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. Know that feeling a little well myself. We hit 23 years before he was ready to finally call it quits, about 17 of those being married to me and about 14 or 15 as a father. It’s not easy and yes – that goal line becomes your worst enemy. Hang in there. Sending hugs.

  2. Military soldiers AND their families give up so much for our freedom and rights so thank you thank you for all that you and your husband do and have done. Sacrifices aren’t easy, but its the goals big and small that make them worth it.

  3. This is such a great story. I have known people in the military and being away from home. But you shed some light on the emotions. Understanding what you go through as a military wife and mother. Thank your husband for his service. Thank you for sharing.

    1. Thanks Kathy, glad you enjoyed it. Reaching our non-military audience is important to knowing this resonates is so encouraging.

  4. Good read Jennifer. You explained the situation and your feelings well … I shook my head yes or smiled in agreement or understanding many times while reading it. ?
    We are at 25 years in the spring. Until reading your article, I never even thought of celebrating 20 …. Maybe because he was deployed! Haha! We never had any kind of official or even unspoken agreement, but upon his 5th deployment and not the first deployment during Command, we discussed it and I gave-up my full-time career in the medical field to be the only parent while he’s deployed and only share part of my time with my patients. After a few years of experiencing just how challenging it is working as a (theoretical & geographically) single Mom, I gave up work completely.
    Now with one teen and one pre-teen, I see the end of their time at home fast approaching, I know how blessed I am to have been available to them for everything.
    At the same time, though, I hate how much of their growing-up years my husband has missed. I do know the impact he has made on so many though, and like you, I saw it little by little. I love seeing him in action. He’s so good at it and has such an impact on other Service Members. As long as he still enjoys it and the Military wants to keep promoting him, this Military Spouse & Family will follow the fearless Leader he is! I am an eternal optimist. I think you almost have to be to love the nomadic life of Service we do. I certainly would not have guessed 20+ years ago what our current life would look like, but I wouldn’t change a thing.
    Thanks again; it’s tough to describe the feelings you have, especially when you aren’t sure why you have them, but you did a great job at it. You’ve really allowed others a glance inside the mind and spirit of the Military Family. Great job. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Lorry, Thank you for the kind words. I’m so happy to hear this resonated with you. And that you think it will resonate with those outside this life – they are part of our audience too!

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