3 Signs That Tell You When It's Time to Leave the Military
I know you've asked yourself this question at least once during your journey through the military. You might have asked it each time that you received orders for a new duty assignment. Maybe you are asking yourself this question now as you consider uprooting your family for either an unattractive duty location or the prospect of another deployment. You might spend some time searching the internet for civilian job opportunities. Perhaps you'll even send a note to that colleague who told you to reach out as you got closer to transition. Given the current state of our economy, you certainly have some options. So, how do you know when the time is right to remove your body armor, unlace your boots, and remove the uniform that shaped your identity for the last decade or so?
The first time that I left the army, I did so for all the wrong reasons. First, I worked for some toxic leaders, and I assumed that what I had experienced in those few years were the only possible outcome for every subsequent year of military service. Second, I thought that leaving the army would magically solve any and all problems in my personal life. Third, I did it for the money. Recruiters loved hiring junior officers, and my first job offer was for a lot more money than what I was making as a young captain in the army. I transitioned from the military for the wrong reasons, and my life as a veteran was miserable.
From those mistakes and the many conversations I've had with veterans across the country, I've learned 3 signs that will tell you when it's time to leave the military. The first reason has to do with your health. The second concerns the distinction between what you want and what you think you might need. The last consideration is about your attachment to the uniform and perceived sense of personal value. Ultimately, these 3 reasons concern your potential for continued growth through the military and beyond.
Reason 1: Continued Service Compromises Your Health and Wellness
This sounds obvious, but I'm not talking about the usual suspects for health and wellness. Naturally, if you can no longer perform your duty given an injury, combat action, or other change to your physical or mental well-being, the military already has protocols to remove you from the line of duty. Since the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq began, we've developed more aggressive interventions to identify cases of traumatic brain injury (TBI), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and other issues related to the service member's state of emotional and mental wellness. Unfortunately, the cycle of deployments has created a revolving door between varying states of peace and war with largely unknown long-term consequences to the wellness of our military and veteran populations.
The sad truth is that we still don't know the long-term health implications of post-9/11 military service. The few studies that do exist suggest that the likelihood of succumbing to PTSD is three times more likely after the second deployment. We have men and women who have served through intense combat for as many as five or more deployments. Will we ever know when someone has had enough before they develop a life-altering illness or mental health disorder? Furthermore, the VA has just begun to understand conditions like moral injury and guilt based trauma. We are necessarily learning as we go. It will be some time before we have approved treatment strategies for some of the more salient health consequences of repeated combat deployments.
When I realized how much I'd changed after the third deployment, I didn't want there to be a fourth, and it was time for me to retire
The military may not recognize how many deployments are too many - but you will. Have the courage to be honest with yourself. The signs may be subtle, but both you and your family will notice the changes. If you've already served on multiple combat deployments, you have to consider the impact of yet another deployment on your mental and emotional wellness and that of your family. Everyone's threshold is different. It is not a character issue. It is a function of your physiology and psychology. Your health and wellness is the most important factor in the decision to leave the military, and only you will be able to determine your limit.
Reason 2: The Things You Need Replace the Things You Want
When I was a lieutenant, I wanted to be a company commander. After company command, I was looking forward to battalion command. These positions were guideposts along my career, but I wasn't focused on any specific role. I believed in the work I was doing. I was excited to serve. I didn't mind putting in the extra hours or weekend time because I felt like I was making a difference. My intentions were based on aspirations for higher levels of self-actualization.
I was mindful not to overstay my welcome in the military. I didn't want to be the oxygen thief stuffed away in a corner office on a division level staff. Sure, I still would have been serving an institution that I loved, but honestly, I would have only been doing it for the paycheck, padding my retirement pay, and avoiding the inevitable transition. I would have been doing it for selfish reasons and not for the men and women with whom I served. When you focus on yourself, you behave contrary to the military values of selfless service and integrity. You start politicking assignment managers for easier jobs. You look for ways to get out of the tough assignments. Its hard to authentically serve others when you are too worried about serving yourself. I didn't want to be that guy. Because I was no longer willing to run headstrong into the fray, I knew it was time for me to leave.
This perceived feeling of need comes from our survival instinct. It is lower along Maslow's hierarchy, and it is egocentric. The core emotion is fear. Scarcity makes us stay for the paycheck and higher retirement pay because we are afraid we won't be able to maintain our quality of life. We are willing to compromise our potential for a false sense of security. The price you pay for that fear is the lost opportunity of doing something else that you might love even more. The time spent getting another percentage point in retirement could be spent building an even better life after the military. Again, be honest with yourself. If you look at your career in terms of timeline benchmarks (needs) and not future opportunities (wants), maybe it is time to leave.
The moment you feel like you can't walk away from the military might be the very moment that you should
Reason 3: You Can't See Yourself In Something Other than a Military Uniform
The uniform is a responsibility - not a security blanket. Our formative adult years are shaped in the military culture. In his book, Breaking the Habit of Being Yourself, Dr. Joe Dispenza talks about the neurological pathways that are formed and reinforced through years of conditioning that results in a fully developed framework of behavior by the time we reach the age of 35. This is normal. We become attached to the uniform, but it becomes unhealthy when that attachment becomes a form of addiction.
When you allow the uniform to define your state of being, you lose your sense of self and all the compassion that goes with it. When your attachment becomes an addiction, your entire sense of identity becomes the uniform. It infects your roles beyond the military such as the spouse, parent, sibling, neighbor and friend. You harden into the arbiter of rules and regulations who becomes increasingly disconnected from the very people you are charged to lead. You compel compliance based on rank and title but fail to truly connect and inspire the men and women in your formation (or in your family). You become a toxic leader. People avoid you because they believe you don't care, and in truth, you don't. You focus so intently on the mission that you lose sight of the men and women who volunteered to stand with you to accomplish it.
With each passing year, you grow more distant from the people in your life. As the addiction grows deeper, the withdrawal you will suffer upon separation or retirement becomes cataclysmic. If you struggled to connect with men and women while wearing the uniform, imagine how much more difficult it will be to connect with men and women who never wore the uniform. The excavation necessary to rediscover your sense of purpose and personal set of values becomes a massive undertaking. The uniform doesn't make you great. You make the uniform great. When you fail to see that distinction, you may want to consider removing the source of your addiction.
Life Beyond the Military
Ultimately, the decision to leave the military should be based upon the idea of personal growth. The first time that I left the military, I did so for the wrong reasons. I believed that the grass in the civilian world was greener than the shades of green on my camouflaged battle dress uniform. When I retired, things were different. Even though I was considered deployable by the readiness standards, three deployments and 33 months in combat was enough. I had no desire for the best job at the next rank. More importantly, I knew that I had another life beyond the military. I wanted to embrace the opportunity and potential for what happens next. When I realized that I couldn't grow on a personal and professional path through the military, I knew it was time for a different one.
Once you fulfill your initial service obligation, you become a free agent. The needs of the military come first, but in today's military, we are all just volunteers. When compared to the size of our population, our military is the smallest in our history. The conflicts we've been waging have the longest in our history. This paradox requires the most capable leaders in terms of whole health, passion for service, and examples of personal inspiration. So when you ask the question, Should I Stay or Should I Go, always remember that the best decision is one that serves both you and the military. May you have the wisdom to know when the time is right and the courage to take full control of your life when it comes.
Jason Roncoroni is a retired Lieutenant Colonel from the Army and a professional leadership coach. As the President of Ordinary Hero Coaching, he specializes in coaching and developing mid-senior level military leaders to be successful executives and veteran leaders across society.
Photo courtesy of author