When it comes to deciding whether to leave the military or to make it a career, too many folks just wait until their current contract expires and say, “Oh shit. I have to get a real job now.” Others just robotically keep signing papers every few years, sleepwalking from tour to tour until they’ve ended up having a military career without ever consciously deciding to.
After all the military does to get you to join, it’s usually ambivalent about whether you stay or not. That’s unfortunate, because that decision is at least as important as the decision to join. In your early twenties, if your four years or so in the military didn’t work out, you can just chalk it up as a shitty first job. But for those with 8 to 12 years in, deciding whether or not to spend a substantial portion of your adult life in the military by making it a career is a more substantial decision.
Unless you have a leader really looking out for you who cares about your well being, you’re pretty much on your own on this.
There are two schools of thought on getting out.
There are those who are convinced that it’s a crazy world out there and that everyone is best off staying in the military’s warm, loving embrace as long as they possibly can. Anyone who leaves is screwing themselves and their families out of one of the few defined benefit retirement plans left, not to mention Tricare and dental.
Then there are those who say that everyone staying in the military is a chump, slaving away and sucking at Uncle Sam’s withered teat while passing up way better opportunities on the outside. Those lifers are just too chickenshit to take the leap and strike out on their own.
Both are wrong.
The economics aren’t unimportant, but they shouldn’t be the most important. The military won’t make you rich, but if you spend a career there, you won’t be poor, either. The civilian world offers both bigger upsides and downsides. If I had a dollar for every Marine who said he had a buddy with a moving/HVAC/carpet/whatever company he could join and earn six figures, I could retire. Maybe some of them are millionaires moving sofas now, I don’t know. Just be honest with yourself about your opportunities based on your situation.
If you do leave, you will at some point have to make the leap to civilian life not knowing if there’s a net beneath you. Going from a guaranteed paycheck on the 1st and 15th to the unknown is scary, whether you’ve been in 10 years or 20. It could mean an objectively better life, but it might not, and you won’t know for sure until it’s too late to turn back.
Don’t think in terms of your current billet or CO or sergeant major. Ask yourself whether you really want to put on a uniform everyday. Do you have a plan and a direction for where you want to be, or are you just “in the military?”
The military is different for everyone. Some are hooking and jabbing with the enemy. Others are hooking and jabbing with DTS.
For some, the challenge of leaving is more about losing the adrenaline rush of flying, diving, or jumping. For others, the challenge is the prospect of having to go to the private sector where there’s a potential of actually getting fired if you suck at your job.
You have to ask yourself if you’re truly happy being in the military. Not anyone else. Not your parents. Not your spouse. Not your family. YOU. Do you still like walking around your unit spaces and checking on your people? Do you still every so often think, “I can’t believe they pay me to do this shit?” There’s no right or wrong answer to those questions, but you have to know your answers.
Some think that’s it’s selfish to focus on yourself. But you have to step back for a moment and do some honest self-assessment. For all the talk and stupid t-shirts about how military spouse is “the toughest job in the Army/Navy/Air Force/Marines,” there’s only one person going on deployment and only one person strapping on that aircraft, carrying that rifle, or sweeping that broom.
The important thing is to be honest, first with yourself, and then with your family. Some families love the healthcare, the paycheck, and the built-in social network. Others can’t stand the healthcare, the paycheck, and the built-in social network.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t take others into account. But if you do subordinate your gut instinct for your spouse or anyone else, then you have to be honest, for everyone’s sakes. It’s a conscious decision that you must make together to subordinate one person’s preference for another’s, and you all have to consciously sign up for that and all it entails. A secret martyr is a resentful martyr, and that will chew you and your family up from the inside out.
The absence of a decision is a decision all its own. Your decision doesn’t have to be right or wrong by anyone’s standards but yours. But you have to make it. You can’t drift in the current and then be mad when your ship ends up in the wrong port. The most important part in deciding to stay in or get out is actually making a decision, whichever one it is.
Everything else will follow.