What I wish I had known about military retirement

Retiring from the military is a huge change – not just for the service member but also for the family. So many things are changing at once that the stress in the months preceding the retirement ceremony can be quite overwhelming. My husband SMSgt Rex Temple is getting ready to hang up his uniform after 28 years in the Air Force – watching him go through the process compels me to write a few words of encouragement and advice for other spouses who are getting ready to help their loved one go through this major transition.

Starting early …..  WAY EARLY

When your military member is encouraged to start the separation process early – they mean it. If you start the process 12 months before, it’s not soon enough. You need to make sure you’ve crossed all your T’s and dotted all your I’s by the time you serve the

This was a Naval Retirement Cake which was a very large 18x24 sheet-cake, about 60 servings. Made of Vanilla/Chocolate marble cake with butter-cream frosting. Photo by Jennifer Shockley of Shockley's Sweet Shoppe.

retirement cake. There are so many steps you have to take, so many classes you have to schedule to take, so many medical appointments you have to have, so many forms you have to fill out – you will need all that time to properly prepare. Can you do it in less time? Absolutely, but starting early will help minimize the stress and it will allow the service member to have time to react to unexpected problems that will come along when you least expect them. (Sometimes the computer program for military retirement will schedule appointments for you on a Sunday when the office for that particular part of the retirement process is not even open. And you will get “nasty-grams” via email from that same computer program for having missed your appointment …. It takes time to fix such bureaucratic stupidities.)

Medical records

Depending on where you serve and what military branch you serve with, getting your medical records copied for the transition to the VA system can take weeks or sometimes even months.  Remember that you want to make sure all those medical records have been updated to include all service related medical issues so that those will be covered under the VA system once your spouse makes the transition. This is where deployment related “aches and pains” that could be nothing or could be something significant are worth some extra “bitching.” Document everything – you never know whether things like being exposed to burn pits in Iraq or being in the vicinity of an IED blast will come back to haunt your loved one. So ask a lot of questions and help your service member go through his or her medical file to make sure everything has been properly included in the official record.

The dreaded resume

Start writing the resume for the post-military job search early. It takes days and days to translate military job descriptions into something that civilian employers understand and can appreciate. You have to be able to take out all the military jargon and also “translate” what you did in the military into functional skills that a civilian employer will understand and value.

The military offers lots of classes on resume preparation and on job searching techniques. These are open to spouses and we decided to go through them together so that I could help my husband with his job search. It helps when you have two sets of eyes and ears paying attention to the presentations and taking notes. Plus the courses also offer lots of advice for the spouses about job searching and how to fix your resume so that all those gaps you have in your resume because of frequent military moves are less obvious and don’t hurt your chances of being hired.

These classes offer you access to special books for free that will also help you and your service member write federal resumes (totally different from civilian). It took us at least two full weeks (working on weekends and at night) to make Rex’s federal resume.  There were tons of steps along the way and a steep learning curve – but thanks to the Family Readiness Center on base we got through it and now Rex has a great “base” resume to use as part of every application he submits online.

You really need to be realistic and keep these sobering numbers in mind. In January, the national unemployment rate for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans hit its highest level since the government began collecting the data in 2008 —15.2 percent, compared with 9 percent for the entire workforce. The veterans’ rate dropped to 12.5 percent in February as the overall rate also dropped, to 8.9 percent. So make sure your spouse takes advantage of all the free programs offered during the separation process – they are well worth the time.

Retirement ceremony

We started to prepare for Rex’s retirement ceremony about 8 weeks before the actual date. We did not really have a choice to start earlier but if you can start earlier, I highly recommend it. Just booking the venue, sending the invites and getting different people to commit to being part of the ceremony can take weeks. And since you are probably asking people to travel to the ceremony (family and close friends) they need time to book flights etc.

And sometimes military service will interfere and whoever you asked to officiate will get called away. So make sure you have your number 1, 2 and 3 choices for all the different roles that are in your ceremony. For our’s, we needed a narrator, someone to sing the National Anthem, someone to say the prayer, someone to actually officially retire Rex, and someone to be the guest speaker.  How many close friends do you have who can sing beautifully and are available in the middle of the workday to be part of your ceremony? (You can get more advice about retirement ceremony specifics here.)



Getting the shadow box done takes a long time. You need to find all the medals, ribbons and other memorabilia and have the shadow box made in time for the ceremony. Remember that it takes anywhere from 5 to 10 weeks to have a special flag flown above the U.S. Capitol.

Producing your photo montage

Most retirement ceremonies we’ve been to always include a photo montage of the service member’s career; this photo montage is often set to the favorite songs of the military member. And it appears that it’s quite often the spouse who gets asked to put this together in the last few days before the ceremony – and that can be a herculean task when you’re also juggling the food order, the RSVPs to the ceremony, picking up visitors from the airport and figuring out how all your civilian friends will access the base without military IDs.

The first step in producing the photo montage is simply to locate all the photos you want to use. The last few years will be easy since all the photos will be digital. However, you need to set aside time to go through old photo albums and carefully scan the images from the early years. We have about 20 years worth of photos that are not digital that we need to go through and scan so that we can edit them.

Then you need to figure out what music you want to use and what order the photos will be shown. But before you do that, check with the venue you booked for the ceremony. You need to know what format the finished montage needs to be in so that you can successfully play it at the ceremony. You don’t want to spend hours and hours editing this project on some software program that ultimately isn’t compatible with whatever playback method you have at the ceremony. Most places will be able to play a regular DVD (remember, no jump drives in military computers).

I would highly recommend you don’t plan to play it off the Internet because if you suddenly have no Internet access the day of the ceremony, then you obviously can’t play your photo montage. So having the montage on a DVD and having a back-up DVD in your purse is a good idea (what if the original gets scratched and at the last-minute you need the back-up?).

You can use common video editing software programs such as I-Movie or Windows Movie Maker to create the photo montage. Or you can hire a professional to put it together for you. If you hire a professional, make sure you hire someone reputable. Ask to see work samples and ask for references. Make sure the professional will agree to review the finished product with you and that you are allowed to have at least one round of changes before the project is considered final. This way you can make sure the photos are in the right chronological order and that you are happy with the final length of the photo presentation.  Who really wants to have a 30-minute photo montage set to “Eye of the Tiger” playing seven times back to back?

You can’t possibly cover all the advice for military retirement in one blog entry. Look for a Part 2 in the coming weeks.

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