Although planning a wedding can be stressful, there is no doubt any married man will tell you it is completely, unreservedly worth every minute. One decision, however, looms over even the color of the text on the place cards: do you change your name? If you are keeping your own name, please don’t tell my father-in-law of your decision unless you want a long diatribe about the decline of western civilization in general. The seemingly small decision of a name change has the potential to cause you some heartache if you don’t plan ahead, and has the potential to dramatically affect a service members’ career.
I’ve lost you again, haven’t I? “Hey, Ed,” you’re yelling. “He’s at it again. This time he says getting married and changing my name can affect my military career!” A name change is as easy as filling out the paperwork, right? Well, it can be, if everything works. Remember, gentle reader, “everything works” has never been a slogan for the American military.
Actually changing your name. You must first actually do something to change your name. In this article we’re assuming you got married, but any legal name change will result in your having to change your name with the military, so the procedures are the same. The personnel manual of your branch of service contains the information about what to do next. In most cases, it is as simple as showing the personnel clerk a copy of your marriage certificate, filling out a form or three, and waiting for confirmation to return from the Personnel Center.
Sadly, this does not end the process. This is the military, and nothing is ever that easy. For example, when my former neighbor changed her name with the military, the personnel command got it right but the local administrative command got it wrong. How they did not pick up on a name change they not only formatted but also endorsed, forwarded, received, and forwarded to my neighbor I will leave to you to figure out because I still haven’t. Had my neighbor failed to follow up on the change, you can imagine the hijinks that could have ensued.
Don’t waste your imagination, I’ll tell you: my neighbor’s promotion package had the wrong name, several official mailings had both the wrong name and wrong rank, and her fitness report had the right last name but wrong middle initial. Each of these problems was correctable, but, to paraphrase an old saw, eternal vigilance is the price of a name change.
Monitoring your new name. After your name change is approved, you need to make sure that all correspondence, including evaluations and fitness reports, contains your new name. The old saying is as true now as when it was first made: “no one cares about your career as much as you do.” If you don’t follow up, who will?
You may think that the system works like a well-oiled machine and you can “fire and forget”, but look at the examples above. Reject those examples as outliers and the result of merely shoddy office work if you will, but they lead right down the path to one of the ways a military name change can hurt you:
Publicizing your new name. Let everyone who doesn’t push paper in your command’s personnel office or your branch’s personnel command know you’ve changed your name. Your name is attached to your “service reputation”, and you want to make sure your new name has the cachet your old name earned. You’ve got to let your contacts know who you are now.
Imagine this scenario: you’re Lieutenant Perez, and you’re going places. A young man named Tom Collins notices this, and wants you to go places with him. You get married, you change your name, and live in blissful happiness as the re-named Lieutenant Collins. Suddenly, a promotion board meets <cue dramatic music>. Everyone remembers Lieutenant Perez as the highest of the high fliers, the darling of the “early promote” sweepstakes, and the constant topic of the senior officer’s water cooler chat. “Who is Lieutenant Collins,” they ask. “Too bad Lieutenant Perez isn’t here…”
That example is not exactly how promotion boards work (although I’m not allowed to give you specific details, I cannot confirm or deny that extremely silly hats come into play in the later rounds), but you get the idea. You spent a long time creating a service reputation. Hopefully it is a good one. That reputation is attached to your name. Don’t waste all that effort; let your present, former, and future colleagues know you’ve changed your name.
It occurs to me your own particular cachet may not be as fragrant as you might wish (that unfortunate incident with the General’s dog and the fire extinguisher, perhaps?). If so, perhaps not advertising your name change might be the best course of action.
Don’t forget the material costs of a name change: name tapes, name tags, re-stenciling your gear, new dog tags, new address stamps, new electronic signatures, a new plaque under your name on the NCO of the Quarter board, updated name on the watch bill, etc. etc. On second though, do yourself a favor and skip that last one. When the Senior Watch Officer goes nuts because Lieutenant Perez didn’t show up for duty muster, you can roll over and hit the snooze button, confident that “Lieutenant Perez” no longer exists…
Don’t do that. I am totally kidding about that being a good idea.
The military lifestyle is challenging. Married life can be challenging. Combining military life and married life has the potential to make challenging seem like, well, I don’t know, something really easy, like beating the Buffalo Bills in the Super Bowl. With a little planning, foresight, and diligence, however, the combination can be a rewarding one.
Your next challenge will be making sure your new dependent is registered (properly) in DEERS, getting them an ID card, and introducing them to the military lifestyle. If you are both active duty, there are other decisions to make. These steps, and these decisions, however, we’ll discuss in a future article.