A defining moment for soon-to-retire Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, came years ago at the dinner table with his family.

At the time, Dempsey told a Military Child Education Coalition audience in downtown Washington, D.C., on Thursday, he had served in uniform for about 18 or 19 years, and was contemplating leaving at 20.

When he brought up the idea at the dinner table, his wife, Deanie, and their children loudly protested.

That "profound" moment, he said was when military service became "not just my particular passion, but our family's passion," he said.

But that wasn't the first time family considerations had impacted his career decisions. He said he originally went to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, because his mother wanted him to, but after arriving, he said, "It lit my fire."

Yet after graduating and beginning his active-duty service, he said he still wasn't set on making the military a career; in fact, he had promised his wife he would leave after his initial five-year obligation was met.

On Thursday — having racked up more than 40 years in the military — Dempsey and his wife were still hip-deep in military family issues as they took questions for more than half an hour from a panel of youth, including some military children, involved in MCEC's Student 2 Student program, which helps establish peer-based programs in schools to support mobile children who often transfer schools with their families.

About 600 people, including educators, service providers, military parents, military and civilian children and others, attended the 17th Military Child Education Coalition National Training Seminar.

The discussion included one of his mentors, Duke University basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski — "Coach K" — and the importance of military families to the force. Dempsey said he has had a number of mentors within and outside the military, and Krzyzewski was one of them.

"Mentors can illuminate ideas you may not have had for yourself," Dempsey said. "You don't need just one mentor. You have to cast your net wide."

Asked to describe in one word her life as wife of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Deanie Dempsey said, "humbling."

"I do have influence to help in some situations," she said, adding that she considers such opportunities to be an honor.

Martin Dempsey provided a glimpse of his wife's passion in his description of their travels. When they're on the go, she talks to military spouses while he talks to the troops. On the way home, he said, she eagerly tells him about what she's learned from the spouses regarding their family needs.

"I'm trying to get some sleep, and she's wearing me out," Dempsey quipped.

Asked about DoD's programs to support military children, he said that support extends beyond the Pentagon directorate that oversees family programs, and praised the service members and spouses in the field who are working to support military families, reinforcing the idea that the military recruits the individual but retains the family.

He said he considers family to be one of the three main foundational pillars of his life. As hard as you may pursue work, "you have to work equally hard at home in order to make sure you have a balance in your life," he said.

His other two pillars of support, he said, are the officers and the noncommissioned officers, the "standard bearers," who dish out brutal honesty when necessary and offer effusive praise when deserved.

Asked to describe his definition of success, Dempsey answered simply.

"I'm proud of being a soldier. I'm proud of being a husband and proud to be a father."

Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.

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