I fold my hands over my pregnant belly and shift in search of a comfortable position in an uncomfortable chair. My body feels the stress of the nearly full-term baby, but my brain is blissfully unaware of the full weight of impact the child will have on my life.
I’m in a Transition Assistance Program course—a requirement for outgoing servicemembers—listening to the lolling drum of the instructor’s voice as he gives advice on how to prepare for a job interview. I think about my own new employer on the horizon, one that required no interview but did insist on a nine-month wait period.
With unconfident conviction, I tell myself I’m ready. Life will be good when I’m no longer in the military. I’ll focus on my new role as a mom. I call on my military training to counter the hesitancy I feel. I am prepared. Checklist complete. Plan for the future in place.
But the truth is, I didn’t know what was coming. Not really. I was daydreaming through rose-colored glasses, unaware of just how difficult all of it would be. And yet I never would have admitted it to anyone.
Like many in my generation, the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, opened my eyes to the world and the threats our country faced. From that day on, I wanted to be a part of protecting our country and doing what I could to make a difference.
I met my future husband during my first year of ROTC at Fresno State. He was a year ahead of me. We started dating near the end of my sophomore year and married two years later. Thanks to the advocacy of our ROTC leadership, we were stationed together during our first duty assignment—although we knew that wouldn’t always be the case.
Now, we had a baby on the way. I was leaving the military. He was staying.
I didn’t fully appreciate all the ways the military changed me until I woke up one morning and didn’t put on the uniform. I felt myself fading; I was a mom and a military spouse but not a service member, the thing that had so clearly defined me.
On top of it came the unending demands of new motherhood, feelings of failure and shame because I wasn’t the “perfect” mom I had envisioned. I questioned my decision to leave the military—maybe I should have served longer—and then felt guilty for it. Still, I could not push away the longing to again be part of something bigger than myself. To return to the surety of a career, a purpose, an income. My thoughts became an unending mantra: I want my old life back. Why isn’t my new life enough?
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In the military, surely, I had succeeded. I’d made it through training, through moves, through a combat deployment to Afghanistan. I’d tried to be the best officer I could. But what if I hadn’t? What if those people who’d belittled me behind my back were right? Maybe I’d actually been a failure at my job, just like I was a failure as a mom.
And if I hadn’t been right about something so big, how could I be right about anything? How could I trust my instincts going forward? I’d given up my purpose and my passion. I was in pain of my own making.
I hid it all. When people asked about my decision to leave the service, I told them why I’d left. It was the right choice for my family, I said, and although eventually I would learn to believe it, just then I didn’t.
Meanwhile, as I battled postpartum hormones, my husband left for two months of training. And I began to relive trauma from my combat deployment. A low-flying helicopter instantly transported me to Afghanistan. Local traffic jams took me back to the desert, where we’d spent hours as sitting ducks. At times, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was still under threat of combat.
When a friend told me her own transition from the military hadn’t been difficult at all, I felt further conflicted. She attributed it to being financially prepared and having a plan for the future. But I’d had these things too.
“I was ready to go,” my friend continued. “I was ready for the next adventure.”
Those words stopped me. I wasn’t ready. I still dreamed about where I’d be in my military career if I’d stayed—conveniently leaving out the challenges of a dual-military family. The deployments that would take me away from my son. My spouse and I finding ourselves at different duty stations.
Eventually, I began to unwind all of my thoughts and emotions and start on a path forward. Therapy and support groups have helped.
I learned that military service isn’t the only way to make a meaningful difference, that a life of service doesn’t end the day you take off your uniform. I could still offer value to the world. And now that I was no longer in the military, I could forge my own path and find new ways to serve others. New ways to change the world.
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For me, it’s by helping other women share their stories and shape their own futures as members of the armed forces. It’s by sharing mine so that others can understand it’s OK to grieve what we leave behind. Maybe it’s even normal.
The military wasn’t the end. I was not ready to say goodbye. But it wasn’t the end. In fact, the military opened the door to my future and gave me the tools to make it whatever I wanted. In that way, the military offered me a beginning.