From Soldier to spouse: Four veterans discuss transitioning from active duty to civilian life
October 11, 2012
GRAFENWOEHR, Germany -- After he broke his back, legs and both ankles during a paratrooping accident in Fort Bragg, N.C., in 1995, Jerry Hollo, U.S. Army Garrison Grafenwoehr's anti-terrorism officer, spent six months in a wheelchair, taking classes for promotion points. He was resolute on keeping, and bettering, his Army career.
For the next four years, Hollo vacillated between recuperation and reinjury. In the meantime, he married his wife, whose Army career was accelerating. On April Fool's Day, 1999, the Army medically discharge Hollo and he went from Soldier to military spouse.
It's no secret that newly separated veterans often undergo a rocky transition from Army to civilian life. However, there is an uncharted demographic of veterans who leave the Army, but stay within the community as a spouse.
These newly minted "spouses" face a different kind of transition from other veterans as they remain inextricably tied to the military lifestyle, as a family member, rather than a Soldier.
Leaving the military
Since he was 5 years old, Hollo had wanted to follow in his family's footsteps and become a career Soldier. The discharge ended this ambition, leaving Hollo "really depressed" and itching to leave Fort Bragg.
Living on military installation, surrounded by Soldiers living the life he wanted, Hollo grew miserable. He spoke of watching his wife and friends put on their uniforms every day and report for duty while he sat at home, unemployed and unsure of the future.
"I mean, I loved going to work every day. I loved my job. It's who I was. And all of that was taken away," he said.
Those who willingly separated endured years of grief and personal examination, as well. Veterans, particularly those who join the military while young, can suffer a loss of identity when the "Soldier" label no longer applies.
"It's a sense of mourning a loss, because it's a lifestyle and not just a job," said Terri Rudacille, who served from 1986-1992 after graduating from the United States Military Academy at West Point. Rudacille moved to Grafenwoehr in 2011 when her husband, Col. Bryan Rudacille, took over command of the Joint Multinational Training Command.
Carolyn Bryant, who left the Army in 2007, said that she was "totally consumed" with being a Soldier and fought to distance herself from that label.
"It's a loss of identity in the way you define yourself as a Soldier, because now you have to define yourself as a civilian," said Bryant, who currently works as a Family Advocacy Program specialist for Army Community Service.
That journey of redefinition can become convoluted when veterans remain attached to the military in a supporting role, their label relegated from Soldier to family member.
The spouse stigma
"Knowing a lot of people who are dual military, someone's mission always takes a back seat," said Rudacille, who separated after her specialty in the Ordinance Corps disappeared in the 1990s drawdown and she didn't want to be reassigned.
Though Rudacille chose when and how she left, she said that learning to be an Army spouse was "really, really hard."
"There's a stigma associated with being a spouse. Whether or not people want to admit it, there is," said Bryant.
Soldiers-turned-spouses lamented the ne'er-do-well reputation of Army spouses, citing ignorance, cattiness, laziness, bad behavior and dependence as the worst stereotypes.
"There's a misperception that military spouses are uneducated, out of shape and relying on their husbands because they have nothing going on in their lives," explained Rudacille.
These stereotypical negative perceptions especially wounded the female veterans. Instead of receiving the respect their uniform and rank had granted them, they encountered impatience, patronization and disregard from members of the military community who were oblivious to their prior service.
"I felt that when you're in uniform, because the Army is such a highly structured organization, you don't have to go out of your way to demonstrate your authority and demonstrate your knowledge," said Bryant.
But, as a spouse, she continued, she spent "a lot of time explaining" her background and abilities to those who confused her marital status with her skills.
Hollo, too, encountered prejudice.
"Yes, male spouses, they are spurned," he sighed.
He spoke of incidents where acquaintances would cut off contact once they realized he was a spouse and not a Soldier. Hollo has attended spouse dining-ins where he was the only man among hundreds of women, and has faced down the wrath of jealous husbands after befriending their wives at spouse events.
Despite the negative bias, none of the veterans interviewed would have chosen direct entry into the civilian world over the life of a military spouse. They felt they could relate better to the military community and still be part of the mission they had dedicated years to.
However, Bryant admits that distance from the Army and the spouse brand would have put her in higher regard.
"Instead of being 'just a spouse,' I'd be a respected vet."
When Shaunette Sellers separated from the Army in 1995, after seven years of service, she went straight into overdrive. Within two days of being out, she had a full-time job sorting mail during the night shift at Lockheed Martin. She also enrolled in school and joined the Reserves, all while raising two daughters and running her home.
Consummate planners, Sellers and her husband -- a noncommissioned officer stationed in Fort Bragg at the time of her separation -- hashed out in their five-year-plan the steps she would take after ETSing. So, when she got out, there were no surprises, no waffling and no agonizing over her next step.
And though Sellers says her frenzied schedule was the most difficult aspect of her separation, it helped her transition very well into her new life as a spouse.
"I'm a firm believer that looking back slows you down so you have to push for the march," she said.
For most transitioning from Soldier to spouse, finding the next, groundbreaking calling takes more time.
"Few things in this world can match the impact of being a Soldier," explained Bryant. "It's very difficult to find something that can match service to your country as a purpose in your life."
Rudacille said that working in the nonprofit sector for an organization she believed in served a "higher purpose" than earning a paycheck, and going from one "mission-driven" career to another saved her from languishing post-departure.
After months of depression in Fort Bragg, Hollo and his wife moved to Washington, D.C., where she was stationed at Fort Belvoir. It was there that he was able to strike out on his own as a full-time student and, later, as an employee of the State Department.
Both his education and new career opened his eyes to an outside world and he "started to find a passion other than the military." His sense of purpose changed.
Easing into the role
For all those interviewed, stepping into the role of spouse did not come naturally. Attending coffees, Family Readiness Group meetings, and other "obligations," as Hollo put it, took time to ease into. Sellers had to "mature as a spouse" before fully participating in FRG, but eventually felt comfortable in her new domain. Bryant still can't force herself to attend.
The veterans found solace in recently separated friends of dual-military households who helped bridge the gap between Soldier and spouse. Hollo estimated that two-thirds of his colleagues at the State Department were former military, and some were spouses. They served as an unofficial support group to smooth the shift.
Nevertheless, it wasn't until he and his wife moved to Japan in 2004, five years after his discharge, that Hollo adjusted to his new role.
Becoming a spouse also meant a loss of individuality for some of the former Soldiers who felt chagrined that their careers and interests take a backseat to their spouses'.
"It took about three to four years to get used to being a wife, going to coffees, going to memorials and being Mrs. So-and-So, and not Terri," said Rudacille.
Sellers still fights to distinguish herself from her high-ranking husband.
"Even though I have my own identity, being a supervisor at work, I'm still looked at as the commandant's wife," she said.
An Army legacy
While the interviewees don't miss active duty, they expressed gratitude for the skills and attitude they gained from the military.
"I attribute a lot of personality characteristics to the Army," said Bryant.
After joining at 19, she matured and evolved within the Army structure. Bryant credits her leadership skills, confidence and motivation to her years in the army.
"I am the result of my experience as a Soldier."
Rudacille still gravitates toward Soldiers and veterans, rather than those without prior service. She, like Bryant, feels more at home among warriors than most civilians.
"I would prefer to sit out back listening to war stories than sit at the table swapping birthing stories," she said.
Nevertheless, Rudacille, along with the other veterans, felt that their prior service has made them more effective community and FRG members and more supportive spouses.
"I think it can make you a better partner for your Soldier when you understand and can be a sounding board," said Rudacille, adding, "you understand it from the Soldier's perspective, and that helps."
Though it took years for most of the vets to relax into their new roles, no one interviewed regrets leaving the Army. The struggles of creating new identities, finding that higher calling and learning to play a supporting role eventually led to a greater well-being.
"I think, overall, I had to learn to define myself outside the role of Soldier. So, not hold on to what I had or what I lost, but how to take the best of both worlds and run with it," said Bryant. "I'm confident with myself now as a vet and spouse both."