Moving the goal line in a 20-year military career

When we started dating, I was a young professional: driven, focused, and successful by most  27-year-old’s standards. My then-boyfriend was six years into a potential 20-year career in the Army. I was beginning to understand what our relationship might mean and how it could change the future I’d planned for myself.

It was clear that, like so many before him, he felt once you cross that 10-year mark, staying makes more sense than leaving. You’re halfway there. And so, we built mental countdowns around the 20-year mark. We could do that. 20 years. And we made a deal.

Starting a new marriage off with a “deal” didn’t seem strange at the time, but now, just the thought of it makes me chuckle. Oh, the things we couldn’t know then.

Nevertheless, in our marriage’s early years, the deal was this: we’d dedicate our new family to the Army for the next ten years. He’d arrive at the magic 20-year mark and retire. He’d coach little league, be a house-husband, and I’d go back to my career.

We’d focus those next ten years on my work, letting my dreams lead us. By the time my ten years were up, we’d be in our 50s. Predicting beyond that just seemed silly. But, I would get my turn.

From years six to 20, I continued to work full time until we had kids, then part-time and from home. We made choices to support my professional path’s evolution into something mobile and flexible but still present. My years working from home always felt more like a job than a career, but I maintained relevancy in my industry and honed my skills. I contributed to our household finances and interacting with colleagues, all while raising the littles we had at home and navigating our lives through multiple deployments.

Professionally, it was fine. Not amazing, but fine. I was grateful to have a skill set that made remote work possible. I knew I was among the fortunate. A few times a year, I’d have a melt-down about how my career had died while he took his “turn.” I’d hate the Army, hate my life, and maybe hate him just a little. Then I’d go to bed, wake up, and put on my “big girl panties.” I’d cut resentment off at the knees and honor our deal. With the pity party over, I’d be back to feeling grateful that his sacrifices allowed me to work and still be home with our young children. It really wasn’t a bad “deal.”

I don’t know exactly when it happened, but there was a moment around year 17 when I realized that we might need to make a new deal.

The young, inexperienced soldier I had dated and married had matured into a different kind of man. I witnessed the changes a little at a time. It was clear that leading, serving, and mentoring were all cornerstones of who my husband had become. His ambitions were changing. He was energized by making a difference, and I was jazzed to watch him in his element. And so, I don’t remember if we ever had a true “so, here’s the new deal” conversation, but I feel like it just evolved naturally.

The new deal was this: we’d stay until one of four things happened. If he no longer felt he was positively contributing to the lives of those he led, if the family sacrifices were too great, if the Army was ready for him to move on, or if he simply stopped having fun, then we’d carve out a new path in civilian life.

By this time, I’d stopped working in my field, in part because we were stationed abroad and in part because I was enjoying my volunteer work with our unit. I’d considered using that time to pursue a new degree, but the thought of retooling and reentering the workforce after years away started to feel (unexpectedly) overwhelming. Learning how to be a student again, in my mid-40’s, did not sound fun. At all. 

I wasn’t sure I wanted “my turn” anymore. I wasn’t sure what I wanted. I began to believe that perhaps there were other ways to carve a path while he continued along with his.

Then it came. I was edgy and couldn’t figure out why. It was May, and I felt an I-hate-the-Army day coming on. Anyone else have those? Eventually, I realized what it was. I was grieving. He’d made it to 20! We’d made it to 20! And instead of becoming this critical date, circled on every calendar in the house, it was just another day. Our deal had died. It was no longer the goal. The goal line had moved over the last few years, and though I knew it was happening, it hit me like a ton of bricks.

For the 12 years prior, I had believed that if he wasn’t with us, it was because he was where he was needed more. We missed him, but we were fine. But then we crossed the 20-year mark, and it all changed. All of a sudden, I was so sad, and I didn’t get it. Why now?

Appropriately, most celebrate that magical 20-year mark by acknowledging the mountains of sacrifice it took to get to that point in one’s military career. Watching that 20-year mark pass you by is a different kind of sacrifice. You’ve earned the opportunity to walk away from a burning building, and instead, you walk back into the fire. Yes, a dramatic analogy but not completely untrue. 

We were choosing to continue to put him at risk. We were choosing to spend more nights apart, to navigate more deployments, to miss more birthdays, more anniversaries… We weren’t choosing us. We were choosing to continue to put the needs of Soldiers, their families, and an American ideal above that of our family. I wasn’t regretting the choice, but I was grieving “our deal” beneath the weight of our new, uncertain path.

While I know there aren’t droves of Soldiers reaching the 20-year mark each day; there are plenty. And if you are one or love the family of one, just know that a virtual hug, a prayer, or positive vibes go a long way during a strange time. Everyone comes into this new chapter with a different mindset, but I’m willing to bet I’m not the only spouse needing to take a moment to find the new goal line.

Tell us! Have you ever been surprised by the emotion felt when reaching a goal, only to realize the goal line had moved? How do you cope with that change in a positive way?

Jennifer is a former corporate professional turned military spouse advocate. She’s a mom of two and military spouse of 15 years, 8 moves, and 6 duty stations. As the founder of Pride & Grit, Jen is supporting seasoned military spouses through vulnerable dialogue about the challenges that come as our service-connected lives wind down.

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37 Responses

  1. Thank you to your Husband and your whole family for his service. It is truly a sacrifice for the whole family. I was a Navy wife for 8 years and my son and son in law have both been in the Navy for over 13 years. Re-evaluating is constant through life as circumstances change. Thanks for sharing.

  2. This is great insight into how people evolve through a marriage and the sacrifices we make for those we love. I don’t know the military life, but I do know the mourning of a plan not going how you thought is would after years of doing the right things to make it work. It’s ok to feel that grief. Listen to yourself and understand the wants and wishes it stems from and maybe that can be incorporated into the new plan?

  3. I too will start by giving a heartfelt thanks to your husband and to your family for your service and sacrifices. I know it’s not an easy road. I think there are many times in life where the goal line shifts…sometimes what we think we want changes as we work towards it…whether from growing up or from life circumstances moving the track you’re riding on.

    1. ‘Circumstances moving the track you’re riding on’ …love that. Still moving forward just on a new track.

  4. I’m not a military wife, but I’m very familiar with lines moving. I think the key is to look for the positive in any change, though not always easy. Best of all to you!

  5. I have seen my goal line change through the years. I retired as a teacher and now have a new goal line to look forward to. Thank you for you and your husbands service.

  6. It’s funny how things change. I always wanted to stay at home once we started a family, and then it changed to when we had a second kid…well, we just had our second and I’m trying it out for a while. Not sure if it’s going to work financially in the long run…but I’m going to try my hardest to make it work!

  7. Great post! And it’s not only when you reach a goal or a line, sometimes unexpected things happen that makes us change the line, or we just change and we aren’t any longer the same as the one that drew the line in the same place. I know that feeling, I can completely relate. I love your post! And thanks to your husband and your family for so many years of service.

  8. Very heartfelt story – I loved it! My brother – in – law served in the Air Force for 31 years and his wife for 24 and I remember many a times when they had to change their life plans and make it work. Though not in the military my hubby is a government contractor and travels ALOT and I sometimes feel like a military spouse – without all the support of what the military offers. We also made “a deal” when he took this job and over the last 10 years we have also moved that goal line a few times. And like you we set parameters – the most important being if it affects our relationship in a bad way. It is way easier for him to just leave his job then if he was in the military but none the less it is something he enjoys and it would take some serious considerations. Thank your husband from our family!

  9. Great post and insight. The closest thing I could think of was when I graduated college. I was sure I would get a good job, get married, and have a baby. Well, I didn’t get that ‘perfect’ job by other peoples’ standards, and I am just now going to get married next September (6 years after graduating). Things definitely change!

    1. Looking back I’m SO glad I didn’t meet, marry, and parent so soon after college. Waiting, even if not my preference at the time, led to much better things at a much better time. My husband and I joke that there is NO way we’d marry our 23-year-old selves. Ha! Congrats to you!

  10. Thankful for your husband’s service and your family’s sacrifice! I, too, understand the “Woah! Wait a minute?!” kind of feeling. I recently left full-time employment in pursuit of self-employment…or so I thought. Instead, I’m in a season of sifting and searching through what I really want to do next. It’s a bit jarring, but I’m optimistic that it’ll pass. Sooner rather than later.

  11. Thank you for his service and the sacrifices your family has made. I have always been grateful for those sacrifices but I don’t think I comprehended those sacrifices to the full extent until it hit home having my own out ( I have 2 sons in the military) then it’s just a new level of appreciation for the military and their families. So from the sincerest deepest part of my heart…Thank you.

    1. Being the mom of kids who serve is something special. I hope you’ll follow us as we strive to provide a window into our world for others.

    1. Thanks Tricia. Glad you found it interesting. We’re really trying hard to use our site to support our military spouses but ALSO to provide our civilian friends a view into some of the challenges.

  12. Although I can’t speak to being a military spouse, I do understand that feeling of “wait, what just happened? now what?”. It happened last year when I (finally) graduated from college at the age of 46. I thought I would be elated to have finished and instead, I cried for 2 days. I was totally blind-sided by the emotion of it, I think much like you were when you reached the “magic” year and realized it wasn’t magic anymore. Thank you for your service and please thank his husband for his. It takes a special person (and a special marriage!) to continue on in service as long as you both have.

    1. Congrats Dawn on finishing your degree, at any age. You are so right, even when we know something is coming the emotion of it can blindside us.

    2. First, thank you, your family and your husband for your service. I really enjoyed your writing. I related to the tears and re-evaluation. I’m kind of in the middle of it right now. I look forward to reading more from you!

      1. Loni, thanks. Always good to hear that someone else enjoys your writing. 🙂 Please do follow us – as we’re trying to be more than just a site for spouses – but also a site for civilians wanting to understand our life a little more.

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