During my bi-annual visit to a local Verizon shop for a cell phone upgrade, the representative assisting me asked for identification to validate my account. I offered my military ID out of habit. This conversation then followed:

“Oh, military. Are you stationed up at the Army base?”

“Yeah, that’s me.”

As the store representative worked to activate my new phone, he said, “So, you think you’ll be in for life?”

I felt an odd hiccup, and replied “No, not for life. A long time, a few more years, but not that long.”

“Right,” he said, maybe with a touch of embarrassment, “…a long time.”

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What the clerk asked was not intended to sound like a life sentence without parole. Perhaps staying in “for life” was more a verbal shorthand for a full career. But still, it made me think, could this be the civilian perception of the career soldier?

At church, a week later, a prayer was offered: Pray for those in prison and in the military. There it was again. In the same breath, the congregation invoked Providence for felons and soldiers, grouped together in a similar category. Why? Helplessness? Social debt?

Despite the misinformed prayer blurring the distinction between prisoner and soldier, the two have one thing in common: choice. Both took actions to be where they are. But that is where the commonality ends. The lesson I draw from this small investigation is that being in for life, even after time in uniform ends, is an active, daily decision to live by a service’s values. We are in for good reasons: service, employment, educational opportunities, and a legal way to blow stuff up.

Related: Reflecting on 20 years of service in the military »

Military service is a career choice taken “without any mental reservations or purpose of evasion.” In my case, no one forced me into the Army. And aside from a brief obligation due to participating in military education, nothing is forcing me to stay. I have a choice. Whether completing a first-term enlistment or making it to retirement, no one is in “for life.” There are many more years to live, enjoy, and provide service on the outside.

After 20-plus years, a career service member has to want to be in for life beyond just a “I do solemnly swear” sense and more of a “this is a part of me now” sense. It’s a lifestyle choice. Many former soldiers separate and completely segregate their time in uniform from who they are now. They may choose to have something other than the military define them. On the other hand, some keep a short haircut and tell the good Army story — whether about guard duty in Hawaii during World War II or about heroes and friends in Iraq — for the rest of their lives. For good or bad, some choose to be in for life and other choose not to.

The bottom line is that service members are not helpless and locked into an unbreakable path. We have a choice and are not prisoners of our decisions to join the military. Many of us choose to stay, year after year, one service obligation after another, and after one more deployment. Some may stay because they derive a spiritual sense of purpose out of the profession of arms. That’s fine. But the military is also steady work with great training and educational opportunities. It’s a necessary function to preserve our Constitution, way of life, and interests abroad.

I feel I missed a good opportunity to talk about the Army with that Verizon store clerk. I would have explained that staying in “for life” is a daily decision. I have to want to be in uniform today and be committed to tomorrow’s plan. Personal and professional circumstances always change and sometimes the Army gods don’t always smile on a full career. This, I suspect, is true in any career. But if the gods do see fit, my knees hold out, and the family is still happy, then I’m in.