By: Heather Sweeney
Today I got divorced.
A drawn-out separation and a year in and out of marriage counseling that included three different therapists didn’t change the ultimate truth: My husband of 13 years and I are better off not being married anymore.
Would my marriage have survived if the military weren’t a part of it, if so much of our time together weren’t spent apart? I can’t answer that except to note that the military’s burdens on my former spouse’s time were so pervasive that I attended the majority of our couples counseling sessions solo. At the end of it all, we were two people moving in different directions and unable to find the foundation to stay together.
So as of today, I am also no longer a military spouse, a title I’ve worn proudly for over a decade. It was a role I fell into somewhat reluctantly, but one that I eventually grew to cherish. As challenging as the transition from wife to single mom has been and will be, I suspect that the transition from military spouse to military ex-wife will be just as difficult.
I’ve been writing about military issues from a spouse’s perspective for almost four years. Although I’d never come close to considering myself an expert on the subject, I’ve often been asked to advise other military spouses based on my personal experiences. And while I’ve written blog posts about relying on others for help during deployments and developing a sense of humor in the evil face of Murphy’s Law, my default, No. 1 piece of sage wisdom to my fellow military spouses was always to maintain a sense of self through all the craziness of military life.
“Don’t let your title as a military spouse become your entire identity,” I once wrote. “It’s only a piece of who you are, not everything you are. Make sure you nurture all those other pieces of you.”
Unfortunately, my divorce has made me realize that I didn’t entirely heed my own advice.
Most of my experiences as a wife, as a mother and as an adult include the military as a backdrop. The majority of my friends are military spouses. I can’t remember the last car I owned that didn’t sport a base sticker. I haven’t had health insurance that wasn’t Tricare since 2002. Being a military spouse is all I know.
A few years ago my military ID card was confiscated during a routine visit to the clinic thanks to my lack of attention to the expiration date on the back. Until I was able to coordinate schedules with my husband to get a new one (because I had failed to note the expiration date on my power of attorney as well), I was without a military ID. I had no base access. I couldn’t shop at the commissary. I couldn’t pick up my prescription. My wallet felt naked when I opened it to see my driver’s license in the space where my military ID should have been. Losing that ID was like losing a piece of me. I didn’t like it.
Now the status of my military ID is in limbo. My marriage wasn’t long enough for me to maintain any privileges bestowed by my ID, so technically I should be required to relinquish it now that the divorce is final. But I was told by a military lawyer that because my children are still dependents and will still use the medical facilities and other services on base, I can retain my ID so they can have access to their benefits. When my youngest turns 10 years old, at which time both children will have their own military IDs, I have to surrender my own.
On one hand, I almost wish my ID would be confiscated today, that I could ceremoniously hand it over to the powers that be and move on with my post-military life. Then I wouldn’t have the option to go back to base and see what I’m missing out on while I’m taking the kids to the doctor. I wouldn’t be able to drive past the exchange knowing that I can’t shop there. I wouldn’t see men and women in uniform and think back to the pride I once felt about having those uniforms in my closet. I would have a clean break. Quit the military life cold turkey and never look back.
On the other hand, I’m dreading the day that card will no longer be mine. Despite the challenges and rocky paths I trudged through, I loved military life. It changed me. It made me stronger, more flexible, more adaptable, more adventurous. How else would I have met the amazing friends I’ve made? How else would I have discovered so much about myself? How else would I have lived in Japan? How else would I have gained such an appreciation for our country’s service members?
Giving up my ID doesn’t erase those experiences, but it does draw a distinct line that marks the end of an era in my timeline. I will literally no longer be a card-carrying member of the military community. That sadness has nothing to do with my inability to work out at the base gym or get a military discount at my favorite stores. It has everything to do with the loss of the camaraderie and support I found as a military spouse. And I don’t want to give that up before I absolutely have to.
I’m not the first of my military spouse friends to face the transition of military spouse to civilian. In the past few months I’ve watched as friends’ husbands retired from the military. But they’re going through this transition with each other, navigating the new territory together. They have all jumped off the military cliff into civilian life while holding hands and comforting each other as they learn how to cope with their uncertain roles in marriages and life in general.
By choice or circumstance, I don’t have a partner to make this transition with me. I’m on my own in this foreign land called civilian life. My ex-husband will continue his military career for another decade filled with promotions and duty in interesting places around the globe. My children will continue to be military brats dealing with their father’s frequent absences and possible deployments. I don’t quite know yet where that leaves me other than simply a military ex-wife.
Ironically, my tenure as a military spouse has helped to prepare me for not being one. It taught me how to be independent, how to embrace experiences that are both unfamiliar and outside my comfort zone, how to talk to my children about difficult topics, how to ride emotional roller coasters, and how to handle adjustments in family dynamics and subsequent changes in my roles and responsibilities.
I may not have followed my own advice about allowing my part in a military marriage to consume my identity, but I have no regrets. I am who I am because of it.