Today is Sept. 28, 2017. I finished cleaning the cabinets and completely moved out of my house, a yellow-sided home I whimsically named the “Yellow Duck” four years ago when I bought it. It’s the first house I have ever owned and I’m really very fond of it, but it’s time to sell it so I can move on. Today I effectively “decommissioned” the house to make it easier to sell.
My retirement ceremony was Sept. 22; I’m running out the clock now. My official last day of active duty is Sept. 30. I will join the civilian world Oct. 1. This moment I’m living is one that all of us in the military will face: the moment of leaving the service. For those of us who go all the way to retirement, the decades of service and emotional investment invariably make this transition at once exciting and difficult.
For at least 20 years now (if not more), you and I have defined ourselves largely by our uniform. I’m a Sailor; you’re an Airman, Soldier, Coast Guardsman, or Marine. We all have been part of a big organization that gave our lives direction, purpose, and, to an extent, meaning. Who we were was, to a great extent, defined by what we did.
All of that ends abruptly on the day we’re officially retired and discharged. Being nervous, feeling lost and uncertain, is normal for a healthy person. We’re embarking on a BIG unknown…but, guess what? We’ve all been here before.
How scared and disorientated were you when you went to boot camp and discovered that, for all your preparation, the reality transcended the theory by a great measure? How nervous were you 20 years ago as you were forced to adapt to an unforgiving military culture?
This is that same day again, just reversed. We’re used to fitting into a dynamic, demanding culture with clear caste boundaries. Now we have to learn to navigate the fluid, ill-defined cultural structure of the civilian world. For the second time in our lives, the rules are largely unknown to us.
We did it once. We can do it again.
It is entirely reasonable to be frightened during this time. A lot is changing all at once, and change is never easy. Fear is a normal part of change, and there is much to reasonably fear during this time.
We’re afraid of not finding a new job. We’re afraid the new job will be singularly unrewarding. We’re afraid of not fitting in with our new coworkers. We’re afraid our new life won’t have meaning. We’re afraid of how neutered we might be once we can no longer wield authority with the weight of military law behind us.
We’re afraid our very identity will be invalidated and be erased.
This is a lot to take on for anyone. Military retirement is not for the cowardly.
Coping with these emotions begins by understanding that fear is real, normal, and even healthy. If I weren’t fearful of destitution, I would not have been motivated to apply for so many jobs and to develop as many alternative plans as I have in order to ensure my survival. To paraphrase American flying ace Eddie Rickenbacker from back in World War I: courage is not the absence or fear; courage is doing in spite of the fear. There would be no courage if we weren’t afraid.
Coping comes through talking to people, as long as those people are trustworthy and know we’re not seeking answers from them so much as a listening ear so we can: a) not feel so alone and; b) plan for a good future.
Coping comes with acknowledging that we are facing, in a sense, a death. For something new to begin, something must end. For our new civilian lives to begin the old life of military duty must die. Ever noticed how much grief feels like fear? Perhaps we’re less afraid than we are sad. It’s normal to be sad, at least a little. We’re mourning the loss of something that meant a lot to us. While there should be excitement for the future, we also must allow ourselves the time to be sad and mourn what is passing irretrievably into history.
Coping comes by reminding ourselves nothing can change who we are. The person we became while in uniform will not be erased just because the uniform is no longer worn. Who we are cannot be changed by removing external things.
Coping comes by having a bit of fun. During our terminal leave we all need to stop and take a day here or there to just have fun. We all need to go the zoo, the aquarium, the coffee shop, etc., and enjoy ourselves. Remember, terminal leave is a time we’ve earned through hard work, sacrifice, and devotion to duty for a great many years. Now and then we all need to take some time to celebrate what we’ve accomplished and be excited about the future.
There is no easy answer to coping with the emotional roller coaster of retirement. Each of our personal pathways through this transition will be somewhat unique. Some people are intensely emotional and hardwired to talk through the transition in detail. Others aren’t so verbose and might find sufficient comfort by laughing with friends over lunch before going back to job hunting and planning a move, etc.
However, to some degree, we all will endure a roller coaster of competing emotions. To some degree we will all will feel insecure and uncertain about our futures. To some degree we all will have to learn to define ourselves by own terms and not by the military’s.
Do not fight the fears or the grief and do not fall victim to the trap of thinking such emotions a weakness. It takes a very strong person to admit being in pain. Instead of fighting, running away, or simply denying fear, grief, uncertainty, and anger, allow them to run their course. Feeling unpleasant emotions is decidedly, well, unpleasant. It is human nature to wish to avoid it, but avoidance will only make the experience that much harder. Allowing the negative feelings their place and time will enable them to pass that much more quickly.
There is no way to make the retirement process easy. It will be difficult, frightening, uncertain, and frustrating. But if we let those emotions have their place, the process can also shift to be become exciting and engaging. Just remember that we all did face this moment once before. That means we can do it again. Accept the fears and grief, but also look to the future and invaluable opportunity in front of you.
Accept this duality (fear and excitement, grief and elation). It’s just the way things are going to be for some time.
The military will no longer give your life meaning; however, now you get to define your meaning, so go do it. Go create your own purpose.
Go and do great things…only now you get to decide on what the “great things” are!
-Nathanael Miller Norfolk, Virginia