We met at a party over hors d’oeuvres and chit-chat. When the subject of military life came up, she said, “I used to be a military spouse, but we’re divorced now.”
She told me the transition from military family to divided family was somewhat difficult for her children, but military friends have been helpful. The father of her children is active duty Air Force, and when he was deployed some of his military friends stepped in to help keep the children connected to military life and to other military kids with deployed parents.
She seemed comfortable talking about her experience, but when I contacted her with questions for this column, she didn’t respond. Divorce is very personal, often painful, and I respected her reticence.
For Heather Sweeney, another former military wife, going public with her military divorce was a painstaking decision. She kept her yearlong separation a secret from many of her friends until the divorce from her Navy husband was final. She wondered if she would feel cut off from the life she had lived for most of her 13-year marriage, wondered how her military spouse friends would react.
An associate editor at Military.com and a blogger, Heather had been writing about military life for several years, but she didn’t write publicly about her divorce for a year.
“My feelings were too raw to share,” she said. “I’m glad I gave myself that time for introspection instead of writing blog posts that would have come off as bitter or angry.”
In late 2013, she wrote a piece for the New York Times At War blog that began, “Today I got divorced.” The response surprised her.
“I was so shocked by the outpouring of love and support,” said Heather. “People told me, ‘Once a military spouse, always a military spouse.’ … I almost have more military friends now, because I’ve heard from a lot of people considering divorce or struggling in their marriages.”
Through her own experience, Heather discovered a scarcity of information about this change in her life and military spouse status.
“There’s no guidebook for being a divorced from the military,” she said. “So many military spouses have emailed me privately after the New York Times article came out, and I started writing about it on my own blog … I wish someone had been there for me to answer questions or just listen, and I’m happy to be there and do that for some other people.”
Though no longer a military spouse, Heather is the mother of young military children, a role that requires balance and good communication with their active-duty father. Heather and her ex-husband have made the children their first priority.
“We were willing to overcome whatever differences led to our divorce,” she said. “Everything is about the kids now, everything … They know they have two parents who love them.”
Their co-parenting is complicated by his latest assignment. Heather still lives near their last assignment together in Virginia; he’s now stationed outside the continental United States. For the school year, the kids live with Heather and will spend the summer with their father.
“That’s been very difficult – he misses his kids and they miss him. I would love for him to be here to help me out. We have to be on top of communication and be consistent. He’ll call and talk to the kids. I scan and send their report cards. They also know when they’re in trouble (here), their dad will know it too. They don’t even try to pit one parent against the other.”
This level of agreement took time and determination.
“We were definitely not that mature early on,” Heather said. “That was hard-fought.”
Another complicated issue for Heather is accessing her children’s military benefits now that their father is far away, and she is no longer an ID card holder. To maintain family member status after a divorce, a military spouse has to meet a requirement known as 20/20/20: Twenty years of active duty, plus twenty years of marriage, which must overlap for twenty years. Heather’s marriage did not fulfill these stringent requirements, but her children are still eligible for benefits.
Whatever the difficulties, Heather said she makes sure her kids remember they are from a military family, like many other students at their school.
“I remind them to welcome these new kids and tell them you have done what they’re doing. We watch the Army/Navy game every year and wear our Navy shirts. They’re proud of their dad, and they’re proud to be military brats.”
For her children, Heather has made the decision not to move closer to her own family, even though being near them would help her as a single parent.
“As much as I want to be closer to family, I do want their father to be in their lives, and he’ll never be stationed where my family is. I need to respect him and his willingness to be close with his kids. He’s very involved. That’s been hard for him. He does what he has to do for his career, and even as an ex-wife I will support that.”
She’s committed to her children and their military connection, but Heather said she’s taking steps to forge her own identity as well. After the divorce, she asked herself, “What now? Who am I when I don’t have this identity as a military spouse? I made a divorce bucket list. Things I wanted to do that I was not pursuing, because everything was about Navy life.”
She’s run the Marine Corps Marathon, is writing a novel, playing guitar, and planning a solo vacation. She advises military spouses not to let the demands of military life crowd out their own goals.
“I encourage them to go to school, have a hobby, join a club, (instead of) waiting for the next place you’ll go because of your spouse. Create something for yourself.”
Heather took that advice and created a blog, RidingTheRollercoaster.com, which has been a source of support and a creative outlet through her marriage and divorce.
“When I started my blog five years ago, I was able to make a community of military friends, both online and in person. We bonded and had similar experiences. Once you have that community, they don’t let you go, which is wonderful.”