When the 20-year Mark Gets Real


The panic that strikes when I flip the calendar page and realize I have something scheduled the first week of the new month is real. I mean, I wrote the deadline, or appointment, or social engagement there myself, but it still always feels like it snuck up on me. Realizing the 20-year mark of your spouse’s time in the military is only a few years away is the same kind of jolt. I’m over here finally feeling like I have a handle on this military life business, and my Marine says, “After this next PCS, we technically only have one more move until I hit 20.”

How is that even possible? I’m nowhere near ready for that. I take back what I said about having a handle on military life — I still have no idea what I’m doing like 70% of the time. And then you casually tell me we’re on the downhill?

At this point, I thought we’d have a more focused post-military plan. We have only recently agreed on an area of the country to put down roots. I thought I’d have a strong professional foundation in place so he could follow me after his military retirement. Instead, this morning before writing this blog I dusted off my resume to downplay a three-year gap and highlight a master’s degree I’m still paying for but have never used. And, if I’m being honest, I just thought we’d be older. I thought our kids would be older. Blame it on the formality of the word “retirement” or simply my mediocre math skills, but I’m having a hard time believing we’re in our last few years of the Marine Corps. But, ready or not, that 20-year mark is coming.

Their careers at the 20-year mark

Going from 20 years of job security, housing allowance and being told where to go and what to do, to complete freedom without guidance, is a drastic change even for the saltiest service member. Things we consider basic aspects of civilian employment – resumes, interview skills, salary negotiation and interacting daily with civilians – are brand new to our spouses when they retire.

Make sure you’re both ready for the career shift before the separation date. As simple as it sounds, just talk about it, even if it’s so far away that it seems hypothetical. Keep professional connections strong. Take advantage of the GI Bill. Share concerns and ideas.

Our careers at the 20-year mark

As a kid, did you ever save up for a big purchase? You know you’ve got what it takes because you’ve agonized over the details, counted and recounted, but when you waltz up to the register to buy the bike or bunny, you look like a hot mess dumping out your bag of change and crumpled dollars and sliding it across the counter. The military spouse job search is a little like sliding your bag of mixed-up qualifications across the counter and asking what you can get with a bachelor’s degree, two years of teaching experience, a master’s degree in an unrelated field, six years of working remotely and a spouse club presidency.

For this reason, it’s hard for me personally ‒ especially after three years of not working OCONUS ‒ to put my career on center stage. It’s not because I think I’m not capable. It’s because I have felt the challenges of the civilian job search. But, here’s how I’m getting ahead of it: I’m using our next duty station to get back in the employment game at some level. I’ll use the resources available to military spouses — resume help and LinkedIn Premium access. This is not the time to take a job just to have a job. This is the time to choose a job with the future in mind ‒ does this help propel me where I want to be professionally in five or 10 years? I’m closing the gap and starting now ‒ you can too. Further your education, keep certifications current, maintain your professional development and stay relevant with related experience.

The kids at the 20-year mark

Military kids often get little say when it comes to military life, even though the who, what, when, where and why directly impact their lives. They just know separations and moves will happen. Nothing is permanent. Mom or dad is a hero. They’re part of a really cool exclusive club of resilient military kids. And then, one day, they aren’t anymore. Suddenly they’re settling in a place for more than three years and things are just “normal.” It’s because of this that my Marine and I want them to have some say after the 20-year mark. We’ve started having conversations about what will happen when daddy isn’t in the Marine Corps any more. Now that we’ve identified an area to focus on after military retirement, it feels a little more real to them. They still think five years sounds like an eternity — but they’re looking forward to finally having a “huge house” and friends that they don’t have to leave.

Where do you see yourselves at the 20-year mark?

When we drafted wills several years ago the JAG asked a seemingly easy question, “Where do you plan to retire?” Neither of us really wants to move back “home.” We’ve recently worked to narrow down where to settle after the military. Luckily, we always have the itch to house hunt, and there’s plenty of time to do that. But more than just floorplans and Pinterest boards, we are looking at taxes, home prices, school ratings, job outlook and cost of living (because life without BAH is scary). If you’re still scouring the map for something that sparks joy, start with where you absolutely don’t want to be, rank your priorities, and narrow it down that way. When we approached it that way, we finally made some progress.

Life after the 20-year mark

When it’s all said and done, 20 years fly by. We’re trained to not start planning anything for a PCS until the ink dries on the orders. But this last move is the complete opposite. If we wait until the last person leaves the retirement party to start making decisions, we’re behind the curve. Start now. Set goals — long and short term. Make connections and keep them. Save money. Research. Travel so you can find where you want to settle.

Kristi Stolzenberg
Written By Kristi Stolzenberg
Marine Spouse

Kristi started writing for Blog Brigade as a new Milspouse in 2008, and all of a sudden, she’s a seasoned (but not overly salty) Marine spouse.

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5 Comments

  • Nicky Wiederien says:

    Oh wow I wish I could have read this article about 10 years ago. Alot of it hit home and some of it reached right off the page and smacked me in the back of the head. To bad you can’t get this to the families when they hit there 10 year mark.
    20 + years of being a Navy military spouse and having 4 smart beautiful children have been amazing. Tough and challenging but I would do it all over again.

  • Michelle says:

    I worried about the stress of my husband finding a new job at retirement so I made a 20 year plan to SAVE enough to be debt free and have a paid for house. No mortgage no debt. With 4 kids and one income that was something I had to be diligent about. We did it and it made the transition much easier. No Debt no house payment!!! Long term goals are important if you are use to living in base housing. The time happens before you know it.

  • Hannah says:

    Michelle!!! Teach me your ways!!

  • Chrissy says:

    Yes, tell others your secret. We retired AF 22 years, fear sets in when all your allowances stop. But eventually you get used to it. And life will continue as a civilian, it’s a scary feeling not knowing what your income will be. But we have now been in one location for over 15 years, it’s great not moving so often

  • My spouse did 22. Military afterlife is horrible. Our spouses have become accustomed to such a structured life, that when becoming a civilian it is a transition they can either except or fall through the gophers hole. Acceptance is hard work, even harder if yours has PTSD. married for 39 years now I find myself recently in my own. I truly tried, just could no longer take the mental and verbal abuse. Not all are like this. But if you find your bearing that hole, don’t hide your feeling in fear like I did. Reach out get help sooner than later.