I know I will revisit this subject in half a year’s time, but for some reason it’s what’s been a key topic of conversation lately, as well as something on my mind. Will’s initial four year commitment is quickly coming to an end. As in around about December this year we will have to make the very hard decision whether to stay in the military, or seek opportunities elsewhere…i.e. back home in North Carolina.
So many people have asked me what military life is like, do we like being in the JAG, and always…do you want to stay in for the full twenty?
I’ve found it to be one of the most difficult things to explain to family and friends back home, this military life. Even if I could explain all the intricacies, the daily differences that set it apart from civilian life, and the drawbacks AND perks, I still don’t think I could ever properly convey the feeling of being a military family. It’s just different.
But because we have this year to take a long hard look at all the pros and cons, I thought it might help to share them as we go.
- Security – I list this one first because from the first second that we even started considering growing our family, this became the most important aspect of Will’s job, at least to me. Everyone suffered in one way or another from the economic recession, and we were no different. We lost a ton of money on the sale of our house, Will struggled like crazy to find a job even though he was top of his class in law school, and even years later we watched from the comfort of our military paid for life as others of his peers found themselves still job searching, or losing jobs they had finally landed. And even though the market is much improved from those days, I can’t help but harbor a bit of fear that if Will does get a job in the private sector, and we get out, in a year, two years, or ten, another economic downfall could happen and he could lose his job and we couldn’t get back into the JAG, and there we would be wishing we had stayed in and enjoyed the security we had.
- Benefits – Second on the list of important perks are the benefits. Namely the medical benefits. I don’t think I have to state the obvious here, it’s super cheap (as in free) to have children, see a doctor, or seek any medical help for that matter. Our healthcare needs are completely taken care of and that is awesome. Benefits also extend to other basic needs, like our housing and living. Sure we aren’t in some custom built home with luxury fixings, but we have a nice house, and we live in a nice area, and most importantly, we are comfortable and live a very comfortable life…and it’s all mostly paid for by the military.
- Life Experiences – Everyone’s experiences are different in the military. Some people find themselves in small towns in the midwest, others spend the bulk of their careers bouncing from one overseas base to another. But the truth is that being in the military and relinquishing control of your life, lands in you places that you may not have ever had the chance to see or experience, whether that is good or bad. And if you have the right attitude, there are so many lessons to be learned in each location. I can’t say we would have ever gone to South Dakota or spent anytime exploring the areas around there, but now that we have, we look back on that time and those memories very fondly. Alternatively, I can assure you we would never have looked to southeast Turkey for a place to call home, but even in our short time here we have accrued so many stories and experiences that will provide us with warm memories and great stories for the rest of our lives.
- Camaraderie and Community – There are not many communities like the military community. Especially at overseas bases. In the military you face unique challenges, and in many ways, only others going through the same challenges can truly understand. And even outside of military related things, you would be hard pressed to find yourself in a place where you are literally surrounded by other families willing to help you with anything and everything at a moments notice. I was thinking the other day how I take for granted how easy it is to buy and sell on the yard sale page for the base, or to find a babysitter on short notice so I can go to the gym, to take a walk with a fellow spouse up to the commissary, or to have a friend sew the tape on your curtains so you can finally hang them on the weird tracks we have in these Turkish homes. It’s an awesome community that promotes family and friendship, and sometimes it feels like a great big hug surrounding you all the time.
- Financial Stability – I’m not going to sit here and say that we are rolling in the dough, but if you manage your money decently, you can enjoy a comfortable life. And for us, that includes me being able to stay home with our daughter and not having to worry about having a job to make ends meet. Granted being in Turkey I don’t really have the option to work (there are very limited jobs available for spouses here), and sometimes I miss working and contributing to our family, but at the same time it’s a great comfort to know that I don’t have to work.
- Retirement – As in you still get retirement pay, which is more than almost all jobs out there can say. If Will stays in for the full twenty he will actually get a pension, and we will keep our healthcare benefits. Not to mention, at only 20 years of required service for retirement, he would still be young enough when he retires to essentially have a secondary career if he chose to.
- Random Things That Are Often Overlooked – Free baggage with many airlines, discounts at various retailers and restaurants, a bank that solely caters to military personnel and families, access to government guaranteed loans, student loan repayment and the G.I. Bill, a family oriented “company” that regularly gives days off for morale and family building, 30 days of vacation a year plus extra days around the holidays AND 10 days paid paternity leave, a tax office that does your taxes for free and very quickly, living allowances, fitness/grocery/post office/shopping/gas station/legal/medical facilities in a compact, often walkable, location.
- Sacrifice – You sacrifice a lot to live the military life. You are almost never near your family and friends. Any new friends you make, you only get to enjoy for a year or so before you move again. You don’t get to put down roots anywhere, including making your house a true home all the way down to paint colors and picking out appliances you love, instead of the ones that came with your rental. As a spouse you pretty much give up the thought of a career. Your kids grow up knowing babysitters/nannies/neighbors better than they know their grandparents or aunts and uncles.
- Lack of Control and Choice – This one doesn’t need much explaining. You don’t have a choice in where you live, in many cases nor do you have a choice in your career path or next position, and in Will’s case no choice in the location or timing of the trials he is assigned to. As a JAG you can express your wishes for a career path, or the type of law you would like to practice and develop an expertise in, but ultimately it’s kind of luck of the draw for where you end up. In Will’s current position, and in the one he would most likely move into after this one, cases are assigned to him at random meaning he could be in Italy next week, Afghanistan next month, or trying cases here in Turkey for the next six months. In other words, we have no idea when or where he is going to go next. It’s exciting in some ways, and challenging in others.
- Fear – I sometimes think fear is the purple elephant in the military community. Deployments come with the territory, and in our case random trials in places like Afghanistan. And while you accept them as part of the job, it doesn’t mean the underlying fact that they do involve a certain degree of danger (sometimes a high degree) doesn’t stay in the back of your mind at all times. The hard truth is sometimes soldiers and airmen ARE hurt or killed. It happens on the battlefield and in training. In expected situations and in unexpected ones. It’s true that death can find you anywhere, whether it’s at your desk at a plush law firm or in the seat of a humvee, but it is hard know you are willingly putting yourself (or seeing your spouse putting themselves) at risk on a regular basis, as part of your/their job.
- Set Promotions – For the most part it doesn’t matter if you are great, mediocre, or poor at your job, once you put in the required number of years of service you are promoted (unless of course you majorly screw up somewhere along the way). This is great news for some, but it sucks for anyone who goes above and beyond, or excels in their position, or deserves to be promoted well before their time comes. Unlike in a private firm, winning a huge case isn’t grounds for a bonus or a raise, or even a little praise, it’s just part of the job you’re expected to do. You make a comfortable salary, but you don’t have the opportunity to really grow your personal wealth outside the set schedule of salary increases over years of service.
There is also the factor of the extended service bonus. As an officer, Will doesn’t have to “reenlist,” he can just continue to serve, however if we were to commit to an additional two years (or 4 or 6) we will receive a bonus based on the number of years we’ve committed to. It’s a pretty good bonus. The bad news is, due to force shaping, the time frame for hearing about new assignments changed, meaning we now have to make our decision before we will know what our next assignment will be. My argument until this point has been that if we get anywhere on the east coast, or at a base we’ve been wanting, it would be worth it to stay in at least two more years and get the bonus, but now we have no way of knowing where we will be stationed to influence our decision.
What it boils down to, is that this will be no easy decision. So, lots of prayers this year, and lots of trying to make the absolute most of the time we have left. I find myself daydreaming and talking to Will about our future life back in NC, spending time with family, the things we want in a house, looking forward to finally having the goats and chickens I’ve been wanting for years. But then I think about leaving the military and my heart feels very heavy. I can’t help but be transported back to the time when Will was in training at Maxwell and I joined him for a week here and there. Watching the airmen running together in the morning during PT, hearing the planes soar overhead, singing the Air Force song for the millionth time, and seeing my handsome husband decked out in his blues. I remember how exciting it was to join this community. The newness, and awesomeness of just how well the military takes care of its families. I remember all the places it has taken us, the incredible people we have met, and I reflect on how much Will and I’s relationship has grown from all of it. Leaving would be a very bittersweet thing, that is one thing that is certain in this crazy life.