Updated: Mar 7
Veteran to Military Spouse: Defining Your Own Path to Success
Story by Kellie Gunderman
Bought to you by Defense Credit Union Council
It’s no secret that military spouse employment has become a hot topic over the past two decades. The employment discrimination that follows military spouses—typically due to stereotypes and fear of relocation—has been well documented by job seekers from coast-to-coast. Non-profit organizations dedicated to the cause began to stand up, on a mission to advocate for those seeking professional homes, while large corporations began doing their part by establishing programs to publicize their commitment to hiring military spouses.
A career can indeed contribute to one’s sense of self-worth. It is also true that the ability to financially contribute to one’s family is unquestionably a priority for us all. But it can be an extraordinary, eye-opening experience to hear a champion for military spouses’ humbly remind us that even though the paths of military spouses are all paved with the same sense of duty, our careers may not be our only path to success.
[ doo-tee, dyoo- ]
noun, plural du·ties.
an action or task required by a person's position or occupation; function:
the duties of a United States Airman
When Tonya Wright graduated from high school in Johnstown, PA, there was no question in her mind where her life would take her. Armed with a proud family, desire to travel, serve her country and the packed luggage her father had bought her as a graduation gift—a loving nudge to go forth without fear—Tonya left home and enlisted in the United States Air Force.
“I always knew I wanted to get out of this little town and join. I wasn't interested in having a lot of student debt. I knew I could still get my degree, but also see the world in the process… and not have to deal with all the debt.”
[ mar-ij ]
a relationship in which two people have pledged themselves to each other:
They have a happy marriage.
Tonya had been proudly serving her family and her nation all over the world for almost twenty years—even while completing her college degree—when her path suddenly took a surprising turn.
“I met Kaleth late in my career. I was stationed in Germany and we met through mutual friends over Facebook. Everyone told me he was ‘the greatest,’ so I took a chance and met him in-person during a trip to Maryland before relocating to my new duty station in Guam.”
As so many military love stories go, there was a little fear, a lot of romance and then one big question before being forced to separate: can we make it work? Long-distance relationships are never easy, but Tonya and Kaleth were determined to live their lives together.
As an enlisted service member, Tonya knew that finding a way to become stationed alongside her future husband would be difficult, if not impossible. And so, Tonya made the fearless decision to leave the Air Force, giving up a promised promotion to E7 on her way down the aisle. When asked if she has any regrets, Tonya was very clear; she was ready to set out on a new adventure as a wife and military spouse.
[ risk ]
exposure to the chance of loss; a dangerous chance:
Love is worth the risk.
If you’re wondering whether transitioning from a career-airman to the wife of a top senior enlisted member would be challenging, you’d be right.
“It was difficult. I had to get this idea out of my mind that I was leaving my own career and identity behind.... now I'm just a spouse. I had no idea what I was getting into. When I was active duty, we would talk about getting married and all of the appearances we would have to make together as a couple. I was dead set against it; I would tell him I wanted no part of it. I’m honestly surprised he married me.”
"It was difficult. I had to get this idea out of my mind that I was leaving my own career and identity behind.... now I'm just a spouse.
I had no idea what I was getting into."
- Tonya Wright
It’s easy to laugh about today, but Tonya’s preconceived notions about joining the ranks of military spouses would be enough to panic even the strongest of us. Though she had a successful and fulfilling military career, Tonya would soon realize that as quickly as her adventure in the Air Force had come to a beautiful end, her new life as a wife, military spouse, friend and leader was about to begin.
[ ev-uh-loo-shuhn ]
any process of formation or growth; development:
the evolution of a thought
When Tonya moved to Germany to be with her new husband, her experiences as an airman kept her grounded. She promised her husband that waiting on her to step into the shoes of a typical military spouse would be foolish, but she soon realized that exploring this new role alongside Kaleth was something she was meant to do. The only problem was that Tonya had absolutely no idea what she was doing. “I felt very ill-equipped and had no experience with spouse groups. I felt insecure, but I jumped in and learned as much as I could.”
[ frend-ship ]
the state of being a friend; association as friends:
to value a person's friendship.
The wife of Kaleth’s direct supervisor took Tonya under her wing without hesitation. She was warm and reassuring and it was not long before the two women were traveling throughout Europe together, creating a special bond and learning about each other and themselves.
“We learned very quickly that in this community, you have to rely on your other spouses as a support network. I made some of the best friends of my life. Had I kept my original thinking, I would have missed out on so much. There are great lessons to be learned as a member of the military spouse community.”
Once Tonya realized that it was possible to be proud of her military career, dedicated to her husband and have a beautiful life as a military spouse, advocating for her newfound life became effortless.
"I began to challenge the preconceived notions I'd always had about being a military spouse and I'm so glad that I did. I still have friends from my days in the Air Force, but some of my best friends are military spouses. If I hadn't taken that leap of faith, I would have missed out on so much."
[ kuh-myoo-ni-tee ]
noun, plural com·mu·ni·ties.
a social group whose members reside in a specific locality, sharing common characteristics or interests
a community of like-minded individuals
As a military spouse, becoming a member of the local community can be challenging and overwhelming. For many, life is on post. Your home is on post. Your grocery store is on post. Your support system, schools, doctor, gym and even favorite coffee shops are all on post. But Tonya learned early on that just because something feels safe or comfortable, does not mean that it’s what is best. It was important for her to build relationships with her fellow military spouses, but also with her neighbors beyond the post walls and she encouraged her friends to follow.
“I wanted to let military spouses know, ‘You are a person of influence in your community.’ Spouses feel like if they’re not working, they don’t know what their role is. They don’t know what they have to offer. But the truth is, they are resilient, educated and adaptable. These are individuals with great characteristics, but they don’t always feel that way. They aren’t always brave enough to step outside of their comfort zone to get to know their neighbors."
[ self-kon-fi-duhns, self- ]
realistic confidence in one's own judgment, ability, power, etc.
When asked what she would say to someone who criticizes her for leaving her career for love, Tonya laughed and told us about how she currently sits on the Advisory Boards of The American Red Cross, The USO, The Air Force Aid Society, Blue Star Families, the National Military Family Association and Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors.