Signing Out

Signing out

Yeah, that’s it.  The little thing he signed before they gave him his DD214.  The DD214 is the form that tells the entire story of his military career – and shows that the career has come to an end.

25 years and 12 days, it says.  It says he was out of the country for more than 4 years total, but it doesn’t count up all of the NTC trips, or gunneries, school, or TDY (temporary duty).  I’d say it was a good career, and certainly longer than most, and I am so, so incredibly proud of him.

Next to our marriage license and our babies’ birth certificates, this is the most momentous signature I’ve ever seen him make.  And it made me smile. And pause.

No longer a soldier, and now a vet, he takes off the uniform and puts it away today. The boots will be relegated to yard work, and I know at least one pair of the uniform pants will become a set of yard shorts.  But that’s just a costume. What happens inside when the identity of a job is changed?

No longer a military spouse, now I’m the wife of a vet.  And I started thinking a moment about the first step I made towards being a military dependent, at the ID card center at Fort Riley.  He was so serious, so proper as we waited.  There were other families with infants and small children, and there we were.  I already had some idea what I was in for, since he’d had to go to the field so soon after we got married that it took 2 months for us to live together once we said “I do”.  But waiting there, I had no idea we’d eventually be sitting in similarly uncomfortable chairs, making nervous jokes and then having to explain them to the lady helping us.  I’d never have envisioned so many years between office visits, or that we’d end up where we did after our start.

There is so much I didn’t know then, and I wonder now at what lies before us.  There is so much possibility ahead of us – so much choice.

I tell the soldiers I see at work that there is a big shift when they leave this life behind. I tell them to prepare for the psychological change.  And today, I halfway hope we’ve both been listening.

 

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Unpacking

 

From this:

Why we have separate closets

Thank you, Betsy.

 

To this:

Army unpacking

Thank you, Amy of AWW. (The beer is the best touch.)

And eventually this (tucked away):

Army packed

Thank you, Kelly of AWW. (We won’t keep this much.)

 

There has been a lot of packing and unpacking in our household over the years – packing to move across the country once we got married, packing for moves, packing for gunnery/NTC/field time…  Packing for deployments, for Korea, for extended TDY…

There is a certain emotional component to packing up the gear that I’ve learned to accept, acknowledge, and then just sort of shelve in my mind.  Set it aside – as My G puts it, “Build a bridge and get over it.”  Other spouses have echoed my dread for the days when the duffels come out and the gear vomits across the household in so much green/brown splendor.

However, how often do we acknowledge the unpacking?  How often do we look at the changes that have occurred during the “trip” (so to speak)?  Whether it’s a move across the country or a deployment across the world – or even a field exercise numbering in the days – there are things that happen during those journeys that sometimes go unregistered or unnoticed.  We put away the socks, we launder the gear, we find homes for any new stuff.  Over time, though, the unnoticed and unacknowledged emotions and events start to build up and create a cluttery mess inside our minds, where it is most difficult to resolve.

As we reach single digits in our countdown to My G’s signing that beloved (and somewhat scary) DD214, there is a lot of unpacking going on.  His gear is turned in, but our closet, shed, and garage corners all have the leftover bits and pieces that have accumulated over these 25 years.   A glove here, an extra uniform piece there – mox-nix stuff here and there of little value but that still has to be taken care of and put away.  And as we…ok, as he goes about figuring out what is worth keeping, what is trash, and what can be shared with others, we are also looking at the last 25 years and making choices about the intangible things too.

At night, his brain is unpacking memories it had long stuffed away – soldiers today have huge numbers of sleep disturbances, because eventually these things have to be dealt with.

In conversations, we are acknowledging the loss of time with his girls and together, the lack of deeper connection to extended family, and the loss of health and changes to his body that the Army has wrought.

All of it- unpacking.

Long-term Army spouses have long recognized that even joyous homecomings can usher in some mixed feelings.  There is a cost to everything the Army asks of us, and disregarding that truth doesn’t change it.  While this is a “homecoming” that is filled with just as much joy as all the others, it is also a time of great change and future-planning.  In order to make space for the new things we get to experience, it is time for us to unpack some of the old.

We are unpacking memories and frustrations and joys and sorrows that have been piling in the corners of our hearts for many years.  Heartaches and hurts and yes, even petty grievances lurk in the corners of our emotions and we have to figure out how to clean it out and start anew.  After so much time, our hearts are beginning to look like those well-worn duffels that he just recently turned in!  We’re both a little battered, a little bruised, but also reinforced by things like acceptance, joy, stolen moments, gratitude, and even duty.

This month, we unpack.  We clean, we dust, we mend and we make decisions about what to keep.  This next journey is one we choose.

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This one was by far the best and worst I’ve seen. When My G went to Korea, our garage was nearly this bad. Whew.

How Does “Getting Out” Work?

In a Facebook blogging group I belong to, one member asked if any other bloggers wrote about transition, specifically Army transition.  Even though I now work as a Career Counselor helping Soldiers as they transition from the military, I hadn’t before written anything about how the process works in the military. 

The process (for the Army at least) used to be called ACAP (Army Career and Alumni Program) and – believe it or not – it used to be optional.  This means that those soldiers who were proactive about their transition and who had the support of their units, were the ones best suited to handle transitioning from the military.  After noticing that there were some big problems with vets who hadn’t made adequate plans (unemployment, homelessness, etc), the program became Congressionally mandated.  Now called Soldier for Life/Transition Assistance Program (SFL-TAP), it’s a program that every Soldier must go through upon leaving the Army. Each of the services has a similar program, some of which are just called “TAP”. 

What some people don’t realize is that this program works hand in hand with retention, the branch of recruiting that hopes to hang on to good soldiers and keep them serving.  Some soldiers sign up for the program, and then decide that they don’t, in fact, want to leave the military at all.  Not all soldiers have this opportunity to stay, of course, in the current draw down of the military (don’t get me started on that).  But for many, the program’s emphasis on planning for the future helps them see that remaining in the military is their best bet, at least for now.

It usually starts with a soldier calling the program’s office, though some of them are referred to the program due to the forementioned reduction in forces or due to their time in grade (time they’ve had their current rank).  Soldiers who are within 18 months of their ETS (get out of the Army) date, or 24 months from their retirement date, may apply for services.  They will almost always ask to start the “ACAP” program despite the program name change.  Just as with any program, name changes take time and ACAP is easy to remember.  Soldiers are referred to take an online survey and watch a “movie” that offers an overview of resources from which they can choose to learn more. 

After this video, soldiers meet with a counselor to begin their plan.  Many know what they want to do – work, go back to school (hello, GI Bill!), start a business, learn a trade, etc.  Some have absolutely no idea what they want to do, post-military – and despite what you might think, this undecided feeling can be found in people of every rank and background. 

Even if servicemembers are sure that getting out is the right choice for themselves and their families, they may not know exactly what options are out there.  For Soldiers like my husband, who have never had an adult job outside the military, it can be particularly difficult.  They may know what they enjoy doing when it comes to their time in the service, but how do they apply that to a civilian job?

The 5-day class, or VOW workshop, came about from the same mandate that made the program mandatory. VOW stands for Veterans Opportunity to Work, and the workshop consists of classes that were selected to hopefully give each servicemember the best opportunities to create their personal plan.  The Veterans Administration teaches about their resources and benefits, SFL-TAP helps soldiers work out a plan and understand their transition options, financial advisors (also from SFL-TAP) teach a budgeting workshop, and the Department of Labor teaches about resumes, interviews, and the like.  If this sounds like a ton of information, it is. 

I like some of the catchier terms in this program – Transition GPS (Goals, Plans Success) is pretty catchy, no?  If only we all could have a GPS system to tell us which way we were going in our lives!

Each soldier who comes through the program will create a budget and a workable resume, as well as look into job options and create a list of professional references to use in their job hunt.  Obviously I think the program is important and beneficial – or I wouldn’t be working here.  However, a lot of it depends on the individual soldier, their motivation, and sometimes their “click” with the program and/or counselor.  Sometimes a soldier will hear about a side program through us, and that ends up helping them immensely (such as a fellowship program, a series of classes, or other opportunity).  I LOVE when that happens.

Soldiers come from all sorts of different backgrounds, educationally and otherwise.  Those who are going through the Med board process (MEB/PEB) may have tons of appointments to go to while they are also attending transition services.  Soldiers who are transitioning for other reasons may have a shorter time period in which to take advantage of everything.  There is a virtual center online and a toll free number, as well.  (As a counselor with the program, I find myself saying “Open 24/7 except federal holidays” a whole lot.)

Once finished, the SFL-TAP documentation becomes part of the soldier’s clearing packet to officially leave the military.  Services are available post-military, as well, for at least 6 months.

I hope this helps to explain the entire program to people, both outside the service and those considering the program.  Signing up for “ACAP” doesn’t mean that a soldier has to leave the Army – it means they are looking at all of their options.  (I will say, though, that it’s always nice when they call us later to say they have reenlisted so we can stop sending them “next steps” emails.)  My hope is that, by explaining things from the perspective of stages and steps, from within the program, I can at least let people know what the program is about. 

 

NOTE :  As with all things military, this is how the program works today.  It is subject to change.  Don’t shoot the messenger. 

 

 

Traditions

One of the first things that people note about the military is that there is a rich history, full of ritual and tradition. The uniforms, the medals, the salutes and ceremonies.  Ah, don’t we all just love a man in uniform, after all?

Thanks to my friend R, I have learned even more about Army tradition. There are certain colors that should be worn to balls and other formal events, depending on the type of unit (cavalry, infantry, etc). The colors of the roses that are given to the spouses (formerly always female) also mattered, as well as the numbers of the roses that were presented. R could tell you all about these things, and heaven help the unit that doesn’t keep with tradition if she is a part of it.

I’ll admit that I have enjoyed many aspects of this Army life over the years. The snappy salutes, the traffic-stopping respectful  pause when Retreat is played on post…  I love that the National Anthem is played before every movie on post, I love that there are right and wrong ways to wear uniforms, and I love the spit and polish of “what right looks like”.

However. And you probably knew that was coming, huh?

The Army has a way of making it impossible to have firm, or sometimes even repeatable family traditions of any kind. We are really good at keeping dates flexible (Christmas Day in January? Sure, why not?  Valentine’s Day date the day after “Christmas”?  Well, ok to that too.)  But sometimes it is easier or even necessary to let a day slip past and softly mourn a little bit as we just get on with life. Sometimes, the traditions we would like to keep are those that are lost the soonest.

This year, My G was home for the second Valentine’s in a row – which never, never happens. From the time we were married, he has been at Gunnery, STX, NTC in California, deployed, in Korea, on TDY (temporary duty not earlier named), in the field for something other than Gunner or STX, or simply not home because the unit had stuff going on.  We joke that the Army hates our birthdays, our anniversary, and Valentine’s especially. One memorable year on Valentine’s, he received orders to Korea that changed our entire retirement plan – so romantic.

We have had absolutely no romantic tradition, no way to consistently touch base with each other just to remember romance or even friendship. We’ve had date nights (thank God for friends who have loved our kids), we’ve had time that we’ve grabbed together when kids were at school and we had unexpected time off, we’ve had the odd lunch together. We’ve created that time – but really, no tradition at all. Not just for us.

Our Christmas traditions are always ones that can be done without my husband, without the girls’ father.  Viewing the lights, making Christmas mints, hanging stockings.  No matter what house we have or where he is, there are things that “we’ve always done” but that usually have been created by us and that include him when they can.

There’s a certain sadness to that.

This year, the thought occurred to me that we might be able to really create and keep some traditions now. This post-Army life may, depending on our individual career choices, offer more tradition than we’ve ever been able to enjoy before. It’s been a long time coming, and it feels tinged with a little bit of bittersweet.  Some family traditions are meant to be created when the children are young, so they become part of the family foundation when the kids are older or when they bring home their own families. Some family traditions seemingly build upon each other like bricks, forming safe barriers against the world outside.

But here we are, heading into a new life. Kids are older, so are we, and some things have passed their golden time. Our foundations of tradition are, perhaps, not as strong as in other families – but they are there.  And now, perhaps a little hesitantly and unsteadily, we are able to consider what we’d like for this post-Army family of ours. And what traditions we want to create, keep, and cobble together from all that we’ve seen and lived through before.

For us, the first step came this year on Valentine’s Day – or, actually, the day before. Everything is too busy the “big day,” so last year we went out to breakfast together on the 13th.  This year, we did the same. And as we made our plans, as we realized the Army was not going to be able to call him away this time (or ever again), there was a bright flicker of something besides romance in our eyes –

Hope.

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A neat little sign I hung in my work cubicle.

 

 

 

 

Last Active Duty Veteran’s Day

Technically, active duty servicemembers are Veterans. And they are acknowledged as such during the parades and the ‘we thank you’ promotions at various restaurants.

When I think of Veterans, though, I think of people who have quietly gone about their ordinary lives, rightfully proud of their service. I think of my Dad, who is proud of his short time in service. I think of My G’s dad and grandather and uncles and cousins and their long lineage of service. I think of Brother Sam at my church, wearing his Class A’s on Memorial Day and looking just as dapper as he must have looked when he first joined the service 50 years ago. I think of my stepmother and my friends Penny, and Anne, and Maggie – all women who joined and had to prove themselves in what is still today more of a man’s world. I think of my husband’s and my friend, Desiree, who is still active duty in an Army of great change.

When I thank a vet, I do not thank my husband because his service is ongoing. I thank these other people in my life.

I just don’t think of my husband as a Veteran. We’ve been too busy being Active Duty. The uniform isn’t worn for special days – it is an everyday thing. He wears it more often than he wears his blue jeans! He doesn’t go to parades or special events for vets because he is usually finishing up with some field duty or other work that the military is still requiring of him. Or he’s simply tired and wants the quiet of home.

Next year, though, on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, we will have been a civilian family for a few months. I don’t even know what that will feel like. This is his last Veteran’s Day as an active duty Soldier. Eventually, God willing, he will be one of those older vets with their service pins on their caps, shakily saluting the flag as it goes past. That is my fantasy for the future.

Today, he simply took off his boots and hung his uniform at the end of 24 hour duty. He slid into bed at dawn, until the next time. Next year, I can hug my husband and “thank a vet”.

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Talk about an understatement….geez.

So what am I thankful for this 11th day of the 11th month?  I am thankful for all of those who remember. I am thankful for the veterans of wars long-fought and long ago who are still with us. I am thankful for these men and women and their dedicated service.