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.


26 Responses

  1. Liisa,

    This is when you lean on your family and friends and trust that it will all be okay. As scary as retiring (or separating), the military has prepared you both. You will find that complete strangers will step up to help and in the process you will make new friends. Have faith, there are people who are there to help.


  2. Best wishes Liisa and Rex, for the future. THANKS to both of you!

  3. I would say that one thing I was not prepared for was the job shifting. My husband retired and changed jobs a number of time. It was difficult, to say the least. When I started asking around, I found out it was normal for our friends.
    Since he had his retirement ceremony out of country- I did not deal with most of the above mentioned things. The one thing we DID make sure of was the disability physical. What we did not deal with properly was the SBP. I understand the classes are now pretty good. Wish they had been when he got out!

    • I am a volunteer with SCORE. SCORE is a US SBA resource. I am responsible for our chapter’s Veterans’ Initiative. To this end, SCORE Chapters of Greater Tampa Bay are holding a Veterans, active Military & Guard & their Immediate Family members Entrepreneurs’ Resource Expo addressing the needs of those who may aspire to becoming self-employed or to starting or growing a business or buying a franchise.
      SCORE, is a national organization with 365 Chapters around the country and over 13,000 volunteers.

      US SBA survey data clearly indicates that about 40-60% of Vets think about being self-employed or starting a business. Most of them have no idea where to turn for guidance and assistance without cost to them nor do they know about the many ways to finance a business.

      US Census data shows within Pinellas, Hillsborough, Sarasota/Manatee, Pasco/Hernando & Polk counties there are over 420,000 Veterans residing in these listed counties of which there are approximately 117,000 Veterans ages 18-54. These Vets are the prime candidates who at least think of self-employment. Those over age 54 are also candidates and these folks may suffer from battered career syndrome where they find themselves unemployed and unable to find a position on par with their previous position. Hence, they take lesser jobs and are unhappy.

      So, our goal is to reach out to all of these Veterans and entice them to come to this EXPO to learn of the great programs available to them and the available free mentoring they can utilize, not only for start up, but for continuing to grow their business once started. SCORE has vast business knowledge and experience available through its mentors. There are about 150 – 200 mentors right here in the Greater Tampa Bay area.

      Flyers are available that can be used for promoting the Expo event and I include two short video links here for your review.
      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=99NWHQ8JRFk&feature=youtu.be 1:30
      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ygpkQ7CJWfM&feature=youtu.be 0:30

      Please post this informational data wherever possible and send it to everyone you can with the message that they should please pass along this event announcement to their friends and family who may know a Veteran or family member of a Veteran.

      In advance, I thank you for consideration and any assistance in helping us to promote this event. Should there be questions or if you wish additional information, please do not hesitate to contact me. My personal office No. is 727-573-2784. as I am not usually in the SCORE office unless I am mentoring a client

  4. Would you be willing to give info on the shadowbox. I would love to do this for my husband who retires next year.

  5. […] What I wish I had known about military retirement […]

  6. I need some answers, I have love for a man ststioned in afgah. He says he will retire soon but I as his fiance am required to have phone interview with a Sgm lunsford who emailed me that to do this to get the process for retirement started is 189.00 to be paid by me. Is this normal or am I being scammed. Please help me. I love this man and my country but I have no clue if this is true. Thank you

    • Cynthia – I am not a military retirement expert. However, I know of NO REQUIREMENT for a soldier let alone a fiance to pay any fee to begin the retirement paperwork. It sounds and smells like a scam.

    • Cynthia, I have helped and been through many retirements, and I am currently in the process of mine. I have never seen anybody have to pay a fee for this process. Not to take any credit from you and in all respect as the fiance, but you really have no legal right to do anthing. I think that this is a scam, I would wait to talk to your Fiance about this

  7. […] What I wish I had known about military retirement. […]

    • Lisa: There are so many more support groups, help and guidance available today than when I got out of the Navy in 1960. I have been working hard to help Veterans. here are some things I have done and am into:
      • For all transitioning Veterans….please know that there are No-Cost services available to help you make decisions about your civilian career. Here’s a couple of examples:

      1… For those Vets who are interested in investigating self-employment through owning a franchise as a career path, I offer no-cost coaching. MEANING THAT I DO NOT and WILL NOT SELL or BROKER A FRANCHISE to YOU, Rather, I will give you a glimpse of the possibilities that lie just beyond your comfort zone, (Including an introspection) – the possibilities that you should dare to dream about. You may not be ready to make a transition today, but the sooner you open your mind, the more thought you can put toward your professional future in order to reach your goals for Income, Lifestyle and wealth. There are many Vet friendly franchises offering great discounts to Vets.
      Contact me if you wish francoach1@tampabay.rr.com 727-573-2784 My coaching is at NO-COST to you.
      Please mention you found me in Off-The-Base blog

      2… According to the SBA, some 70+% percent of transitioning vets think about self-employment. To that end, my volunteer SCORE (an SBA resource) position has allowed me to create some significant benefits for Veterans wanting to start a business (or buy a business).
      The main benefits are
      A)…a Business Grant program. [Eligibility and qualifications required] and ..
      B)…an Entrepreneur Certification, college level program, in partnership with St. Petersburg College at NO-COST to Vets & Immediate family members. (www.pinellascounty.score.org)

      The main issues I’m experiencing difficulty with?…..getting all this information into the hands of Veterans who aspire to owning or starting their own business……….the SBA’s 70% ….so they can know what is available to them and their immediate family members.

  8. Just stumbled upon this and this is what we are going through right now. Hubby put in retirement order in Feb and his ceremony is in June. After 22 years it is very scary to leave the USAF. But we are looking forward to our new life together. It is very stressful right now but we are trusting in the Lord to help him find and job and that all goes well. Thanks again!

    • As long as you put and keep God first, all will be well with you and your Family. Stay blessed and keep the Lord in all of your affairs. I’m getting ready to retire next year myself after 21 years of service in the Army. I am totally trusting in God and I KNOW FOR A FACT that he will ensure that my Family and I will be fine.


  9. My husband retired 20 years ago. While we have adjusted well to civilian life again, we still miss the military. We live 150 miles from the nearest base, so we don’t get to go often. I often wonder what is the matter with me that I still miss it so much. It was not an easy life.

  10. How can I get a flag for my husband ? He retired from the Air Force after 20 years and was told they would mail him a flag ( we were stationed at Hahn Air Force base at the time) he never recived it.

    • Hi Penny – I suggest starting with your current member of Congress. Each congressional office usually has a staff member assigned to help veterans with things like benefits. Getting a flag to honor his service should fall within that realm. Bobbie O’Brien

  11. I just found this blog and am so thankful! My husband just received approval of early retirement via the TERA program. We now have 22 days left to get it all done and a retirement ceremony planned. All the while, I’m on a little vacation away from my family. I’ll have 19 days once I get home! I’m a little stressed as I don’t want to leave out a detail and I want to honor my husband for his 17 years in.

    • im in your same exact position, buit without the vacation.Hubby was TDY for 2 weeks and now we have 16 days to get his retirement ceremony planned. i want to honor his 18 years in service, but have no idea what to do…

  12. […] What I wish I had known about military retirement […]

  13. I attended a retirement ceremony last week, and my comrades-in-arms received a retirement flag for his honorable service. I retired in 1998, and I wasn’t presented a flag for my honorable service. How long have the military been awarding the US flag? If I qualified at the time I retired, how can I receive mine? Please reply with information if possible as time allow. USA, SFC {R} Clinton D. Washington.

  14. You make a lot of valid points here and in the Air Force this may all work but not in the Navy. They do not let you start your seperation package or even let you know what is in it untill 5 months from termination. The transition class that is required by law focuses on education and resume. They skip across the va stuff very quickly and there is no discussion about what is required by the Navy to actualy be able to get out. Then, there is little to no help durring the process. I am 90 days from termination. I am supposed to be on terminal leave now, can not up date my dependancy information, and can not even start the VA process because my unit is deployed so I have very limited access to medical or dental for the required examinations. So of course I can not try to get my medical records yet. My advise to others is get your psychiatrist to double your meds the day you get your seperation package.

  15. Is it possible to retire after 21 years if a service member is in the middle of an assignment in Germany (to pay back 1 year of Army war college)? We just had a baby and would like to know the options.

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