20+ year Military Career

by Team Lally on August 19, 2011

This is a well-written letter by a USCG Spouse Kristy McGinnis

So many articles, blog entries and editorials have focused on the physical, emotional, and mental toll a 20+ yr military career can take – and why the current 20 yr pay out retirement system is a necessary result of that toll. I’d like to focus on another aspect, in this military-civilian comparison game. The financial toll this career takes on a family.

While my civilian counterparts have been busy working hard and establishing their careers- enjoying the long term savings and job security that comes with tenure in any field, I find myself (once again) pounding hoof to the pavement. I apply to jobs I went to school for (actually 3 schools, in 3 states and 6 yrs, to get that associates degree.) Paralegal, legal assistant, legal secretary, even clerk positions. When I can get my foot in the door for an interview, I find myself grasping to explain the inevitable employment gaps all military spouses experiment. Why no, I don’t have any local legal contacts. I didn’t go that that great local college with the job partnership opportunity this firm participates in. I don’t meet all of this states special certification requirements (yet.). I look to retail jobs (“Yes, it’s true my application reflects a varied job background but there’s a reason for that…”), entry level office jobs (“What brings me to Hawaii? Well… err…. my husband’s job….”), usually at some point I find myself looking to food and beverage positions (jobs I’m frankly getting a little too old and too arthritic to do for long!)

While my friends from “back home” have established careers, and socked away nice little nest eggs in their own 401K type plans, I have found work when and where I could- and have simply waited with faith that one day my husband’s military pension along with the modest TSP we pay into would support us in our old age. My friends and their spouses will both enjoy retirement plans eventually, that they certainly earned- in our family though, I will have to be content to simply share my husbands.

The financial hits don’t stop there. You see, as my civilian counterparts were working so hard at establishing their careers (and their own retirement plans) they are also enjoying another perk of stability and long-term residency. They are home owners. They started with a patient starter home and every 7 or 8 yrs they steadily upgraded, earning equity and increased credit worthiness with each upgrade. My family on the other hand, transfers every 2 to 4 years on average, and those transfers are never local. We have no owned home, no equity to enjoy. Many military families find themselves home owners eventually- only to get orders out and find they actually lose money on trying to unload said home in time to transfer out on their required military orders. We know we will not have 30 years of home ownership, to set us up in an already well financed house when we are ready to retire. Here is the thing- most of us don’t resent that, we accept it as part of this life style. It’s a financial price to pay, but one that is mitigated- at year 20, when finally said service member is eligible for retirement. Don’t have a home 3/4 paid off by then? Not the end of the world- that retirement check will help pay for that house, as you take on a second (hopefully less punishing to the body) career.

There are incalculable financial losses over a career- setting up a new home every 2-4 yrs is not cheap even with moving allowances. New curtains, new appliances if need be, replacing broken items from the less than careful household goods movers. There are the pricey but necessary special tutors for the child who left one school district to find the new one had very different expectations. The tens of thousands of dollars spent over a career just to get home once every few years to visit Grandma. “The life” isn’t always cheap- but on most days it is worth it. Always, with the knowledge in the back of your mind the financial hits will be reimbursed someday- “someday” being at around year 20.

The proposed 401K nonsense isn’t just an insult because of the physical and mental stresses service members face- but because it fails to compensate those members and their families for the financial hits a “military career” exacts.

-Kristy McGinnis

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