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Stories We Tell: Jeannie Puckett

(Installment 11 of 14)

Collected and arranged by

Amy Uptgraft

Edited by

Audra Edwards

“Ralph continued to express his desire to retire. I would be less than honest if I did not admit that I hoped he would. I was ready to buy a house, settle down, and give our children a settled life in one place. However, there was a deep, nagging feeling inside me. I felt that Ralph would never be happy outside of military life. It was his lifeblood, and I knew it—even if he did not. He began to explore other options. He liked working with youth, and he liked being outdoors. He approached Outward Bound, an organization that worked with youth, adults, and corporations to develop leadership and confidence skills. After several interviews and visits to their different sites, he was offered a job as the National Safety Director.

We departed from Ft. Carson after a big retirement parade and a mixed bag of emotions. I was hoping this was the right decision for us and, at the same time, was eager for the future. We bought a lovely four-bedroom house in Reston, Virginia where Ralph was to work. This was a planned community and beautifully landscaped with all we could desire. Jeannie enrolled for her senior year and Marty for her first year of high school at Herndon High. This was the fourth high school for Jeannie in four years! Thomas was in sixth grade at an elementary school within walking distance of our house. It all seemed perfect . . . but it was not.

I was on a mission to find new friends for myself and to make a place for my family in the community. I found this to be the biggest challenge of my life! I had never had a difficult time making friends. I generally like people—all kinds of people. They do not have to think like me for me to like them. However, no matter where I tried to fit in, I was not a good fit. We could not find a church of interest or any social organization we felt comfortable joining. I’m still not sure to this day why that was.

Unlike in my young years, when my parents knew the families of my friends, I did not know any of the parents of the friends my children had. This made it very difficult for me to get a handle on what sort of homes they were visiting or wanting to spend the night. I had to trust my kids to monitor their own behavior. That was a lot of responsibility to put on children who were going through a time of finding identity outside of the family, a time of desiring peer acceptance, and a time when their brains were not developed enough to realize the consequences of a bad decision.

Outward Bound had just moved their Corporate Headquarters to Reston when Ralph joined them. DeWitt Wallace, the CEO of Reader’s Digest, was the Chairman of the Board at the time, and he decided he wanted to move the headquarters to New York City after just one year in Reston. Ralph was offered to stay with them and to relocate to the city. That was out of the question for all of us, so he resigned. Another adventure was ahead!

The headmistress at Madeira School in McLean, Virginia had taken a liking to Ralph when he met her while with Outward Bound. When Ralph told her he was leaving that organization, she asked why he did not start his own business doing the same thing, except tailoring the programs to each institution instead of having students travel to an Outward Bound School across the country. He took her up on the offer, and, from that point on, our life changed again in a big way.

He was starting a business from scratch. Every facet of the endeavor—from the business plan to tax filing to equipment-buying to staffing—was among the biggest challenges he had ever undertaken. The biggest difficulty of all was finding responsible staff. But the business began to take hold, and word of mouth spread throughout the DC area and beyond. He had named the business DISCOVERY, and it was widely accepted in schools, colleges, and businesses to develop self-confidence and teamwork through safe adventure.

Meanwhile, Ralph and I were not living the “retirement” life I had assumed we would. He was working himself to death to ensure that this business succeeded, and I was now hanging onto three teenagers, trying to know what they were up to and where they were at any given moment. At night, Ralph would sleep soundly, as he was exhausted mentally and physically, but I was awake until the kids were home from wherever they had been!

Marty does a pretty accurate impersonation of me at midnight, coming out of the bedroom in my flannel nightgown, squinting into the bright light with my hand shading my eyes, and demanding to let me smell her breath! If I thought I smelled alcohol, she would assure me it was the medication she had just applied to her teenage skin. All in all, we came through those teen years unscathed. They were not the perfect teens, but we were not the perfect parents, either. We laugh now at many of the events we all made it through.

We had decided to enroll Tommy in Woodberry Forest School in Orange, Virginia for high school. We knew that this would be a place that Tommy could thrive, and he loved the tour through campus. [With Tommy away at school], Ralph and I were left home alone. Ralph was working himself harder than ever, and I had too much time on my hands. He suggested that I come to work for him in the office. I honestly felt it would be a strain on the marriage if we worked together, and I agreed to do it only if I could work on the days that he would not be in the office. We agreed, and I did work in the office. I worked there awhile and later decided to go to work in a doctor’s office as a receptionist.

I look back on that timeframe and realize that I should have been a bigger help to Ralph. The physical and mental strain on him was beginning to show and was affecting our relationship. I felt we were living parallel lives. He was giving the business his all, and I was hanging in limbo, wondering what I should be doing with myself, suffering from “Empty Nest” syndrome without realizing it. I really needed to find something for me.”

Reflections from Amy:

“I’m ready to retire.” I almost spit my coffee across the room. Did he just say retire? As in . . . leave the Army? I thought that it had to be just a passing thought; after missing so much of the kids’ lives on this fifth deployment, he wasn’t thinking straight. But apparently he was. Because retire he did . . . and I was the one that had a hard time with the adjustment. A “forever” home—the thought terrified me. And, like Jeannie, I didn’t think that I would find my people. I didn’t know how to do this “planting roots” thing. I hated it. I repainted every wall in this new house and cried a thousand tears into my paint tray. And then I did what we milspouses do—wiped my eyes and went hunting for my people. I found them in a high school theatre: teenagers with blue hair and open hearts. In a basketball arena, where people knew our names, waving across the court. In a church family that brings me casseroles when I am sick. I found them . . . because a military spouse’s superpower is community. And where there is none, we will make one.

Note: If you can relate to Jeannie’s “Empty Nest” syndrome and are interested in reading further, check out another military spouse’s experience on our blog. “Quiet in the Nest.”

Are you an active duty or veteran milspouse interested in being a guest writer for VSP? Get in touch with your details and topic interests on our contact page!

Tags :
Army,Discovery,Empty Nest,Ft. Carson,Jeannie Puckett,Madeira School,Military Children,Military Family,Military Kids,Military Life,Military Retirement,Military Spouse,Milspouse,Outward Bound,Ralph Puckett,Ranger,Retirement,School,Woodberry Forest School
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Veterans Spouse Project (VSP) is the only nonprofit arts organization in the nation working to give voice to the experiences of military spouses through theatre and expressive arts. Learn more about how to share, connect, listen and create with us in your community. 

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