He stood in front of me in a pile of his own vomit. The remnants of his bottle and bile were spattered down his shirt, and he screamed that he wanted spaghetti for dinner. At the same time, no more than three feet away, sat a plate of spaghetti that he chose at the grocery store and helped cook for dinner. As I stared at this two-year-old, I wondered to myself if this was the right decision.
In August of 2021, the war in Afghanistan was concluding and so was my career. My 20 years in the military had been bookended by 9/11 and the dramatic withdrawal from Afghanistan. Most of my peers were taking the path of least resistance and moving into civilian jobs with the military. Others looked to make a shift to the corporate world. With my wife still on active duty in the military, I was undecided, but I knew I did not want the former and could not take the latter.
The idea of going back into a military planning room and working through the Marine Corps planning process had no appeal to me after retirement. I could do the job and had done it well for years, but I did not want to be the retired officer in a newfound blue blazer and khakis regaling younger officers with tales of their younger days. As I sat through retirement classes and read books about starting second careers, I began to see my retirement as a second graduation.
The first time around, a four-year military scholarship left no doubt about my career path. I didn’t have to look at fields to figure out the best fit. As I approached my retirement, I felt the way my classmates who hadn’t received a commission must have—anxious and excited. Only I was older, with a bit of savings, and didn’t have to move immediately into a job to support the family.
I had been brewing beer at home for almost 13 years, and while I had no desire to own a brewery, I did want to work with beer. As part of my transition out of the military, I used the GI Bill for a graduate certificate from Auburn University and began excitedly looking for breweries in Florida after my wife received orders there.
We had a well-thought-out plan. It was simple. My retirement coincided with her orders to a new duty station. I would spend the first six months after retirement settling the family while she settled into her new job. Then I’d look for a job related to brewing beer.
Mike Tyson once said before a fight that everybody has a plan until they’re punched in the mouth. Our family’s punch was a change of orders from Florida to Okinawa, Japan. Employment laws under the Status of Forces Agreement between the U.S. and Japan would make employment at a brewery considerably more difficult, if not impossible. This doesn’t even include the fact that I cannot speak Japanese.
We moved to Japan in the fall of 2021 and, as planned, I spent six months settling the family into life overseas. I took the path of least resistance and began applying for government jobs on USAJOBS. Applications became increasingly lengthy, and their difficulty was compounded by two little ones under the age of three always demanding attention. I eventually realized I was spending way too much time applying for jobs I didn’t really want. With a feeling close to resignation, I eventually accepted the role of a stay-at-home parent.
Decision and acceptance are two very different things, at least for me. I don’t think full acceptance came until I saw how I viewed myself and my wife in my post-retirement life. More than 20 years of my identity were tied to the military. I saw my accomplishments in titles, medals, and certificates I hung on my wall. Who was in charge and how things were going to go was always very clear. I am learning that is not the case with toddlers.
My kids don’t care that I received an award for doing this or that. Or that I qualified as an expert on the rifle and pistol so many times. Their interests are much more immediate. Most of my plaques, certificates, and uniforms rest in the back of a closet because none of that can help answer the question, “Where is my bottle/pacifier?”
My military service has helped with my acceptance. Yeah, Timmy’s mom brought Uncrustables for him but did she do five combat deployments? Sure, Sally’s mom is taking her to the movies after storytime but did she participate in Opening Gambit, Valiant Resolve, or Oaken Shield? When I question if my identity is solely tied to my kids I can look back on 20 years of my own identity for validation.
I also had to change how I saw my wife’s military service. Although we were a dual military family, I put more importance on my career because I was further along and in positions of greater responsibility. This came in the form of broken promises about when I was coming home or leaving for work on a moment’s notice. I’ve always supported my wife’s service in the military, but it always came second. I knew this had to change. I knew part of me had to find value in helping her be successful. I had to look at making dinner not as a chore but as a way to have a meal on the table for the family right as she walked in from work. I remember how nice it was when I didn’t have to worry about things like meals after a long day’s work.
Now that all of that perceived importance is gone, my value comes from two little kids. This has been quite a shift in that I am no longer even known by my name in some of the circles I roll in. At lap-sit storytime, I’m Lillian’s father. At gymnastics, I’m Luke Andrew’s dad. People care very little about what I did in the military—if they even knew I served.
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My mother was a stay-at-home parent for parts of our childhood. She always talked about the difficulties of the job, but I guess I never fully understood them. Due to fertility issues and what felt like excessive and at times overlapping deployments, my wife and I did not start to have kids until the year before I retired. As a retiree, I navigate the waters of raising toddlers while being the minority sex at most events.
I’m no superhero, but I have picked up a few superhuman skills as the stay-at-home dad. I have the ability to tell you where anything is that you lost in the house. Can’t find your keys? Your son hid them in the cushions in the living room. Need a pacifier? There is one in the stroller in the garage. Out of necessity, I have had to learn how to cook, clean the house, keep track of shoes/toys/pacifiers/bottles, and make and remember appointments.
How our family eats has been one of the most dramatic changes. Restaurants or takeout used to be commonplace. Now that our family income has been cut almost in half, we’ve had to find ways to save, including cooking at home. Now, my wife is a fantastic cook, and I often tell her that’s one of the reasons I wanted to marry her. In retirement, I was forced to learn. It wasn’t instantaneous. We can joke about it now, but I made the worst meal ever when I produced what we now refer to as ketchup spaghetti.
I’ve also had to learn how to shop for food. I was always amazed at the moms who had shopping carts full of food for a week or more worth of meals. I usually stopped in for one thing. Now I sit down and forecast what meals we’re having for the week. Seeing as I’m at home all day, I also have a good idea about what’s in the refrigerator.
There are times when I think of my previous life. I think about the guy who has my old job planning military exercises across America, Europe, and Japan. I think about exercises being planned based on certain times of the year. I think about the people in planning meetings and how different my life is compared to theirs. While I once led or participated in planning teams that directed hundreds—or even thousands—of troops in different theaters, I now direct two toddlers in their activities on an island in the Pacific. While I once wrote tasks in orders that would happen miles away just as directed, I now tell my son face to face to do a simple task like putting on a diaper before going outside, and he’ll say “nope” and sprint out naked into our Japanese neighborhood.
Those moments of nostalgia about my previous life are normally started by a screaming child who more often than not is covered in vomit. This current instance started out calmly enough with him picking the shape of pasta he wanted for dinner. Always the helper, he helped cook the noodles from his step stool. His help involved dumping the box, but we couldn’t have done it without him. He even watched as we poured the pasta into the colander to cool. Somewhere between the colander and his plate, we lost control of reality. He began to cry that he wanted pasta. He either did not hear or did not register that the pasta he picked out and cooked was on the table at his place setting waiting for him.
After cleaning him up and calming him down, I showed him the box of pasta he picked out, then showed him the stove and colander where we cooked the pasta, then pointed out the plate of pasta at his seat. Like magic, he stopped crying and happily put the noodles on his fingers before biting them off. Those are the battles I am winning right now. No successful execution of a large-scale exercise, no execution of a divisional deployment plan. My successes are much smaller.
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As I basked in the success of the Great Dinner Skirmish of 2022, I heard in my head what my mother told me: It goes by fast. Somehow, that was reassuring.
Change is a constant in military families, and I know just as I settle into the role of the stay-at-home parent, we’re only marching closer to our eventual move from Japan to another unknown destination. The move may be near a brewery I could work at, or it could be in an area where childcare is even more unaffordable. Time will tell.
I do know that my daughter will never know a time when I was in the military, and my son may not remember my final year in the military. Hopefully, they’ll both remember me as someone who made time for them when they were young and gave them an opportunity that many military kids don’t get to have.