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.