Real Military Spouse Transition: Out after Four Years

The Specht family. (Photo courtesy of Jenny Specht)
The Specht family. (Photo courtesy of Jenny Specht)

Jenny Specht's husband, Nick, joined the Army just before his 19th birthday. 

High school sweethearts, Jenny moved to Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington, to be with him. But just six months after their wedding, Nick deployed to Iraq on what was supposed to be the last of the deployments to that country, and Jenny moved home to Minnesota to work on her college degree.

When Nick returned from Iraq, he chose to leave the active-duty Army at the end of his four-year contract and go Reserve near Jenny's school. Since then, they have started a family and have a 3-year-old daughter as well as twin 18-month-old girls. Why did you decided to get out of the military? Specht: Nick followed his original contract of four years active and four years reserve. If I hadn't been in school and needed to be back in Minnesota, he probably would have stayed active duty. Leaving the Big Army was terrifying.

Q: Think back to before you got out. What did you think transition would be like? A: We knew our transition would be rocky financially. I was still in school and he had no job prospects. Thankfully, we had saved up some leave time so we continued to receive paychecks for almost a month after Nick's final sign-out date. We also counted on the Army to pay for our moving expenses, though we owned almost nothing. Instead, we took that money and used it for bills. Because we were moving to Minnesota, we knew ahead of time that Nick would qualify for unemployment as soon as he got home. He also planned on using his Montgomery GI Bill as soon as he could.

Emotionally, we were unprepared for the change. It didn't even cross our minds that moving home would be hard.

Q: How did what actually happened compare to what you imagined? A: Financially, things went almost as expected. The Army took their sweet time paying for his move. His new unit was able to fix some ongoing pay issues almost immediately, so there was a good chunk of back pay that came at just the right time.

Emotionally, things were hard. His life had been so structured for so long, that moving home and being unemployed was hard. It probably caused as much emotional and psychological stress as coming home from the deployment. He had no responsibilities for months. He just sat at our apartment, not knowing anyone or having anything to do. Starting school that January probably saved his life.

Q: What do you wish you could go back and tell yourself about military transition? A: Nick was unprepared for how different the Reserves would be from the Big Army. At 23, he was older than almost every member of his unit. Except for the highest ranking guys in his unit, he was the only one who had deployed.

Having just come home from a deployment, he was so stressed about the training his new unit provided. He couldn't wrap his mind around how none of them took training seriously. It was just a big party once a month. He would come home from drill angry and exhausted. And I didn't know how to support him through that. What do you say to a man who is struggling so intensely with his own demons who feels like the place he should feel most comfortable in his new life has somehow betrayed him? Even having a heads-up that it would be hard would have been nice.

Q: What was your smartest military transition decision? A: We had done a lot of research into the government-run support systems that would be available to us. We knew right away what unemployment checks would look like, what our monthly GI Bill stipend would look like, and what our real expenses would be. Somehow, we were able to pay every bill on time through the entire year and a half before Nick got a good job.

Q: What should families considering Guard/Reserve know? A: A lot of the time, Guard and Reserve units are more of a hobby than a job. The people probably won't understand how intensely your spouse feels about the Big Army, good or bad. Even though they are wearing the same uniform, it is a completely separate organization. There is no sense of urgency. Rank structures are a lot more blurred.

Q: How did the transition out of the military affect your own job or career choices? A: We knew we were moving home, so we had a lot of freedom in our choices. I hadn't started a career at all, so I wasn't really affected by the transition. After our kids were born, I have had to let employers know up front that my husband is in the Reserves, as I cannot always be available to work when he has three-day drills or is gone for different schools in the summer.

Q: When you got out, did you feel prepared  with information about your spouse's new military or VA pay? A: I had no idea what VA compensation would look like. He went through the process before he was discharged, but wasn't given any contacts or resources if we had any questions. Years later, we were finally able to add myself and our children as dependents to his disability claim. We were finally able to get in touch with the Veterans Service Officer with our county in the last few months, five-and-a-half years after transition. He has been helpful, but the VA is still a nightmare. Nick was diagnosed with sleep apnea, and we cannot for the life of us figure out how to get the VA to re-evaluate his claim.

Nobody told us that you cannot collect both VA disability and drill pay at the same time. One day, our VA check just stopped coming. It took several years for them to catch that we had been "double paid" and held his VA check for months as back pay. Basically, each day of drill counts against 1/30th of a check. Now that we know it is coming every year, it is usually just one or two smaller checks.

Q: What advice do you have for spouses trying to find non-military community friends? A: Throw yourself into something. The military forces people to be fast friends, and that is gone when you get out and move away. Guard and Reserve spouses don't always have the same sense of urgency as they are usually close to family and in communities they've lived in for years. They probably won't be as welcoming as spouses at past units.

Try not to speak in acronyms or military lingo. The rest of the world has no idea what they mean. Just tell people your spouse is a soldier. They don't know what rank or unit mean anyway. For us, everyone thought Nick must be a Red Bull (the local Guard unit), as that is what is in the news. I stopped explaining the difference between Guard and Reserve.  

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