(Pensacola, Florida; Jan. 23, 2022) – The military life is a fast-paced, tightly scheduled animal defined by rigid schedules and flavored with the endless expectation each member will never stop striving forward towards greater leadership and responsibility.
The post-military ‘slow down’ in life can make you feel like a bird flying smack into a plate glass window. The sudden deceleration, the sudden relinquishment of responsibility and leadership, can be disorientating, even calling into question our very worth as human beings. After all, if we’re not consistently doing at a high pace, then just who in the name of John Q. Arbuckle are we, right?
Human nature compels us to work. Our bodies are designed for activity, and our minds, when healthy, are restless, always seeking some new horizon. Some of us are more goal-driven than others, but, as a species, we’re built to strive, grow, and move forward. When I joined the Navy, it was this part of the human psyche that impelled me forward to my goal of making chief petty officer and doing great things while in uniform.
Sadly, this very aspect of our species is the very same one that can bedevil veterans to no end once we leave military service, especially if we’re disabled and unable to match our former levels of activity and responsibility. Our self-worth, so long defined by what we did and how high a rank we held, can take a brutal hit. After all, are we even worth anything as human beings if we can’t match our former heights of achievement and pace?
The obvious answer is, of course, yes. We are worth a great deal, but every veteran knows the chasm that can exist between what’s known and what’s felt. Feelings create their own realities of belief, even in the face of intellectual acknowledgment of a differing objective reality. How often have we ourselves said we know something isn’t true, but just can’t find it within ourselves to stop believing it because we feel so strongly?
I was talking with my friend and fellow retired chief petty officer, Jerry, about this just today. Jerry acts as my editor, and we’re currently plowing through my third novel, And So It Begins. During a break from punching my prose into a pithy and powerfully potent potion of storytelling, I mentioned I’d had a revelation about my own goals. I told Jerry I’d been thinking about volunteering with the local DAV to help other vets. This is a great goal, but what hit me was that I was falling into the trap of focusing on taking care of everyone else and not thinking that I might also need to be taken care of.
I told Jerry I thought I ought to look into some veterans groups to be part of instead of in charge of. Leadership might come later if I feel the desire to take on such responsibilities again, but the truth is I’m just not interested in being ‘the guy in charge’ right now, and maybe never again.
Jerry told me he also has zero desire to be in charge of anything. He said he’s simply “not hungry” anymore. That comment hit me pretty hard. I realized I’m not hungry anymore either, but that does not mean either he or I have turned into lazy sacks of excreted material. It means we both achieved the goals we had when we were younger, and now we’re ready for other things…and it’s ok if those ‘other things’ don’t involve being the person in charge.
In other words, deceleration is authorized. I didn’t hit all my Navy goals; no one ever does. My injuries (physical and psychological) led me to call it after 20 years instead of sticking it out and trying to make master chief. That wasn’t a failure; it was a wise decision to ensure this body I live in stays healthy enough for me to keep living successfully as I age. Following Jerry and I’s conversation, I realized making the choice to retire at 20 years was easy not only because of my health, but because I had hit all the major, ‘must-have’ goals I set for myself…and then some!
Deceleration is difficult because racing along the military life in a high-speed, low-drag manner is somewhat akin to a drug high. It can be hard to learn to live without gallons of adrenalin and excitement continuing to fuel us. I actually went through something similar during my fifth year in the Navy. I spent a few years on the flight line and flight deck, and, trust me, there is no more exciting, adrenalin-pumping life than being a flight deck aircraft maintainer! Once the Navy retired the F-14 and us photographers were folded into the public affairs community, my professional life slowed down so fast I spent over a year in the photo lab on Guam feeling jumpy and depressed simply because I wasn’t moving as fast. It took me over a year of shore duty to stop feeling worthless and stalled because I wasn’t living under the tyranny of a flight schedule anymore.
This is a challenge all vets have to face to one degree or another. It’s ok to slow down and not be the ‘go-getter’ you used to be. Perhaps you hit all those goals, and now you’re ready for a quieter life, or perhaps your own disabilities forced you to take a slower approach. Whatever the case, deceleration is authorized, but facing it without understanding what you’re facing can lead to depression, isolation, and feelings of worthlessness. Let’s be honest; it can be hard to feel that you’re doing something ‘worthwhile’ in a quiet civilian job after decades carrying weapons and operating in hostile environments. Slowing down doesn’t mean being bored; it just means finding what interests you in the now, now that you’ve completed your military service.
For myself, I’m going to change up the script and simply find one or two veterans groups to be a part of. I need to let my fellow vets support me as much as I want to support them. Leadership might come later, but, frankly, I don’t want to be in charge of anyone except me for a long time. This lark independently building my literary ‘empire’ is more than enough purpose for me to be happily going on with for the present!
Deceleration can be a challenge for many of us. It’s a challenge we all have to face, but none of us have to face it alone. The beauty of deceleration is that you’ve entered a time in life where you get to define new goals, values, and a new version of yourself. It might not be easy, but it is a chance to reinvent yourself and set your course for a new horizon. You just don’t have to do it alone.
Now, stay strong, stay aware of each other, and always remember to go and do great things!
Fall out, and carry out the plan of the day!
– Check out my video on this topic at: https://youtu.be/MWcElJAv7U4
– Veterans Crisis Line: 1-800-273-8255, and press 1; or, go to: https://www.veteranscrisisline.net/get-help/hotline
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