Tackling Military Transition: Spouse Ingenuity Makes the Difference

John and Jo Noll opened Swatara Coffee in Jonestown, Penn. after John left the Navy. (Courtesy of John and Jo Noll)
John and Jo Noll opened Swatara Coffee in Jonestown, Penn. after John left the Navy. (Courtesy of John and Jo Noll)

The uncertainties of life on the home front have often shown military spouses the value of being scrappy.

From short-notice moves to long separations, to dealing with the challenges of employment or parenthood alone, military spouses have had to learn how to take things in stride.

But transitioning out of the military presents a new set of challenges, many of them financial. And as the service member leaves his job and shifts gears, many families find themselves relying heavily once again on that military spouse ingenuity.

These three families know that's true because they've lived it. For them, moving to civilian life meant leaning on the spouse to help fill a financial gap.

The Hargrave Family

Mark and Emily Hargrave. (Courtesy of Emily Hargrave)
Mark and Emily Hargrave. (Courtesy of Emily Hargrave)

When Emily Hargrave's husband Mark left his Army intelligence job in 2013, the family never expected it to be hard for him to find work. But it was.

"We knew that transitioning could be hard, and it must've just been a bad time to try to get into his specific line of work," she said.

Which is how Mark ended up as an on-again, off-again civilian contractor, deploying more out of the Army than he did while in it.

That wasn't really working for their family. Emily had taken business classes using education assistance while they were in the military but, like many spouses, had a hard time finding and holding a career thanks to frequent moves and being stationed overseas.

While the family was living with Hargrave's mother and figuring out what to do next, Emily realized the time was right to put to use what she had learned, and her handmade candle business Around the Home Décor was born. Between her Etsy shop, in-person sales and her website, she's able to help her family's transition long term and continue to lean on the skills she learned as a military spouse.

The family has since moved to Georgia as Mark landed a job as a contractor on base instead of overseas. Emily's business has given them a financial cushion to work with as they continue in civilian life.

"Being prepared for these opportunities is what makes it possible," she said.

The Nolls

John and Jo Noll opened Swatara Coffee in Jonestown, Penn. after John left the Navy. (Courtesy of John and Jo Noll)
John and Jo Noll opened Swatara Coffee in Jonestown, Penn. after John left the Navy. (Courtesy of John and Jo Noll)

While Emily Hargrave's candle business is operated primarily by her while her husband works elsewhere, launching a small business and navigating military transition is a matter of teamwork for Jo and John Noll.

A Navy veteran, John got the idea for their small coffee shop in Jonestown, Pennsylvania, during his 2012 deployment to Afghanistan. From there, it was matter of planning and long years of transition preparation.

"Jonestown is such a gem. It's located in this rural community close to Appalachian Tail, and I was like, 'It needs a coffee shop. It needs this community gathering place,' " John said. "That's when I started tossing around the idea. I started building out the business plan."

The couple diligently saved so they could afford to both buy a home and open their new business is quick succession as soon as John left the Navy. Jo worked as a blogger and editor while John finished out his service and worked on their business plan.

Now that the couple has successfully opened Swatara Coffee, John is in charge of day-to-day business operations, while Jo helps manage staff and does all of the company's marketing. She also still holds full-time work outside their small business, which helps them cover all of their other financial bases, like having health insurance.

"I think the first thing is that John and I really enjoy being around each other," Jo said. "At the risk of sounding cheesy, we're each other's best friend. So that doesn't mean it's always easy, but I think we've figured out a rhythm that works for us -- our strengths and weaknesses and yin and yang."

The Cole Family

Deonte and Lakesha Cole. (Courtesy of Lakesha Cole)
Deonte and Lakesha Cole. (Courtesy of Lakesha Cole)

Transition hasn't happened for the Cole family just yet, but when it does, they'll be ready thanks to Lakesha Cole's small business in Jacksonville, North Carolina.

Known throughout the military spouse community for her entrepreneurial know-how, Cole successfully launched her business, She Swank Too, in Okinawa, Japan, in 2013.

Running a small business while stationed overseas is no easy task. But successfully relocating it to a new country is even harder. Still, Cole did just that when in 2016 she moved her store to its current brick-and-mortar location.

Since then, she's branched off into her own brand, Hello Rosie Co., and redesigned her store first as a marketplace for various vendors and now, most recently, into shopping paired with a franchise frozen yogurt restaurant.

Cole isn't alone in her work. Her husband, Deonte, a Marine stationed at nearby Camp Lejeune, helps with big and small tasks around the store, including construction.

All of her planning and hard work mean that when her husband retires soon, the family can not only not worry about how they'll afford to live, but can also give him some space to decide what he wants to do next.

"I've definitely been building the business for the past three years or so with retirement in the forefront of my mind," she said. "When he retires, there's some security in that, although there's no security in owning a business."

More than anything else, Cole said she doesn't want to have to live inside a box of what military retirement is "supposed" to look like.

"I don't want to feel like I have to fit someone else's plan on what this retirement thing looks like," she said. "We'd rather stay within what's going to make us happy, what's going to work for our family."

-- Amy Bushatz can be reached at amy.bushatz@military.com.

Story Continues