My husband never intended to leave the military. He grew up in a very small rural town—the kind of town where a kid can walk miles down a potholed road each day and never meet a stranger (or anyone, for that matter). So when a recruiter visited his small high school and promised him excitement, money for college, and a ticket out of town, he took it without hesitation. 

In his pictures from basic training, he is all ears and a shaved head, skinny, happy, whole. Basic for him wasn’t easy, but he was excited to be paid his thousand dollars a month to eat, sleep, and do push-ups as the instructors yelled. At the end of warrior week, the hardest point of basic training, the training instructor who had been torturing him endlessly shook his hand, calling him “Airman” for the first time. 

Being an Airman meant he “made it.” He was officially part of something important. He would never be alone again. He had a wingman. He had a family. 

21 years and one month later, I see very little of that young man in my husband. Sure, his head is still shaved (too short to allow his curls to show, much to my disappointment), and he is still all ears, but he’s also much older, somehow both softer and harder. 

Any day now, my husband will be leaving the Air Force. Retiring is not his choice. The demands of our “forever war” posture on his joints, heart, and mind have tipped the scale. After his last deployment, it was not just his body that was war-weary. He’s no longer quick to laugh. His anxiety is tangible—as he becomes overwhelmed the air thickens in our home. He’s still the loving, playful, goofy man I fell in love with, but sometimes, it’s like he has to fight back his instincts to fight, run, or hide before he can be present with us. So, the military has decided it is time for him to go.

The military is his family. The brotherhood of airmen is all he knows. Each morning, he wakes up, shaves his face, and wears the same uniform. He travels to work and spends the day with women and men who all speak the same language and understand him better than I ever can. They have celebrated with him through the good times and carried him through the worst. 

I wholeheartedly believe that my husband is still here with me today because of his military family, and we are terrified to be leaving it. Like most jobs, his role will be filled immediately with a younger airman when he retires. When he leaves, his projects, which require so much of him now, will continue on without him. For the first time, our family will be utterly on its own. 

What will it be like to be a veteran? Will this town begin to feel like home, or will the itch to move nag at us in perpetuity? Will we be able to build a new network of friends without the common bond of service? Will anyone understand why he is the way he is, why his eyes are so tired, why he still stands tall when the national anthem plays, why he served so long, and why it is so hard to be saying goodbye? 

My fear is that our nation, which has turned a blind eye as our leadership invests more and more money into the war industry and sends the same small group of Americans into harm’s way, will forget everything our service members and their families have sacrificed. 

My husband doesn’t carry the same worries. When I asked him what he feels when he looks forward, his answer was hope. He is proud of everything he has given, and he has faith that his military family, veteran family, and the country he has defended with honor over the last 21 years will stand beside him. 

For that, I am grateful.

IMAGE: U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Paul Weme, NATO Headquarters Sarajevo executive officer, salutes the American flag during a Veterans Day ceremony at Camp Butmir, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Nov. 11, 2019. The U.S. contingent gathered at the Camp Butmir Memorial Park to pay tribute to American veterans, past and present. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Victor J. Caputo)