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Should You Leave the Military Early?

Military family

USAA once published a pragmatic guide to getting out of the military at the 15-year mark. Its advice was practical and concrete -- how are your job prospects on the outside? How long will you work? Do you need major medical benefits?

When we talk about leaving the military around our house, those outside-world questions are never the ones that seem to matter most. In fact, we never get to those questions at all. I’m no career counselor, but around here we consistently ask:

How do you like your profession?

There are probably three types of people working in the military. People who look on the military as just a job. People who look at the military as a career in which they have invested. And people who look at the military as a calling -- part of their identity, bone of their bone and flesh of their flesh.

 If the military is just a job to you, go ahead and get out. If you ask me, the price of military service is so high it doesn’t make sense to stay in for just a job. If military service is a career and your prospects are still good (i.e. you are advancing and you are in a career-enhancing job), that decision is harder and you probably should ask yourself some outside-world questions. If you think of the military as a calling, leaving it will be like waxing your chest hair. You will live through it, but it is gonna sting.

How are the kids doing?

Some military kids handle the moves and deployments as part of a normal life. When they are grown and people ask them what it was like to be a military brat, they will be the ones who will enthuse, “My mom was the greatest!” Or they will shrug and say, “We didn’t know anything else.”

Other military kids really do struggle more. Through no fault of their own, some kids have academic problems or social problems that are made alarmingly worse by moving. Some kids are very sensitive to the dangers of military life their parent faces. Sometimes during a divorce, the best parent to take care of the kid is the servicemember -- so that individual is needed at home more than in the military.

If the kids are all right, stay in if you want. If the kids are faltering, their needs trump everything else. Kids have a way of coming to Thanksgiving every year for the rest of your life. The military won’t.

How is the spouse?

I used to think that the question of the supportive spouse was all about the love. The more you loved your military member, the more supportive you were of his or her career. I still kind of think that.

The older I get, however, the more I think that “supporting” your military member’s career is more about the tipping point than it is about the love. Moving a baby or an entry-level job and/or a rental home in the early part of a military career is like moving potted plants. It’s awkward but it can be done.

Moving a senior in high school and/or a management level job and/or a major mortgage is more like moving a tree. They all have to want to move or they will gnarl, wither, shrivel and die. The more “trees” a military family needs to move, the fewer resources they have to devote to a military career. Something’s gotta give.

There is never a perfect time to leave military life. There are never perfect reasons to stay. That’s what it is like when you are doing something that is difficult and worthwhile at the same time. You make the best decisions you can together with the knowledge you have at the time. Then you move on.

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Jacey Eckhart is the former Director of Spouse and Family Programs at and a military sociologist.  Since 1996, Eckhart’s take on military families has been featured in her syndicated column, her book The Homefront Club, and her award winning CDs These Boots and I Married a Spartan??

Most recently she has been featured as a military family subject matter expert on NBC Dateline, CBS morning news, CNN, NPR and the New York Times.  Eckhart is an Air Force brat, a Navy wife and an Army mom.  

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