Every service member eventually chooses either to remain in the military or to get out and find a civilian job. Many members remain in service because of the allure of military benefits. However, a long-term military career comes with sacrifices and missed opportunities. And when the service member is married, their choices affect the whole family.
We asked military spouses of active duty members from various branches to describe why their spouse was still serving in the military, and how their family had decided that military benefits outweigh the sacrifices. Their responses varied from motivating patriotism to exhausted families who are considering leaving the military before making it to retirement. You and your spouse probably fall somewhere on this spectrum, so it’s important to occasionally discuss career options as a couple and do a risk analysis of the service member’s military career.
What benefits keep military families serving?
In most cases, spouses were supportive of the service member’s decision to remain in the military. Our most common response from spouses was that their support is based on the service member’s passion. One military spouse, Rebecca, explained with a military acronym, “BLUF (Bottom Line Up Front): My husband loves the Army. I love him.”
For many military families, the driving force behind a long-term military career is the incredible benefits that become available after military retirement: pension, GI Bill, and perpetual medical insurance. Ashley, a Navy wife, said, “Let’s be real: the benefits at retirement are amazing. With health insurance going more and more sideways, and the pension system having virtually disappeared, you’re hard- pressed to find anything quite like what we will get when he retires.”
Lauren, another spouse, agrees. “My husband remains in purely for the healthcare and retirement benefits. The service has changed a lot, but he’s invested too much time for us to just walk at this point.” Education is also an important benefit for many service members, spouses, and children.
Cindy, a mom of four, said “he stayed in for the education benefits for our kids: in-state tuition at public universities, and the GI Bill.”
Some families continue to serve for positive reasons. They love the country, and a sense of patriotism keeps them in military service. Spouses often enjoy the travel opportunities and sense of adventure that military life offers. Jen, an Active Guard Reserve wife, said she wanted their kids “to experience different places and people, unlike what we saw from our families who never go beyond their comfort zone.”
However, many families remain in the military out of necessity. A surprising number of responses displayed exhaustion and negativity. Even after service members or their spouses become tired of military life, they aren’t always able to leave. The instability of the economy can make civilian jobs less attractive and military job security more appealing. Many military families feel unable to afford medical insurance outside the military that would meet their family’s needs. This answer was especially common for family members with chronic illnesses or special needs. Doug, a Navy veteran, summed up the reason that he and his wife remained a dual-military couple for so long: “Fear. Fear of not hacking it in the civilian world, and fear of an unaccompanied tour if one of us got out.”
What are military families’ greatest concerns about military life?
Military life comes with numerous challenges. You may expect that family members would fear for the service member’s safety above all. However, hardly any families gave that response. There is huge concern about deployments, but it is typically focused on the long periods of separation, the service member missing everyday family moments, and the effect their absence may have on their children.
A top concern for military spouses is the likelihood of unemployment or underemployment. Frequent moves to distant duty stations often prevent military spouses from building a career. Christina is only one of many military spouses with a degree who struggles to find a job: “We are actually considering getting out. I have an MSN and have been chronically underemployed since we got married due to location issues and lack of childcare options. We were hoping to stay in for the retirement and health insurance but the money we are losing by not utilizing my earning potential has really made us second guess that decision.” In some cases, spouses choose to live separately from their service member in a “geo-bachelor” situation, just so they can maintain a career, and this is a situation that concerns many military families.
Families repeatedly expressed their frustration at living far from relatives. One spouse summarized, “Our greatest concern was living far from extended family. We value our kids growing up with cousins and grandparents and that was a tough decision to decide to remain at the mercy of the military.”
Some families continue to serve for positive reasons. They love the country, and a sense of patriotism keeps them in military service.
One final concern that weighs on military families: the threat that promised benefits will one day be revoked. Kara said, “The biggest concern though is losing those benefits he’s been promised once he gets out or that they change them so much they aren’t worthwhile. I don’t think it will be worth it in the end.” Every time Congress quibbles over military pay and benefits, families re-evaluate the value of a military career.
BSF Annual Survey Results
Every year, Blue Star Families surveys thousands of military families to get a pulse on important concerns. The results from 2017 are available online.
Top 5 military family issues
1 Time away from family
2 Military spouse employment
3 Military pay and benefits
4 Military child education
5 Impact of deployment on children
Top reasons for leaving the service
Concerns about the impact of military service on my family
Military lifestyle does not allow sufficient time with family
17% of families said they would leave the service sooner than planned if benefit cuts continue
55% of service members said they would recommend military service to their childrenRead comments