With transition on the horizon, many military spouses find themselves trying to manage a new family dynamic.
"I was always what kept things together," explains Andrea, an Air Force wife. "But it was different. He would be home from deployment and things would go back to normal. He was the money man. He was the guy who kept the family afloat. I just manned the ship when he was gone. Transition changed that."
Things Fall Apart
Andrea's husband had been in the Air Force for eight years when he began to worry he might not be able to make a career out of it.
"When we found out the cuts were real, things started falling apart," she said. "He would spend all his time online looking for jobs, but it was like he never actually found a real lead."
Her husband sent application after application, but nothing ever came of it. And two months before their transition date, there was still no job in their future. Andrea started to get scared.
"He was so stressed that he was short with me and the kids. He didn't know where we would go or what we would do. We got married right after high school and I was pregnant that year," she said. "I had no job experience. I had worked at Claire's in high school and that's it. That's not a mom job."
Current Duty Station Offers Few Opportunities
Compounding her husband's concerns were looming mortgage payments on a house near their Dayton, Ohio, installation.
"The economy here was rust belt," Andrea explains. "If you aren't in the Air Force, there are no other jobs. We thought maybe we could move to Cleveland, but he hasn't had any leads there, and if we are going to have the military pay for the move, shouldn't we go someplace we really want to be?"
Andrea said things hit their lowest point when they finally had to figure out the PCS paperwork.
"We had no prospects. No idea of where to go, and no clue what to do next. We didn't even have an address for the paperwork."
Andrea's experience is all too common. With a million service members transitioning in the next five years, a million military families will be battling the upheaval that comes from losing a job, managing a move, and executing a job search -- all while leaving a world that has long defined them.
Military identity is hard for family to release
"Part of the problem was that we saw ourselves as a military family," Andrea tells us. "John is a military man. Seeing himself as something different when it defines him was so hard."
Andrea admits it was hard for her, too. "I fell in love with a guy who knew what he wanted to do when he was 15. And who started doing it at 18. To imagine him as something else -- and me as something else -- was hard for everybody."
Thirty days before they were officially out of the military, she encouraged her husband to contact the Reserves.
"It's not exactly what he wants, but it's better than nothing," she said. "That's what I told him, and it's what I did for me as well."
The 'Not Perfect But Not Bad' Job
Once she started looking for a job that "wasn't perfect but wasn't bad," her whole mindset toward their new lives changed.
"I'm not saying settle at all," she said. "I'm saying it's a process. Step one isn't the happy ending. Step one is step one."
Her husband quickly found a billet right in Dayton, so they made the decision to stay at their base.
"It's not like we are in the middle of nowhere here and our kids are in school here. We have a network here. This isn't a bad place to stay," she said. "But we're staying because we have something here, not because we have nothing."
With one decision made, Andrea decided it was time to launch a job search of her own. "What skills do I have?" she joked. "If you need a new mom, I'm great at that!"
Look to your passions for employment
Andrea decided to take her own advice and try to build herself a stepping stone toward a life that could work for them. "I'm a stay-at-home mom," she said. "That's my profession. And as soon as John finds a good job and stability, I can be that again. Right now I need to provide for my family though, in whatever small ways I can."
Andrea had nursed a green thumb her whole life and had even built a small, traditional English garden in their yard.
"I know it's not exactly marketable, but it's a job for some people," she said. She went to her local nursery -- where they knew her well -- and explained that she was looking for garden work.
"They weren't hiring, but they knew what my garden looked like because they'd helped me so many times. They recommended me to another woman who was looking to redo her front yard, and I got a gig helping her design and plant."
The job wasn't ideal. It wasn't full time, and it was only contract work. "Then she recommended me to a friend, and after a few houses, I had a portfolio."
"It's work I can take when I want it and need it, and not do if I don't want to. It's perfect for me because I don't work during lacrosse season. I'm the team mom. But the rest of the year? I can bring in some cash."
I Didn't Want To Admit I Needed Help
Watching her take steps toward building her own career in their new life helped Andrea's husband tackle the new phase in his career, too.
"She was really brave," John said. "She just walked up to someone and said 'I need work.' " I didn't want to admit to anyone I needed help. I've spent my career avoiding weakness."
Still, John took a page from Andrea's playbook and told his new CO he was unemployed and needed help.
"They activated me through my job search," he said. "They are the only reason we didn't go broke."
John tells Andrea daily that without her example and encouragement, he isn't sure they would have landed on their feet.
"Military wives are so strong. They've done so much. She's kept it together for me for years. Now was no different."
Wife's job search gives service member courage
John ready admits that seeing his wife be brave in her job search gave him the courage he needed to be brave in his own. "I couldn't have done this without her," he said.
His advice to any transitioning service member? "Talk to the Reserves and talk to your wife."
Andrea added that it's also important to think through where you'll move. "If you relocate at all," she said. "And whatever skills you have, believe in them."
"No one would have thought I could turn gardening into a career," Andrea said. "But I love it. People will pay for anything. You definitely have something to offer."
Remember the old adage: Don't miss a golden opportunity just because it's dressed in overalls and looks like work.
"Honestly," said Andrea. "The military life is all about hard work. This is just another part of it. And just another time the military wife has to step up and hold her family together."