shopping list. The conversation turned to the future, as it often does, and I asked him what he wanted to with his life after he retired from the Army. As the words left my lips, a startling reality took root in my gut.
What was I going to do after he retired? Who was I if not an active-duty Army wife?
Somewhere in the midst of all the PCS orders and moving boxes, at one of the countless unit functions or while watching his boots go from black to brown, I had pinned a shiny, golden “exemplary military spouse” badge to my chest and let it define who I was and how I lived my life.
He took a sip of his coffee and rattled off his new career wish list, the beginning stages of a plan of attack for his transition forming as he spoke. I sat trying to stay calm and not let on that I was staring straight into the face of an honest-to-God identity crisis.
Who was I going to be after the Army? Who was I now?
How many jobs had I passed up or quit because the “needs of the Army” meant the needs of our family became my sole responsibility?
How many times had the powers-that-be seemed to foresee pending natural disasters or medical emergencies and sent my spouse off into the world to do his duty, while leaving me to pick up the pieces?
How many times had I swallowed my own fears and wants so as not to be a burden to my service member as he carried the weight and responsibility of leadership on his shoulders?
How many times had I polished that “exemplary military spouse” badge and told myself that sacrifice was a a requirement? That duty to country trumped all other needs? Would I be able to handle a change of priorities?
The Army has given me a community, a way of life, but it also repeatedly put me at a crossroads between living my own dreams and being the support system my service member needed while he chased his.
It has provided the financial stability that has allowed me to start a business, complete a degree and buy a home. But it has also forced me to put any and all of those things on the back burner when duty calls.
Up until that moment, the standard answer to “tell us about yourself,” was always
“Proud Army wife and mother of 3.”
But is that really all I am? When the day arrives that I am no longer married to the military, how will I lead off?
True to form, I kept my concerns about my future to myself and finished up the shopping list. As we headed to the commissary it occurred to me that of all of the challenges I had faced as a military spouse, the hardest part, it would seem, was developing a sense of self that would sustain me for the majority of life that would come after the Army.
I am still coming to terms with the idea that life will go on, even if we don’t hear revelry and retreat. Even if there are no longer combat boots in the foyer. Even if I have to start checking the box, “retiree spouse.” I am, however, incredibly thankful for the life I’ve had as a military spouse. The lessons learned will make my journey of self-discovery easier. Of that, I’m certain.
Maybe the hardest part of this whole thing hasn’t been the separations. Maybe it hasn’t been the worry about where he is or when he’ll be home. Maybe it hasn’t even been the struggle to figure out who I am in the shadow of his service.
Maybe the hardest part of being a military spouse will be leaving it behind.