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 more 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.


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.