Now It's Our Turn: Does Military Retirement Give Spouses a Real Chance at Careers?

A spouse receives flowers during her husband's retirement ceremony
A spouse receives flowers during her husband's retirement ceremony at the Defense Information School on Fort George G. Meade, Maryland, in 2017. (Joseph Cannon/U.S. Army)

Jennifer Barnhill is a columnist for writing about military families.

When you say "I do" and marry someone who serves our country, there is an understanding that their military career will drive most family life decisions.

"I have dropped opportunities. I've dropped jobs, communities that I wanted, locations I wanted … in order to support his career," said Megan Brown, an Air Force spouse whose husband is nearing military retirement. "But I do think that sometimes in the back of our minds as military spouses, we get this idea and understanding that one day they'll do it back."

But does the transition from military to civilian life mean that it finally gets to be our turn?

"I think that's a little bit of a myth," Brown said.

While we may benefit from a more predictable family life, our professional lives are not as easily revived. After suffering bouts of unemployment and a lack of retirement savings, when military spouses are at the point where we get to have "our turn" professionally, it may be too late to make up for lost time and we may be too focused on everyone else to notice what we’re giving up.

Active-duty military spouses fill an essential logistical role. We take care of the home front. We research new duty stations. We often register kids for school and make medical appointments. We draw out floor plans and plot out where to put the furniture that doesn't quite fit.

We find ways to get through military life. Some of us even thrive. But along the way, we find ourselves and our needs constantly coming in second to the needs of the military. And although military spouses have gotten good at transitioning in many ways, we are not good at prioritizing our own needs over the needs of our family while we are transitioning.

"I was very prepared for him to transition out of active duty," said Anna Larson, a veteran Army spouse whose husband left service in 2021. "I was not prepared for me to transition out of active duty."

Her experience led her to found MilSpouse Transition to help military spouses leave active-duty life. But in trying to help others, she needed to confront her own experience.

"I spent so much time working on what he needed that I'd forgotten to include myself in the conversations," said Larson. "It was always about what he needed to get done; what he needed to do at the VA; how was he feeling about this. And it was not about us as a partnership."

And she's not alone in this others-first mentality, but that is often part of the deal. Taking care of the home front involves juggling the emotions of our kids, setting realistic holiday visit expectations with in-laws, and explaining military work schedules to civilian friends. We serve by carrying the needs of everyone else around us so our spouses arrive ready to do work at their new duty stations, even if it means we forget to take care of ourselves.

The transition adds new tension to this strained dynamic because it removes the only constant of military life -- the steady income of the service member. Once that safety net is removed, existing financial difficulties and the lack of two incomes are felt more acutely because now both partners are in professional and financial limbo.

"I had a nine-year pay gap, so I was not earning an income. I probably gave up a million dollars by not working for nine years," said Tracy Steele, a Marine Corps spouse. While she acknowledges that the decision for her to remain out of the workforce for a time was made as a family in order to maintain stability, it was a hard call, one many military families make.

Military spouses are not just unemployed at high rates (21%), they are out of the workforce at high rates (36% in 2021). According to a White House report, military spouses who remain in the workforce lose approximately $200,000 in income over the course of a 20-year military career. This family sacrifice is made with the hope that the service member's transition out of active duty will be smooth. However, that is not always the case.

"My big concern is not myself," said Ellen Summey, an Air Force spouse. "I've been able to keep a job. I've been able to build a community wherever we go and find myself."

The serving spouses are often newbies to the civilian world.

"My husband has been [serving] since college," Summey added. "He has never done anything else. I don't know how he's ever going to find another job that will be anywhere near as cool or exciting or fulfilling … and I think that is a concern felt by many."

In 2019, the National Defense Authorization Act outlined changes to the Transition Assistance Program (TAP), whose mission is to provide information and training to service members leaving active duty. One change required service members to attend TAP classes at least a year before transitioning, up from a much shorter 90-day window.

The 2019 policy was intended to combat the tendency of commanding officers to be so mission focused that they leave no time for their subordinates to prepare for reentering civilian life. But a 2023 Government Accountability Office report found that 70% of transitioning service members had not begun their transition by the one-year requirement, indicating that leaders may still see transition planning as a burden.

Although TAP is designed to prepare service members for civilian life, military spouses can attend too if there is space available. According to a 2017 GAO report 1,184 spouses participated in TAP classes in 2017, representing a tiny fraction of eligible spouses, and there are often few open slots.

In addition, not all spouses feel TAP meets their unique transition needs.

"It was solely [focused] on my service member," said Steele. "I get it. They need to transition and figure out their next career, but there was nothing really for me to benefit from other than just listening and supporting my spouse."

While TAP may not provide military spouse-specific transition resources, other organizations like Hiring Our Heroes and the Department of Labor do.

However, for those who are not "plugged in," by the time retirement rolls around they may have been out of the workforce so long that they are not tracking these existing employment resources.

For spouses who have been able to stay in the workforce, military retirement can be exciting as it finally offers an opportunity for their careers and interests to have a higher priority than afforded while their service members are on active duty.

When MJ Boice, a veteran Marine Corps spouse, told her husband that she had plans to run for office in her home state of Michigan, he had other thoughts.

"[My husband] was like, 'There's nothing there for me. We're not going back,'" said Boice. "That happened two months before his terminal leave."

Boice felt blindsided. She was so excited to have the opportunity to put her career first but, despite having taught TAP classes herself in the past and knowing what conversations they should have had, life got busy.

As retirement approaches, it is easy for everyone to focus on logistics, filling out forms, securing housing and a job. But spouses report that it is in this busyness that they become lost. They forget to have essential conversations about the future. They give pep talks to their service members and children, but forget what they wanted for themselves before they said "I do" to military life.

Boice and her husband found a compromise and environment that was conducive to both of their careers. Now that her spouse has retired, she encourages other military spouses to have these transition-focused conversations early and often.

Upon the culmination of their military career, service members get a ceremony and spouses may get flowers. "Thank yous" are said. Both types of service are honored.

I can't help but wonder as my military family approaches the end of our race, the finish line of retirement in sight, will I finally get my turn to put my career first? Or am I already so far behind my peers financially and positionally that I should let go of the notion that retirement is my opportunity to catch up?

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