While “thank you for your service” is a great start to approaching a member of the US Armed Services, what truly matters is whether that’s the beginning or the end of a conversation.
“Thank you for your service” is a phrase my husband Chris, a US Army captain, often hears.
But usually the conversation ends there. Growing up, my perception of the military was largely framed via politics and cinema. I didn’t understand rank, how bad an MRE tastes, or the military’s role outside of war. And I didn’t know anyone who’d served besides my grandfather.
When I met Chris, I started asking him, and other officers, questions: What do your patches mean? What was Afghanistan like? I quickly realized every soldier joins for different reasons, has different goals, and comes from a different background.
There’s not much about this world that’s routine. For one, we relocate a lot (and don’t always know where we’re going). Sure, there are the same logistical moving challenges: updating addresses, getting lost on the first grocery run, finding a doctor, and living out of luggage until our belongings arrive. And though relocating is a given, it doesn’t make leaving friends and family—or preparing for the future—any easier.
Plans are guaranteed to evolve or can instantly change. When we first arrived at Ramstein Air Base, a sergeant read off change orders that sent handfuls of jetlagged soldiers to new locations. We’ve learned to shout “plot twist!” in the face of unexpected developments; being comfortable with discomfort is a basic survival skill.
Making a difference—Chris’s ultimate goal—within a large bureaucratic organization is hard to measure. In a world where rank can trump intelligence and promotions are based on seniority first, merit second, it’s difficult to plow ahead with a career path when jobs needed for advancement are often dictated by a combination of timing, luck, and who you know. So while Chris has a vision of where he’d like to go, he occasionally reassesses whether the Army is the best means of getting there.
It’s easy for families, whose lives are also dictated by orders, to feel like they play second fiddle. As the joke goes, if the military wanted troops to have spouses, they’d issue them. When I worked in Seattle, I’d often leave early to support Chris at unit functions held during the day or early evening. We knew that was never a possibility the other way around.
But what helps us balance our ambitions is our own definition of success; if it were determined by a paycheck, Chris’s career would take a backseat to my own.
Working remotely, I’ve continued my career with clients across the U.S. It’s taken unrelenting hustle and discipline in numerous areas, including budgeting for retirement. It’s something Chris deals with, too. Changing policies mean he’ll have to opt for a 401k or commit to serving a full 20 years to receive a pension, foregoing it if he leaves sooner.
We focus more on saving in general: for travel, emergencies, and buying a house. With roots in four states and two countries, we don’t know where we’d “settle down” if we could, but we like the possibility. Many military families opt to purchase homes, renting them after they move and returning after retirement.
It’s this constant uprooting—plus, the fact that Chris could deploy at any moment and my support system is a seven-hour plane ride away—that enters the “do we want to have a child?” conversation. Instead we’ve opted to take advantage of seeing new areas that we may not otherwise have visited, though we see plenty of couples with numerous children doing the same thing.
I admire the resiliency of those who choose military life. Now when I watch movies like American Sniper, I’m frustrated with the limited depth of the good guys-versus-bad guys formula. When I hear politicians like Mike Huckabee saying the purpose of the military is to “kill people and break things,” I wonder how many other people have this misguided view.
Asking a service member what their life is like may feel awkward, but it’s a means to an understanding we can’t get from Hollywood or talking heads. And while “thank you for your service” is a great start, what truly matters is whether that’s the beginning or the end of a conversation.
Kate Sitarz is a freelance writer living in Germany. Her work has been featured on Yahoo Travel!, The Huffington Post, and USAToday, among other outlets.
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