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When Military Retirement Strikes Early: How to Retire Right

My husband was on flight duty when I received the 2:00 a.m. phone call. We were stationed at the infamous Ft. Drum in Upstate New York. We had been there only a short three months, and there was three feet of snow outside my front door.

I do not remember who called, but he told me to meet him at the hospital, my husband had suffered a seizure.

We quickly realized that as a pilot, my husband would most likely be forced to medically retire.

Thus began our journey into early retirement from the military and all of the struggles and joys that go along with it.

First, we were both stunned as we struggled to deal with the immediate medical concerns which brought a tidal wave of emotions. Along with those challenges, came the reality that not only did we not know my husband’s future health-wise (he had a serious neurological condition), but we also had to navigate the reality that the only working member of our household was essentially  losing not only his job but also his passion.

If you are in a similar position, know that you will be flooded with paperwork, mandatory informative meetings and advice from many government employees.

What you won’t always be provided, though, is how to navigate the intangible aspect; the aspects of the heart. Here, find some advice for both you and your spouse as you prepare for separation from the military.

 

The emotional reality is real.

It is hard. Please understand, if I can stress anything, you need to be there for your spouse. Even if your spouse’s retirement is planned and known about years in advance, the transition can be difficult.

Emotionally be there to encourage and commit to do your best to try and understand their insecurity in no longer living a lifestyle they essentially “grew up” with. Many who serve our military enter as teenagers or in their early twenties and spend their young adult years maturing and being raised by the system.

Don’t misunderstand and think I don’t care about how hard the transition is going to be for you, too. This is where you communicate to your spouse in a loving and gentle way. Find a friend to vent to, start a journal, pray and reach out to other retired spouses for support. You will get through this but be compassionate and forgiving through this transition and communicate deliberately and intentionally with your spouse.

 

Remember to celebrate your spouse’s retirement.

The right attitude can set the tone for journey ahead. I believe my military spouse and many others feel uncomfortable about being recognized for their sacrifice but need to be showered with appreciation and recognition by close friends and family at a time like this.

You could host a small gathering, barbecue, family trip or whatever is appropriate to your situation. You could present you spouse with a sword or a framed collection of his or her ribbons and medals to put on display for others to see when they are in your home. Reminders of their past accomplishments can be a special way to reveal that you find their accomplishments something in which to be proud. They also offer a way to fondly reminisce about his or her previous service and the amazing adventures and memories you share.

 

Prepare financially.

This I cannot stress enough. If you do not have an emergency fund, get one. It is recommended by many financial advisors to keep six months of pay in an account you can remove money from without incurring penalty. We were living on one income, we home-schooled our three children, and we were unsure if my husband would be able to find another job. With his medical condition, we weren’t even sure if he would be able to work.

At this point, we also were not sure what percentage of his retirement the government would allow (which the medical board is a topic for another day …). Having enough money in the bank to relieve some of the stress we were under was crucial to using our resources to allow us time to sell our home, find employment and know we were still going to be able to provide for our family. If you have no savings, start today.

 

Keep your mind and options open.

Do not think you are going to move to your dream location, buy your dream home and live the lifestyle you always envied from your civilian friends.

We narrowed down a few states we would like to move to and decided which states were not an option. Then we began searching for possible job options in those areas. My husband was a pilot but with a medical injury, he was no longer able to fly — the job he had spent the past 14 years training for.

He had to take a hard look at what abilities he could market and how and where his training would work in the modern workplace. He accepted a job for an international paper company as a maintenance manager working with cardboard boxes-ouch! It wasn’t fun going from a prestigious position to one that seemed bland, but the pay not only matched his previous aviation salary, he was also awarded bonuses and quick promotion.

If we had thought we were “too good” to accept what was offered, we might have missed out on a great opportunity and in addition we felt why not try it? If it doesn’t work, then we will rack that up as experience, learn from it and move on.

 

Help your spouse to find new meaning.

My husband added this one. Because my husband retired earlier than expected, he was determined to find another career and build a better retirement. After a year working in the civilian world, he began to realize work wasn’t what he wanted to define him. Unlike the military, where rank is your status and by default what you are defined by, I believe as a civilian employee, he saw the insignificance in being defined by others.

While searching for purpose, living with intention, developing new hobbies and picking up old hobbies, he began to discover new meaning and purpose in life. Instead of focusing so intently on a mission to help others, he began to create time for himself and our family by making new memories and creating new adventures. Staying busy and finding hobbies to do together was a great way to reconnect.

 

Support your spouse and your kids.

If your spouse has spent six or more years training for missions, following the rigorous schedule the military employs and deploying, he or she will be apprehensive about leaving his or her “comfort” zone. They will possibly feel inadequate, or unprepared for civilian life. In the military, everything is laid out, black and white. You know what is expected of you. In the civilian business world, the rules are different. My husband was not even sure what to wear; he struggled with how to transfer his military training to civilian terminology and was insecure about how civilians would view him.

Once he began his career, the insecurity was even more intense because he critiqued himself so harshly. Give him grace, listen without trying to solve his problems, and encourage him by simply loving him. The first year post transition is the most important in my opinion to be there like never before. Offer your love and encouragement – don’t slack on this one.

Depending on the ages of your children, this may or may not be a big deal. Our children were upper elementary and middle school aged, and this transition was tough. They had to move away (again) from close friends, and they wanted to never move again. Don’t make promises you can’t keep, be honest and give them room to be angry and frustrated but also be positive — especially in front of them. Moves have always made our kids feel insecure, and we have adamantly reassured them that we would put their concerns as our top concerns.

 

No doubt, transitioning out of the military is difficult, but also it is an opportunity to discover your talents and grow as a family. Like anything else, retirement is what you make of it. Don’t forget to plan for surprises. Commit to a positive attitude, and work toward the future as a team. Support each other – you are teammates! Remember the best lesson the military taught us is to be prepared for the unexpected. Communicate with each other and celebrate that you made it through!


Joanna Lemmon is a true southern girl who is excited to start a new chapter with her family. She has spent the last fourteen years moving to six different states and living in eleven different homes while her husband served in the military.
 
Through these multiple moves with her husband, three kids, and two dogs, she has claimed herself to be a family travel expert. She has tried to live like a tourist in each state in which she has lived and is always excited to discover new events and activities. She home schools her three children and believes good coffee and abundant sunshine are a must—no matter where she roams.

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