When it comes to transitioning out of the military, the only way out is through, said author and military sociologist Jacey Eckhart.
"Spouses think ‘it’s not my transition, it’s my service member’s transition,’ and that’s true, but it happens to the whole family," she said.
And now that Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter has redefined the time to start prepping for a soldier’s exit from two years prior to their estimated departure to the second they step into uniform, the process feels all the more anxious.
While understanding the social science behind transition is Eckhart’s job description, it’s not something she gets to leave at the office. Her dad, siblings, siblings-in-law, husband and son have all been in uniform.
The same goes for Noreen O’Neil, senior adviser of the Military Spouse Program at the United States Chamber of Commerce’s Hiring Our Heroes initiative, whose husband of 21 years is set to become a civilian on June 1.
Eckhart and O’Neil married research with personal experience to advise the spouses of transitioning soldiers on how to survive the process intact. They spoke as part of the final AUSA Military Family Forum held during the 2015 Association of the United States Army Annual Meeting and Exposition in Washington.
According to Eckhart, transition for soldiers is "a prodigious to-do list."
For spouses, she said, it’s "different."
The first stage of process is what she called "The Woods."
"We know from spouses’ narratives that spouses check out of the military first," she said. She said "code words" come with this stage (such as "this is my forever house") that give away spouses’ gut feeling that it might be time to settle down.
O’Neil said this stage came when her husband was transferred to Virginia. With her eldest daughter applying to area colleges and another potentially having the chance to spend a whopping four years at a single high school, she said, the transition bug bit her.
Then, she said, the news came: Her husband got selected to attend the National War College (meaning a longer career and potentially more moves were in store).
"This is the phase that communication is vitally important – to not just the service member and their spouse, but to the whole entire family," she said.
Adding, "It became no longer a ‘what’s best for your career, what’s best for my career,’ but ‘what’s best for our family.’"
According to Eckhart, "The Woods" come with a few requisite questions:
1. "Honey, what do you wanna do after the military? And where do you wanna do it?
2. "What about the kids? What’s really best for the kids?"
3. "What about me, babe? What’s gonna happen to my career? How much money do you expect me to earn? Who’s the main breadwinner around here?"
4. "How are we gonna afford that? What are we gonna do about the money?"
Once a spouse has gotten out of the words, she said, it’s time for "The River."
She said "The River" refers to the decision – either theirs or someone else’s – that a military member will transition into civilian life.
"The decision is a physical thing in people’s lives," she said.
Next comes what Eckhart called "The Mountain" and what O’Neil referred to as "the execute phase."
"This is when you’re thinking about your timeline," O’ Neil said.
According to her, this is when spouses get to identify "goals," "dreams" and "aspirations," gauge whether or not they’re realistic and then brainstorm game plans for achieving them.
This is also the time for spouses to take the lead in planning, since military members can be mission-minded until they finish terminal leave, O’Neil said.
It’s also the time for things like professional networking and development, catching up with mentors, and checking one’s job application details. Eckhart said a survey showed that most service members were forced to leave their posts, hence the potential for their resistance to civilian life.
Approximately 50 percent of service members are unemployed after leaving uniform and stay that way for about seven months, Eckhart says.
O’Neil called this "Tween Time," when spouses discover their places in the civilian world and figure out how not to let their existence end when their military chapters close.
All in all, O’Neil said, the "emotional side of transition" was the missing piece in her attempt to make it through the aforementioned phases.
"It’s almost like a mourning," she said. "I think the earlier that we prepare for this, the easier it’s gonna be to get through it."
Her parting advice?
"Create your mission," she said. "Do it early."
Adding, "Be that person that another soldier would want to come to and say: ‘Hey sir, hey ma’am: how did you get through it? And will you help me?’"