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The New and Improved US Army Signal Corps

I have been associated with the US Army Signal Corps since 1985, yes sir, that is over 33 years.  For the majority of that time, I have been disappointed with the leadership, direction and culture of the branch.  I tried at various times to divorce myself from the branch, once when offered a menu of options I choose to accept a cash payment in lieu of a transfer and I regretted that decision often.  My views, more or less have always been consistent with the observations I made recently in a post called “Three questions that defined the US Army Signal Corps“. It has been my considered opinion that the branch produced some of the worst officers in the Army.   In my estimation, we have been led over the years by generals that simply did not get it.   The branch, historically, has been burdened by an entrenched bureaucracy at Fort Gordon that was generally out of touch with what the warfighter really needed and often incapable of innovative thought.

I recently discussed my observations out at the National Training Center (NTC) and my assessment is that the Signal Corps continues to fail to provide the types of mobile, agile, secure systems the warfighter wants and needs.  Worse, tactical skills and acumen among Signal Soldiers are, in my considered opinion, at their lowest point in the 33+ years I have been around.  However, upon returning from the desert I saw a reason to hope for a better future.

I contend and will continue to assert, that it was wasteful and stupid to create the Cyber branch.  The roles and functions of that branch are not unique or different enough from what the Signal and Military Intelligence branches were capable of doing.  Creating a new branch just added waste, bureaucracy and desynchronization.  However, it is a fiat accompli, it is done.  With this change, I think the Signal Corps has the opportunity to divorce itself from the computer geek image and culture and become relevant teammates, partners and supporters of the warfighter.

The contract I was working came up for renewal last Friday.  I was offered the opportunity to stay on with the new company, with a significant raise.  However, something interesting happened last Thursday.  I received the offer letter from the new company but I also received an offer for a GS position with the Signal School.  The GS position was for much less money, it is not the ideal role and I probably will not have much of a voice unless I find a way to work myself out of the dungeon.  The thing is, I sense something new is going on in the Office of the Chief of Signal and the Signal School.  I wanted to be part of that.

The contract position was with Capabilities Development Directorate (CDID).  That organization is filled with old bird Colonels that should retire, old GS employees that have been on the job too long (most that have been promoted far beyond their capabilities).  CDID is a dead, old, slow, cumbersome beast that has produced bad doctrine and poor materiel solutions.  The money was nice but CDID, as it stands, is the past, a boat anchor!

Fortunately, the future looks good.   Pieces and parts of what is now CDID will soon have to vet their ideas and products through the Signal Branch, instead of developing doctrine and solutions in a vacuum of old tired heads.

Training is moving out from behind computer monitors into the field.  Soldiers are being trained, for the first time in a long time to be warrior technicians instead of geeks.  Additionally, the model of training is giving way to education, a point me and others have screamed for over the years.   If you educate a young man in the fundamentals he can, over a career, master many skills as opposed to trying to train him in a short period on things that quickly become irrelevant.  These are good changes.

I cannot say with certainty if these changes will hold. It is impossible to know if the vanguard of old heads occupying desks and cubicles will coalesce to inject stupid into this progress.  I also cannot know if I myself will be around as a GS employee long enough to see any of this come to fruition.  As I said, my current role is certainly not intellectually compelling.   However, I do, for the first time in 33 years have great hope for the Signal Corps and I am very happy that at this point in my life and career I have the opportunity to be part of the change.

Signal Corps Soldier

Contractor Life

I just returned from almost 30 days at the National Training Center (NTC) observing Cyber, EW and Signal guys do their respective things.   You may ask why on earth would one voluntarily spend time there.  I can only say – it was a lot of fun.  Driving an air-conditioned Jeep Wrangler around the desert, wearing comfortable clothes and sleeping each night at the Landmark Inn sure beats the O/C life (I enjoyed that too when I had that job by the way).

If you are interested in my observations and have Intelink access take a look here.

I was painfully reminded that not much has changed since I was assigned there, observing brigades month after month. Take a look at Three Questions that Defined the US Army Signal Corps to see what I am talking about.

Overall, I am glad I took the contract.  The contract is ending and up for renewal at the end of this month so it was really a no-brainer in terms of long-term commitment.  I may stay with a new offer and keep on observing or not, I will wait to decide.  It was, however, enlightening to get back around military folks and do what I know.  It was and is such a different experience that my foray into project management at the University where I worked during terminal leave and the first few months of retirement.  The money is a lot better in contracting also – the University paid a fair wage but there is so much more to be made working as a contractor.

There is something simple and comfortable about working in your wheelhouse, with a culture you understand and appreciate.  Add to that the fact that as a contractor you have such freedom, freedom to speak your mind and do what you think is right.   Having your finances in order before retirement makes that so much smoother and more comfortable. There are many things to consider when looking at post-military retirement work, but my experience thus far with contracting has been rewarding.

The bottom line is, I am actually having fun going to work.  I like the people I am around, I like the work and I love the freedom.

I did not enjoy missing the wife and the dogs and all of my stuff.   I certainly cannot see myself doing this long-term.  Right now, however, it is a heck of a lot of fun!

Post-Retirement 7-Month Azimuth Check

I officially retired 01 APR 2018, however, I went on terminal leave in JAN and took a position as a Project Manager at a small university (perhaps I should have read my own article I wrote much later).  I plan to write a much more detailed article about project management and how it does and does not fit with military veterans and retirees.  There are many articles that suggest this as a natural course, after all, many of us are accustomed to synchronizing efforts, setting and following timelines and basically getting things done.  These are key skills that translate well into project management – with a caveat – at the right place, in the right role and in the right culture.

Any company, anywhere, that seeks a person that thinks on their feet, can understand and follow “doctrine” and best-practices but is agile enough to adjust on the fly and has a proven record of getting things done in adverse, chaotic and challenging environments would do well to hire many veterans for a project management role.  I can think back to the faces and names of dozens of aggressive staff officers and see them making a real impact in a company that knows how to ride the various horses it adds to its stable.

I have been a member of PMI (the Project Management Institute) for about a year and a half.  Through various venues, I have met a lot of PMP’s and discussed how they do things at their company.  I have read various articles and probably just like you I have previous experiences with PMPs that worked for contractors as part of contracts I either managed or worked with.  I certainly do not know all there is about the “profession” but I have made some observations.

First, the term “project manager” is used in job advertisements to describe everything from vacuum cleaner salesmen to administrative assistants to engineers managing massive capital construction projects.  Despite PMI’s efforts to say it is a profession,  and their test, anybody can, and is called a project manager.

Second, not every organization that employees project managers, in the sense that PMI perhaps intends, operates in the same way.  On one end of the scale are organizations that look for PMs that can be that aggressive staff/action officer, taking broad guidance and intent and shaping plans, timelines and actions to get the task and mission accomplished.  On the other far end are organizations that see project management as a set of constraints, rigid left and right boundaries, and project managers as nothing more than applicators of those constraints and mere administrative staff to collect and report data.

I did not know it for sure when I accepted my position, but I  joined the later type of organization, one that sees project management as a set of hard-wired rules that could be applied in almost all situations.

From this I took my first lesson-learned: LL#1 Don’t fear not getting a job in the interview, have a real conversation and get a clear understanding.

I made this realization pretty quickly into the position but I determined that I would stay at least a year, perhaps eventually show them there were other ways and learn to embrace some of their controls.

An early red-flag, one that continually popped up weekly, if not daily, was this organization’s experience with another veteran.  This fellow held my position previous to me.  He was younger than I, he left the Army as a Captain, I did not and do not know him personally but I knew something about him.  My wife also works at this university, she had been familiar with him and some of his projects.   I was initially informed that his departure was amicable and mutual but over time I began to sense much angst toward him and perhaps even the mention of his name.  We will call him Tom for this narrative.

Almost weekly, when I would come across a problem or a roadblock in a project and I would envision possible courses of action to get around it I would hear words like “Tom did that and so and so did not like it, we cannot do that”.   No matter how illogical the conclusion was that had become part of the law.   I began more and more to ask myself why am I seeing the same type of solutions to the same type of problems, better solutions than the ones I am being dictated?   Tom is human, as a human he is fallible, I do not know a lot about him other than the things he did are the things I would have expected of him as a young staff officer, these were the same type solutions I was coming up with.

I realized the organization simply had not known how to utilize Tom and they were unwilling to learn from him.  My second realization was that I would likely be no different.

And this taught me my second lesson-learned: LL#2 Make sure you go to work for a company that hires you to do what you know.

I very likely would have resolved to stay for the year I had committed to in my mind if it had not been for one additional factor.   The week after I began they moved a person from another department in as a project manager.  I found this person’s character and personality revolting.  I dreaded going to meetings to hear their opinion of proper project management and even Oxford commas.  They fancied themselves and expert on the military (because their father was a cook), the English language and government relations.  They even schooled me one day on how the government works because they are enrolled in a public administration course at night. I suppose I never learned that much dealing with so many government agencies myself.

In our business in the military, where we can say real words, this person and I would have come to terms, one way or another.  In the world of “nice” words and no ability to perhaps call them out for combatives you are left with few options when faced with an obstinate fool.

My third lesson-learned from this experience; LL#3 Life too short to associate with people you do not want to.

I would have powered on through #1 and #2 but when combined with #3 I was done.   I turned in my notice in mid-April.  I made it four months.  I had become that statistic I had sworn not to be, I was a veteran that left their first full-time job in the first year.  I offered to work part-time for a few months to finish out a project, they accepted and I have been doing that since.  That project is wrapping up now and I look back to wonder what all went wrong.   The three months as part-time were great.  I did not attend meetings with the loud-mouth.  I did not ask permission to do what is right to move my project along.  I came in, I did my work, I pushed things that needed to be pushed and I submitted reports.   Ultimately, that is just the sort of job I was looking for, if the last three months were the reality I would still be employed full-time, and happy.

I do not regret taking the position.  I turned down others before and since, some that paid much more.  However, money was never the main objective.  I wanted a position where I could use my skills, do what I know, make a difference and enjoy the people around me.  None of that materialized sufficiently to make me stay.  I learned a lot (about myself and people), I got to ride to work with my wife and have lunch with her for a time and that was nice but in the final equation, things did not balance.

How could this have worked better?   I take all the blame.

The organization simply did not know what they had in Tom and they did not know what they had in me.  I am certain during the interview process I could have and should have spoken up, been more candid, asked questions during the time the red-flag popped up.  They may not have hired me, people in the civilian world turn interviews on small things, but if that were the case it was not a loss and still the right thing to do.  At the time I thought I was clear about me, who I am and what I want but perhaps not.

I should have set the conditions for our relationship in a stronger way earlier.  I do not need to be managed, I will not ask permission to do what is right and I do not need to be retrained on everything I know.   If I were a youngster, without a pension, perhaps I would need to accept that I have to change most of who I am.   They hired a  guy that spent 30 years in the Army doing things.  Obviously, I have much to learn, change and adjust – but my core – that is simply who they hired.  I failed to establish the proper parameters early on.  We could have done great things together, not teaching them how to utilize me was my failure.

Finally, we certainly did not like everyone we served with in the military.  However, our promotion system over time would rid the system of people like the individual from LL#3.  If they had ever been commissioned in the first place they would have been sent home as a lieutenant.  I would not have worked with this person as a “peer” at this juncture of my life.   However, I take responsibility for this.   I should have taken charge of the situation earlier.  Perhaps announced my disdain for dealing with them and given the organization an opportunity to make an adjustment one way or another.

I take the blame because I control me.  Companies that want to leverage and tap into the skills and experience that veterans bring to the table could learn by applying the converse of the above.

My free-time since May while I worked just part-time has been great.  I have worked on tasks I thought I would never get to.  One of my hobbies is reading and writing about the philosophy of John C. Calhoun, another is genealogy.  As much as those subjects may interest me they do not make for solid general social conversation, most people glaze their eyes over

It has been a great life – but there has been a subtle burning desire.  I want to do a few more things.  Pile up some extra money and maybe have one more adventure.

So.

Moving forward – I have decided to do something that I almost swore I would not do – Defense Contracting.  A young fellow with a small subcontractor reached out to me twice about an O/C-T position, I rebuffed him the first time.   The second time I told him I would consider it and within 5 days they sent me an offer letter.  My how different the process is compared to civilian jobs.   No formal interview – just a conversation about the task to see if you are the real deal.   No references – your record and the people that know you speak to that.  No long process – they have a contract with an empty spot and they need your skill-set.

I am excited to see what the next few months bring.  I had the most enjoyable three years of my career out at Fort Irwin as an O/C and now I get to go back – this time with an air-conditioned Jeep! This will NOT be forever, it is not my full purpose,  and that flight back and forth between rotations will get tiresome but I get back to the desert, in boots, training troops.  What is not to love about that, if just for a short time.

Pro-Tip – Install MS Outlook for the Retired Guys

Lets’ face it, no matter how hooah, oorah, hooyah, squared-away, ship-shape, high-speed, low-drag (and whatever Air Force people say about themselves) you are, at some point in your career you began to spend more time at your desk than out eating snakes, shooting things, getting dirty and generally having fun.   Invariably, your days were controlled more or less by what your Outlook calendar told you that you should be doing.    In some positions, you probably even had someone that filled up your days and sometimes nights with meetings, tasks, phone calls and appointments for you.

Then magic happens.   You sign out on terminal leave to begin your retirement, thinking you are free of that tireless master and its dammed tasks.  Your pace slowed, there was still much work to do but you had a to-do list and appointments written down – no worries.

It is all fun and games until you realize you are a little lost without the safety of a calendar, that thing you grew to hate but also that thing that added structure to your day.

Here is the most critical lesson I learned after freeing myself from the beast of Outlook.   Paper lists and a calendar on Gmail just do not cut it.  Sometimes you just have to accept who you are, or rather who you have become.   You are comfortable with a calendar in Outlook, it puts order to chaos and provides a visual reference to your schedule.   There are many things to free yourself from, but this is not one.

If, for some reason you do not already have a Gmail account – something other than “snakeeater1970” or perhaps tragically worse “colonel.nolife” – go to Google and sign up for one, it is easy and free.   Set up a simple email with just a variation of your name.   Avoid like the plague numbers and dates if you can, it makes you look like an old guy. Then purchase MS Office if you do not already have it if you do it while still on active duty it cost something like $10 on each service’s knowledge portal.  You need a professional email for many purposes so if your personal email does not meet the standard now is the time to hit two birds with the proverbial one stone.

I will say again, use Gmail, not Yahoo and certainly not your cable provider – those too make you look old and out of touch.  Besides, Gmail has a workable interface that connects to Outlook easily.

A simple Google search of “how to connect Gmail to Outlook” will return many sites that instruct you on the next steps, here is a useful one.  Use IMAP, not POP – you will not regret it.

Office has a free option to install apps on your smartphone so that you carry that calendar with you – just like the old days except for the most part YOU are really in charge now.

Do this one thing, for yourself.   There is no point in trying to reinvent the wheel and no purpose in cutting the chord on something that has been such a big part of your life.   Perhaps you will not forget a VA appointment written on a piece of paper like I did if you follow this advice – heed my words.

One word of caution – give your spouse write access to your calendar at your peril!  Sure, you thought you were cleaning out your building tomorrow but when a new “appointment” shows up you might come to regret the entire “calendar on your phone thing”.

Read about my mission here at Finding Purpose.

Post Military Retirement: Considerations on Seeking a Second Career

In recent posts, I discussed why we need purpose after retiring from the military and provided some examples of people I have observed that left service without purpose and balance and, in my observation, have done retirement all wrong.   The questions for us are why and how might we avoid this trap?  I contend that the problem begins with expectations set generally by external sources.   A simple Google search of related topics returns a majority employment and job sites.

This popularity is based primarily on what people search for and believe to be important.  However, there is also a certain inertia going on here.  People approaching transition use the Web to search topics, they see a majority of results related to employment and they get a sense that this should be a priority.  The preponderance of sites represented builds a social critical mass that reinforces the popularity of the subject and paints a narrative. That narrative is. “the normal and expected thing to do is to look for a second career”, it then follows that the searcher should also look for a new job in order to be like everyone else.

Is it appropriate to accept a norm that many others follow just because it is popular and it seems expected?   Will this bring each and every one of us happiness and provide sustaining purpose?  Following expectations for the sake of saving face, filling a void and doing what one thinks they should do is not a recipe for happiness.

The following are points I suggest you consider before diving into an all-consuming career search.

Family

We dedicated our lives to a career that demanded we live and work in places mostly not of our own choosing.  Many of us experienced divorce and marriage difficulties as a result.  All of us with children lost time and opportunities that can never be replaced.   Only you can know what you need (financially, emotionally, intellectually) at this point in your life.  Sometimes one or more of those need factors dictate for us a requirement to either look for work or to look for a particular type of work in specific a location.   My point here, as you consider the points below, separate wants and needs in your considerations and to place your family as a need.

Financial

We live in a consumer society, many people go their entire lives spending at, just below or, sadly, sometimes just above their income.  Oftentimes, our wants expand to a level equal to our means, if this persists our debt creates an actual need.  Each of our situations is unique.  Taking the long view, it is wise to separate real wants from needs and ensure that current and future spending does not create a debt related need.   Nothing can rob you of your new-found freedom quicker that expanding your post-retirement bill.  One of the first steps is to get clear about your financial situation, what you really need to live a fulfilled life; separate wants and needs.

Cultural

Terms like “cultural fit” are common in the employment space.  Ideally, companies have a firm grasp of their real culture and there is a true alignment between their stated principles and real actions.   This is not always the case.   Likewise, job-seekers should have a firm grasp of the sort of culture they want to be involved with.  During the interview and pre-employment phase full disclosure and vetting by both parties should occur.  This is not always the case.   Job seekers often dismiss warning signs of a cultural mismatch.  As military veterans we pride ourselves on our adaptability, we assume standards are standards, we know we can adapt and we have faith that despite any warning signs, we can work it out.

Culture is, in my observation, more important to veterans than most.  It is critical to place this element high on your needs list before deciding to seek employment.  High pay, a title or a nice office cannot overcome our inherent need to fit ethically and culturally with the organizations and people we associate with.

Intellectual

In our profession, there were many opportunities to utilize the fullest our capacity of thought, intelligence and innovation.  Certainly, the military has a system, constraints and a bureaucracy, and certainly not each and every assignment was intellectually challenging, but the profession was what you made of it and it allowed you to use, within the system, all of your faculties and abilities.  It is important to ask yourself how important this is to you before deciding to (or not) begin a career search.   Not every job or role will challenge you.  Perhaps you believe you would be happy with a position that left energy available for other pursuits.  The thing with full-time work is, it consumes most of your energy and time.   Just because the work appears doable and the pay is acceptable does not mean it may not prove menial, boring and perhaps soul-sucking. Remember, full-time work takes up a full week, be careful what you ask for.

After honestly and fully pondering all the above to identify your real needs and wants and a priority of those you will have a better idea of what right look like for you in terms of if you should seek a post-retirement career, a job (full or part-time) or to make your own way via some other means.   Just because so much of the noise and traffic related to transition talks about employment does not mean that must be your first and only option.

Last point

If after a complete inventory of your needs, wants and values you conclude that you want to seek a second career I suggest you forego any thoughts of a long (think 12 months or longer) “sabbatical” or break after retirement.   A vacation, a trip, a month to reorganize and settle is fine, but a long break diminishes your value.   Hiring managers, HR people and, well, people in general in the civilian world just do not understand fully the financial freedom you enjoy and are unlikely to understand a break.  It is not part of the general cultural norm.  In the civilian world, a break equals less value and diminishing skills.

There is great power in interviewing while you are still on active duty.  In the minds of civilian employers, there is greater value in a person that has a position.  Right or wrong, that is a general perception.  When you are still on active duty and interviewing, you appear as a free agent, someone to be recruited.  Afterward, you appear like a job applicant.   It is a subtle reality of the world of civilian employment.   This fact should not be taken to mean you rush your decision as to whether you seek a career or follow another path.   It is just a data point to add to your evaluation of the operational environment.

I would love to hear from others that have entered the workforce or chose a different path, what were your considerations, mistakes and lesson-learned?  Comment below.

Read about my mission here.

Military Retirements Gone Wrong

It is hard, impossible actually, to look at the life choices another person makes and truly evaluate the merits or estimate all the factors that went into their decision. On clear-cut situations of morals or ethics, we can often be sure, but other matters are more complicated.   I say upfront to establish that I can never know why the characters in the stories I am about to relate made the choices they did.  My perception was and is based on the facts that I could see. 

Having provided that disclaimer, herein I have listed the stories of a few individuals that, in my opinion, did things all wrong once they retired from the military.  I have changed the names, and in some cases minor specifics about geography, just to make sure not to personally insult or identify anyone.

Jerry

Jerry does not fit squarely into the demographic I focus on here.  He was a civilian GS employee, a lawyer, and had never served.   Jerry was in his 60’s when I meet him.  I include Jerry because frankly, he is almost a caricature of so many military retiree government employees I have seen over the years.  Jerry represents all that is depressing about civilian government service – many military retirees become some version of Jerry.

I meet Jerry in a relatively calm middle eastern country, we had several civilian lawyers on staff.  My organization had a budget with almost unlimited overtime funds for the civilians, and Jerry was on that like a fat kid on a donut.

My evaluation of Jerry is that he turned virtue into vice.

He worked, many long hours, hard work is a virtue.  He was in the office all day, middle of the night and all weekend with breaks to shower, eat and sleep.  He accumulated the regulatory maximum allowed overtime hours each week.  (for those that do not know, in civilian government work all hours above 40 per week are compensated in either overtime pay or compensatory time that carries over like vacation)

Jerry had was divorced, owned a home in the Washington, DC area and had an adult daughter that was going to law school.  Jerry’s entire life revolved around “taking care of his daughter”.   In this Jerry turned another virtue into a vice.  His daughter went to prestigious schools for her undergraduate and graduate degrees, paid for by Jerry, and he was paying all expenses for her law degree.  In one regard, Jerry should be commended for being a wonderful provider.

Here is the problem with Jerry, and so many folks I have seen in civilian government service over the years that make his mistake, he worked hard because he kept adding to his bill. Jerry was an angry, bitter, nasty little man.  Jerry had no joy in his life.  I suspect his relationship with his daughter was really one of he gives, and she takes and in the end, he will have taught her how to live poorly.

Terry

Terry was also a man in his 60’s and a fellow that I meet in yet another middle eastern country.  Terry was a military retiree, a retired Chief Warrant Officer 4, and a GS-14 government employee.

Terry’s problem was twofold. First never transitioned and second, he never thought he had achieved the level of authority he deserved.   Terry was married to an awfully patient lady, he was a grandfather to a bunch of little kids, but he had spent most of the years since retiring in the middle-east searching for a way to achieve the level of authority he thought he deserved.   Our office was in a converted villa and Terry had a desk in the next “bedroom” over from mine.  I could occasionally hear him on the phone with his wife, she begging him to hang it all up and come to sit on the porch with her.  Terry always refused, until the day his heart gave out and we shipped him home.

In that job, our civilians would occasionally wear uniforms when dealing with our foreign military counterparts.  The standard for such is that they wear a symbol that represents their GS status with their name.  Not Terry, he took to wearing Lieutenant Colonel rank, he was one of those that firmly believed his GS paygrade had a direct correlation to a military rank (it does not).   Our counterparts respected age and since Terry was old and in charge of completing the paperwork that authorized funds they thought he must be very important, this is after all, what Terry sought.

I recall on many occasions one of them asking me, where is “Colonel Terry”, “there is no Colonel Terry” I would retort in frustration, Terry was basically an overpaid administrator that should have been filling out forms, not running around the desert living a fantasy.

Terry was another grumpy, angry little man.  He essentially abandoned his wife and family in search of something that would make him feel whole, something he never really found.  In the end, it cost him his health and he returned home, just as his wife asked, but not in the state she wanted.

Ted

Ted was one of those field grades that retired in the late 1990’s and he epitomized the characteristics of the cohort he belonged to.    In the early 1990’s the military conducted a reduction in force (RIF).   Many smart folks have written about the impact that RIF had on the culture of the officer corps for the next decade.   Ted and folks like him were young officers when the RIF occurred.  They saw good people shown the door and this taught them a terrible lesson.   Basically, this group grew up to become career focused in a very negative way.  By the end of the 1990’s, when this group was in charge, the military was infected with a toxic culture of leadership, this group generally did everything in their power to ensure that no mistakes attached to them.  They feared the RIF they saw when they were young.

Their negative impact was so great that by the early 2000’s the Army was losing Captains at an astonishing rate.  Young officers were leaving as soon as their commitment was up.  Exit surveys indicated that this group placed the blame squarely on the field-grade officers that were Ted’s contemporaries.  The young folks felt the senior guys could not be trusted, they had their self-interest as a priority and that they treated people wrong.

Ted retired about that time and entered civilian government service.   Sixteen years later when I meet him he was a stereotypical representative of everything bad about his cohort.  He ran a directorate that to his superiors seemed to get things done.  Inside, morale was low, people were unhappy, and I actually met one man that was physically and mentally affected by his daily dealings with Ted.

Ted was terrible for the Army while he served, that is obvious just looking at his character.  He has been terrible for the Army since retiring, that too is obvious.  What is more, Ted does not even seem happy for all the misery he creates around him as he seeks to maintain a role and title.  Ted is a fat, sweaty man, has had a couple heart attacks and seems stressed all the time.

It seems to me, Ted has made poor life choices for a long time, and very likely when his end comes nobody will really miss him or think highly of the work or position he coveted.   Ted has done life and retirement all wrong.

Bob

Bob and I worked together on several assignments and deployments. He was just a few years older than me, thus I watched his transition to retirement closely.  Bob was on his second wife when he retired, she was younger and seemed excited by the prospect of moving into a new phase of his life with him.

Bob was an adrenaline junkie.   He loved deployments, he loved doing “stuff and things” and he never seemed happy at home.   Overall, he was a very decent guy, the sort you could count on to do the right thing when it counted.  He was also something of a smart-ass and this did not always go over well with less capable leaders.  Bob retired because he had too, passed over twice because of his mouth.   I suspect he would have stayed until he had to use a walker if given the choice.

He did not look for work long, really, he did not even look for real work.   Bob went straight into the employ of a security contractor and went right back to the middle east.  I received messages from him for two years related to his latest exploits.  In 2012 I got a message that his young wife was divorcing him and taking his newest child.   In 2013, I learned that he was fired from a major security contractor for being drunk on duty in Afghanistan.   Later that year I learned that Bob had shot himself in a small apartment in North Carolina.

 

Is there a theme to these four examples?   I believe the theme is that none of these fellows found balance.   Some tuned virtue into vice, all placed their needs above others – even when they perhaps thought they were being selfless.  None of them found happiness in retirement.  All of them sacrificed their health or life in their struggle.

Lesson’s learned is an important concept in the military.  We can learn from the mistakes of these four men as we plot our own course and find a pathway to purpose and happiness.

Read about my mission here.

The Need for Purpose: Military Retirees

  It is important that we get real and exact about the dark corners of our minds and the potentially even darker things that live there.   If you are like me, you believe that this is just something “other veterans” deal with.   I challenge you, read on, and consider some facts.

Veteran Suicide Statistics, 2014 (VA 2016)

  •  In 2014, an average of 20 Veterans died from suicide each day. 6 of the 20 were users of VA services.
  •  In 2014, Veterans accounted for 18% of all deaths from suicide among U.S. adults, while Veterans constituted 8.5% of the US population. In 2010, Veterans accounted for 22% of all deaths from suicide and 9.7% of the population.
  •  Approximately 66% of all Veteran deaths from suicide were the result of firearm injuries.
  •  There is continued evidence of high burden of suicide among middle-aged and older adult Veterans. In 2014, approximately 65% of all Veterans who died from suicide were aged 50 years or older.
  • After adjusting for differences in age and gender, the risk for suicide was 21% higher among Veterans when compared to U.S. civilian adults.

We have all heard about this, we understand it, and yet – it really must be something that applies just to other veterans, right?   After all, my purpose here is to talk to folks like me.  That is, retired field grade officers.  That is the group I belong to and it is that specific experience that I write about.  Read again that fourth bullet down, 65% of veteran suicides are in the over 50 age group.   Are we hitting closer to home yet?

I cannot find specific data related just to retirees (if anyone has that please post a link in the comments or email me). 

However, let’s talk about something we likely always joked about as we were coming up through the ranks.   Do you recall those instances when a particular “hard-ass” was finally placed in a position that he had to retire?  You remember these guys.  People would say things like, “he won’t make it”, implying he would just up and die soon after taking off the uniform because had had no other identity.   We all probably heard the stories of retired folks that died not long after retirement.  Most of us also said to ourselves, “I am not that guy”. I certainly did not think I was, I loved the military but never lived my rank or let it define me, I thought I would have an easy time transitioning.

Wives’-tales and folk -stories like our view of retiring “Colonel Hard-Ass” above have value and are often correct.  However, in this case, statistically speaking, military retirees actually live longer than the civilian population.  According to a DOD Board of Actuaries report in 2009, military officer retirees at age 60 have a life expectancy four years greater than our civilian counterparts.

However, the report indicated that Reserve officers were 22% less likely and enlisted 10% less likely than their active duty counterparts to die in a given year after age 60.   If we discard the American general population numbers, which obviously contain some number of morbidly obese and those that lived a sedentary life, and compare active duty to reservist only there is something interesting there.  Perhaps that old folklore that people do not live long lives after retiring is not entirely untrue.

What do these numbers tell us?

  • Veterans over age 50 comprise 65% of veteran suicides (veterans only comprise 8.5 percent of the population but overall account for 18% of all US suicides). Unfortunately, in this category, old guys are ruling.
  • Even though we lived a relatively active lifestyle, we are likely to die at a higher rate than our reservist cousins that were required also to remain active and in shape but had a more balanced overall life.

These numbers say to me that we have a fair chance of considering suicide or of living a life that is not fulfilling enough to allow us to take full advantage of a lifetime of physical activity.   Whether we are taking overt acts to kill ourselves our just wandering through an unbalanced life that results in death coming sooner, many of us are not living as long as we perhaps thought we would.

If either of my conclusions is correct, we have a problem and we need to discuss it openly and frankly.  One of my goals, pre-retirement, was to draw more retirement checks than I did paychecks.  Implied in that was the notion that I would be happy and carefree along that journey.  But how? This is the question so few of us know the answer to before we leave service.  Previously, I thought it was a simple equation, now I am not certain.

I certainly never thought, not in my wildest dreams, that any thought other than ecstatic elation could ever enter my head once I took off the uniform.  After all, we planned and worked meticulously to ensure that our finances were in order.  We have a nice home, cars, toys, and entertainment.  My kids are provided for in terms of a college education.  My wife has a career she enjoys with goals she still wants to achieve and people she likes.  My retirement check and her income are adequate to allow us to live the lifestyle we are accustomed to.  What else could one ask for and why would one ever have anything remotely related to a dark thought?

For me, these dark thoughts have only been very fleeting.  Almost like a shadow, you know it is there, you can make out the shape but then it is gone.

They relate to:

  • “My kids do not understand or appreciate me.”
  • “My body is getting older and less useful, and it will just get worse.”
  • “People really just have no idea who I am, where I have been or what I have done and most really do not care.”
  • “Am I really going to be one of ‘those people’ sitting at the military pharmacy?”
  • “My ex-wife is taking some of my retirement!” (unfortunately many of us are divorced)
  • “What is the point of it all?”

I do not know why thoughts like this would ever form, perhaps nobody at this point really does.   I heard an interesting quote on a radio show the other day, “PTSD is knowing that you will never again be that much of a badass”.  There may be truth to that.

The other week, I was driving on to post to do some business and a young Soldier in a nice truck was sitting beside me at a red light. I looked over and thought this must be his first new truck.  I remember back when I was him, working for things, filled with uncertainty and hope but with the confidence that I would see it all through.  I laughed and thought that he looks forward to being me, and there I was nostalgically looking at him and his journey ahead.  Ironic.

Perhaps the reason our population group is less likely to live a long life and more likely to end our life by choice is the realization that we are not a young stud anymore and never again will be, and that we have arrived at our destination.  What is the next mission, the next objective to cross and the next task? It seems, happiness, for happiness sake is only a rally point it is not an objective where we can set up camp and stay.

That is the purpose of my writing here.  This is a personal journey of finding how one achieves the balance of understanding “ you have arrived” and also there is “one more thing you can do”.

There must be much than:

  • Drawing a nice retirement check, taking a few vacations, working on a few house projects. (this likely fits well into a balanced approach, but I do not think this is the full answer)
  • Going out and seeking a job because we think that is what we must do. (post-military retirement work may well be part of the answer, but I fear many pursue it as the cure rather than the garnishment; soul-sucking work for the sake of “having a job” is not happiness)

I suggest that there is much more to a balanced, whole-life approach to what we do post-retirement.  I contend that finding this balance, finding sustainable, meaningful next missions is the key to real happiness.  No one thing, job, club membership, a new title can provide real and lasting happiness.

We need to accept that darkness really does lurk in the shadows and that we are part of a population that statistically, via one form or another, succumbs to that darkness in great numbers.  If we want to be the positive outlier on that bell curve we must find a tangible and enduring purpose that enables us to transform from one life into another, not to survive but to thrive.

I hope you join me on this journey, comment, share, throw rocks.  Perhaps we will all learn.  Learn more about my Mission here at Finding Purpose.

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VA (2016). “VA Suicide Prevention Program Facts about Veteran Suicide.”

Edit:  I just found a fabulous post by a fellow that just received his second pass for promotion and is dealing with SELCON and how to look at it positively.  If you went to 20 and beyond and retired on your own terms then perhaps on those days you lack purpose and focus it is advisable to utter that very useful Army slogan “it could be worse”.   Read Bob’s post “What to do When The Army Stops Promoting You” if you stumbled upon my post and find yourself in his shoes.