Transition from the military to civilian living is a major life change for service members and their families. As with those who have served, military spouses and their children must navigate everything from job searches and financial upheaval to altered relationships and stressful relocations. While many feel ready for transition and even excited, confusion, sadness and frustration are all too common.
Victoria Terrinoni, author of “Where You Go, I Will Go: Lessons From a Military Spouse,” identified rediscovering a sense of self as a primary challenge after transition. “Many spouses feel like it is now their time to be their own person but often aren’t sure who that is anymore,” said Terrinoni. For the 31 years her husband served, Terroni’s main identity was being a military spouse.
Jennifer Aloisie became an Army spouse at an age when many are still under their parents’ wings. “When my husband joined the military he was 18. When we got married and I joined him at his second duty station, I was 19. I tell people often that when we got married, we were both kids and the military was our parent. I am not joking when I say that retiring and reintegration into civilian society is like growing up and leaving your parents’ home all over again. We had to learn how to adult for a second time.”
Then there’s the loss of military community and connection.
“Putting down roots … can be hard after moving around. The loss of community was a big issue for me, mainly because we do not live near a military base,” said Terrinoni.
Navy spouse Katie Hancock shared how it felt when her husband transitioned. “The people he served beside were incredibly hard to leave. They are still family.”
Fortunately, separation can be easier when military families find veteran groups for support and camaraderie. “After the military, we were lucky that his university had an incredible student veteran group,” said Hancock. “Now they’re family too.”
Conflicting emotions are common, even when military families are excited about transitioning to civilian life.
“I wanted to retire two assignments [four years] before my husband was ready. However, when the time came, I was afraid and anxious, even though I knew where we were going and what we would do,” said Terrinoni. “It’s such a significant change from what you are used to. I had a time of sadness for leaving it all behind, and I know my husband did too. And we both miss it still.”
Transitioning family members must also relearn how to do things the civilian way. This includes activities most civilians take for granted like grocery shopping.
“I literally anguished over which grocery store to go to. I was used to shopping at the commissary, and then I moved to an area with grocery stores all over the place,” said Terrinoni. “Just as it takes time to settle in after a PCS, I had to get used to a new location.”
And then there are the kids to consider. Children may struggle as much as adults during transition. The military has often been all they’ve ever known. Add that stress to moving, starting new schools and making new friends, and it’s easy to understand why many kids find it overwhelming.
Heather Forrey, an Army spouse, described the impact on kids as “the worst.”
“They spend their entire lives on and around military bases, but they get completely cut off, " said Forrey. “Can’t go on base without a sponsor, so no longer able to shop at the grocery they knew, eat at the food courts they spent their teen years enjoying, or even run an errand for you. The things that were familiar to them no matter where you lived are cut off. Our children serve as much as their parents.”
Even reunification with extended family members can prove a challenge.
“Many don’t have a close relationship with extended family because they weren’t around and it’s easier to be close when the kids are nearby,” said Forrey. Furthermore, “many don’t have a sense of a hometown,” because of the frequent relocations typical of military service.
As for dual military families, there are unique stressors when one spouse remains in the military.
“I felt like I went from the front of the car where my husband and I would take turns driving and each of us was in control of our lives and career,” said Amanda Huffman, Air Force veteran, military spouse and founder of the Women of the Military podcast. “When I left, I felt as though I was kicked to the backseat of the car. I no longer had a say in where we would go next and my career was no longer something the military considered moving forward. It was really hard to shift into my new role, and I struggled with how to move forward.”
The transition for dual military spouses can be eye-opening. “Before leaving the military, I thought I knew what it was like to be a military spouse,” said Huffman. “But what I didn’t understand was how much of a sacrifice was required by the military spouse to support their spouse’s career.”
Likewise, the loss of mission and purpose can evoke complicated emotions for the transitioning spouse.
“While I was still in control, I still had a mission, and the mission was directly tied to where we were and where we would go next,” said Huffman. “Then I left and I went from being someone the military valued to being put into a role where I felt pressure to fill all the gaps at home. It was really hard. And for a long time, I felt resentment over my new role.”
Finding a new sense of purpose in the development of the Women of the Military podcast made a major difference for Huffman. “It took time to adjust and find confidence in the work I was doing,” said Huffman. “And while still knowing the military was focused on my husband’s career, I could also use my voice behind the scenes to help us plan for our future in a way that supported both of our careers.”
Though challenges go with the territory, making transition plans at least a year ahead and taking advantage of available resources, such as the Military Spouse Transition Program, or MySTeP, can make a difference for military spouses and children. “Most active-duty members have to take a transition course [TAP] when separating. I would advise the spouse to go with them,” said Terrinoni.