No Signposts

Like a boat leaving a ship for an unknown shore, life is a series of moments of transition into the unexplored.

The unknown frightens;
Planning used to rule my life.
Now I’ve no signposts.

 A haiku I wrote titled, appropriately, “No Signposts.”

Every military member, regardless of branch of service, shares two unique experiences that civilians will never truly grasp: the moment of putting on the uniform and relinquishing much control over one’s life to a greater cause, and the moment of taking that uniform off and reassuming the control and freedom one gave up in order to serve.

We all muster in.  We all muster out.  The only difference is how long we were in; the longer one is in, the more dramatic a shift in life one experiences when they muster out.

My father did 30 years in the Air Force.  It took him a few years to completely transition to civilian life and stop waking up before 6:00 every morning.  My brother and I both serve; I entered the Navy a year before he entered the Air Force.  I will be the first of us to retire and join our father in experiencing the smooth, awkward, exciting, terrifying, and mystifying shift to civilian life.

It is a myth and a back-handed insult that military people have no survival skills and only joined so the military would “take care” of them.

True, there is much the military does do for us.  We are told how to dress, where to go, what do to, how to advance, how to speak, even how to fold our underwear (no kidding).  However, these regimens exist not because we cannot cope, but rather to forge us into a team that will survive and come back alive when the shooting starts.  You cannot survive combat if you argue everything in a committee.

We learn how to survive and thrive in this environment.  I’d even wager the discipline and finesse we learn in maneuvering our way through the tightly regimented caste structure of the military gives us a leg up on our civilian counterparts who have experienced a much looser frame of life for those same years.  We’re not better, mind you, but I think military veterans have an augmented survival skill set.

The trick to transition comes when the reality sets in that much of what defined us will not be there anymore. Right now I am defined first as a Chief Petty Officer, and second as Nathanael.  As of Sept. 30, I will first and foremost just be Nathanael.  Identity is hard, very hard, for any human being to change.  We cling to our identities so tightly we can forget people of different identity backgrounds are human and as good people as we (just look how die-hard Republicans and Democrats immediately cast each other as “evil” and “Nazis”).

In the military we fight and stand for freedom.  But…freedom is hard.  Freedom is not for wimps.

Freedom is scary;
One must possess deep courage
To wield such power.

Another recent haiku trying to express the ontological crisis I am facing as I proceed through the retirement process.

My entire adult life has been, effectively, lived in the Navy.  I am also a man with a serious agoraphobia disorder.  Routine is my teddy bear; the unchanging structure of the Navy my security blanket.  That is one reason I stayed in despite the stresses of Navy life—it provided a structure around me until I was “grown up” enough to cope on my own.  I can do that now…but it is still doubly hard for me as for someone without agoraphobia.

I.  Need. A.  Job.

I am tracking where I should be in the retirement process, and that is objective truth.  But the subjective truth is that I hate not knowing where I’ll be working or living by the end of this year.  For the first time in 20 years I do not know where I’ll be.

People keep telling me this is an exciting time since I’m single and can go wherever.  For them I suppose it is.  For me it is simply another terrifying part of life I have to meet and overcome…all the more so because I’m the only single person I’ve ever known to retire from the military and start civilian life alone.  All my reference points are people who are married and have working spouses to provide a financial safety net as they transition.

As usual I’m on my own.

Yet, despite the fear and terror and stress I knew I’d encounter, I chose to go ashore this year.  I could have reenlisted.  However, I’ve done everything in the Navy I wanted to do…and more.  I find that, in spite of my agoraphobia and in spite of the terror that feel, I am ready to meet this challenge and face this Great Unknown.

That is freedom—being able to choose for yourself even in the face of your fear.  That is courage—doing what is right for you despite being afraid.

But…that doesn’t mean I have to like how I feel!

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