My Challenges in Retiring from the Army

By Brian Reed, MTI Contributor

I joined the Army at 18 on 1 July 1985 when I entered the United States Military Academy (USMA) at West Point.  Upon graduation, my plan was to do my 5-year active-duty service obligation (ADSO) and then get out – “5 and fly.”  I retired on 1 September 2023, over 38 years later.  So much for my plan.  People have asked me why I stayed beyond my ADSO.  That answer is easy – I love Soldiers, and I loved being a Soldier. 

I was 56 years old when I retired.  There was nothing forcing me out the door.  I didn’t have to retire.  I could have gone 8 more years until my mandatory retirement age of 64.  I’m not going to drag you through my reasons for retiring, but the bottom line is that it was time – and it was a decision my family and I made together.  

As a younger officer, I do recall a mentor telling me that I will “know when it’s time to get out.”  Ultimately, he was right.  When I decided to retire, I knew it was time.

I thought I had a plan…but I really didn’t…

I was back where it started when I decided to retire.  I was the USMA Chief of Staff.  It was a busy job.  Fortunately, I had a CSM who talked some sense into me, and I had a boss who gave me some time to unplug and take care of my personal affairs (namely my medical requirements) before I began terminal leave.  Otherwise, I would have been working to my final day and trying to manage all my retirement business.  Sometimes you need a leader and a Ranger buddy to “save you from yourself.”

The mandated Army transition course I attended addressed the basic questions about transitioning from the military, but it was more geared to younger service members with different life requirements than me.  I was not your average bear transitioning from the Army – I was retiring after 3+ decades.  Most of what I needed to know about retiring came from discovery learning – figuring things out on my own – or talking to buddies who were either going through or went through the process.  That said, I had to go to the course – it was a requirement to retire.  While it wasn’t a waste of my time, a lot simply was not relevant.  The Army should look at a course tailored for those more senior folks below the GO/FO or Nominative CSM level.  If you’re an O5/O6 or E8/E9-type, your transition needs are different than service members with less years of service.  Not a criticism…just a fact.

Location or Job?

For us, it was location.  This will be different for everyone obviously.  Once we decided where we wanted to live, we began looking for a house…and it was not easy!  For almost my entire career, we lived on an Army installation.  When we did not, we rented.  We moved every 2-3 years until my last assignment in the Army.  All told, it was 16 full moves with some geo-bachelor moves sprinkled into that.  For us, it never really made sense to buy a home and then go through the process of selling or renting it out.  So, this was going to be the first home we ever bought.  

At the time I retired, I was living on post and the housing policy was (is) that you had to vacate quarters 30 days after your retirement date.  This added some unintended stress to the entire process, but the policy exists for a reason, and everyone knows it when you live in quarters.  For those of you out there who don’t leave IAW established post policy and push the limits on this, you’re wrong.  The fact that you’re able to get away with it is also wrong.  As a taxpayer, I don’t appreciate paying for your electric bill, your water bill, your lawn service, etc.  For retirees, there are other places for you to live on post.  You’re not entitled to the house that you have – it totally defies the value of selfless service that you supposedly espoused over your career.  

I share this because looking for a house was a stressful experience for my family and me, especially given the housing market, and under a timeline.  What started out as an exciting experience became much more nerve-wracking, especially as we got closer to our retirement date.  I’m not trying to be a martyr here, but I didn’t ask for a housing extension because I didn’t want to be a hypocrite.  Regardless of the circumstances, it is 100% wrong that some retiring Soldiers work the system to their advantage.  Selfless service is an Army value forever.

The good news is that we found a house that met our needs and one we happily call home, but we could have made things easier on ourselves from the start.  It turns out that Zillow and “Buying a Home for Dummies” isn’t always the best route to go as a first-time home buyer, especially for those later in life like us.  I should have gotten a realtor earlier (we did most of the searching on our own); extended the search to a larger radius from the area where we wanted to live; and been more deliberate in our search process.

The plan when I retired was to always get a job, which required a job search.  I had not been through a job search since I was in high school looking for a part-time gig.  Even though I was retiring with a pension, I still wanted to work, and for several reasons I needed to work.  That said, I wasn’t looking for another profession…I already had one.  Unfortunately, I wasn’t sure exactly what I was looking to do.  The thing I heard the most from people throughout the process was how marketable I was – great leadership skills, advanced degrees, problem solver, excellent communicator, blah, blah, blah.  This translated into a lot of Zoom calls and interviews, but ultimately resulted in nothing except false hope and unrealized dreams. 

The process was not enjoyable.  I felt like I was pimping myself out.  Senior people/executives in industry, corporations, or academia would lay out for me the next steps in the hiring process and then I would never hear from them again…but, hey, at least they thanked me for my service.  If I sound upset about this, it’s because I was.  I’m over it now, but I found it all to be disingenuous and unprofessional…and unfortunately, this happens to a lot of retiring military members that I have talked with about their experiences.  In one case, I was a finalist for the director of a leadership institute – a good fit for me.  After the date came and went when I was supposed to be notified, I called the search chair only to find out I was not selected.  He was very apologetic about it, but he forgot to call me.

My assessment is that the Veteran community that works in this space and the non-profit corporate hiring services are targeting younger folks who can plug into a company at an earlier age and work their way up – grow in the company.  I get it…I really do.  But for an older guy like me, it’s tough – where do I fit in at a comparable level of responsibility and compensation from my most recent job in the Army.  Corporate America is grateful for your service…just not your service, old man.  While that isn’t always true, it sure felt that way at times.  It made me think that I should have retired earlier.  I guess if you think about it, this makes sense.  If you’re hiring a middle-aged man, someone who has been doing things a certain way for many years, the job fit better be right.  Given the lack of success I was having did cause me to question my self-worth for a bit.

There is no doubt that some of this was my own fault.  My plan (or lack thereof) was kind of “whack a mole.”  I cast a wide net on job opportunities and wanted to see what would stick.  To do it again, I would have been more realistic in my expectations and targeted those jobs – via my personal network – where I knew I could reasonably expect to get hired and contribute.  I was initially too unreasonable in some of my initial search efforts – both in terms of what I thought I deserved in terms of a position and compensation.  I also would have done the DoD Skillbridge Program ( which is intended to assist transition veterans into the civilian workforce.  At the end of the day, it all worked out.  As I eventually discovered, it’s who you know that can pull you into an organization based on your reputation and your body of work in the Army – regardless of the industry.  My advice to senior folks retiring is leverage your vast social network early and often.

My plan all along was to begin working while on terminal leave.  Because of COVID and deployments, I had close to 180 days of leave accrued and used almost all of it…sort of.  I began working midway through my terminal leave.  In hindsight, I regret that.  On the plus side, I was able to “double dip” – i.e., I was paid as an Army officer, and I was receiving a salary for my new job.  The negative was that I didn’t take enough time for myself to reset and recalibrate.  It was a summer of incredible transition – retirement, relocation, youngest son going off to college, new job, etc.  I underestimated the emotional toll this would have on my family and me…it was a lot.  I should have taken more time for myself, and ironically, I would have been compensated for it.  I thought the financial benefit of “double dipping” was worth it.  It wasn’t.

My job search landed me right back to where I started – in the Department of Defense.  I had applied for positions across industry, academia, and corporate America.  Many of the jobs were in leadership development, senior management positions (regardless of industry), and executive positions in academia.  I overreached in a few cases, but I tried to play to my strengths based on leading, teaching, building teams, and problem solving.  I took care to explain how military service translated to the job at hand.  A few times I found myself educating the interviewer on the military.  I also fought against the bias that the military is an organization where people blindly follow orders and there is little to no collaboration on decisions and little tolerance for innovation.  In my Army experience and in the organizations that I’ve led, this was certainly not the case…but it took some explaining to help the uninformed understand this.  I ended up at DOD because a senior leader – leveraging my network – offered me a tremendous opportunity.

Unfortunately, I was a geo-bachelor again – splitting time between where we bought our home and Arlington, VA (near the Pentagon) where I had an apartment.  My “double-dipping” plan went to paying for my apartment, gas, and tolls as I drove about 5-6 hours every weekend to see my family.  After 4 months or so, it became too much.  It was funny because people would thank me for “continuing to serve” and all I could think was that I can’t keep doing this.  I loved the work and the team I worked with, but given the separation from my family and the pace at which I was working, I might as well have stayed on active duty.

Fortunately, about the same time I made the decision to leave, a retired Army friend reached out sua sponte, and told me about a tremendous opportunity with a major tech company in the security operations field.  I interviewed and I was hired doing validations, learning, and development for the security operations team at this company.  It’s a full time job, but the work is results based which gives me flexibility in how I manage my time, and it’s a hybrid position which allows me to invest time in some other areas of my life that need attention.  It is invigorating to be around people and a culture that are different than the Army.  I feel like I have landed in a good spot, but it certainly wasn’t immediate.  My advice…be patient.

I miss being with Soldiers…

Lots of operator-types say that they miss combat…the simplicity – it’s life or death – and the camaraderie that comes with being deployed and in a fight with your teammates.  My last deployment was in 2019 to Afghanistan.  While I was not at the tip of the spear during that deployment, the energy, the importance of the mission, and the esprit de corps of being part of a deployed team was invigorating.  I miss that, and I know I’ll never have that again – I’m retired.  It sucks to think about it sometimes.  That said, I try not to reflect on it too much.  I try to spend more time looking forward than thinking about the past.

It is the Soldiers I miss the most.  I think you hear this a lot from people.  It’s true.  I miss the men and women I served with…their humor; their toughness; their wisdom; the shared suck; the way they made me better; their willingness to follow your orders as a leader because they trust you.  Love is a powerful emotion.  It is not an overstatement when I say that I loved them.

I left Brigade Command in 2014.  That was the last time I was truly around Soldiers.  I’ve had great subsequent assignments since then at U.S. Central Command and closing out my career at West Point.  I was with great people, on great teams, and part of important missions, but it’s different in an operational formation.  It’s not bad…but different, so what I am experiencing now isn’t all that new to me.

Throughout this retirement process, I have discovered that connections do matter – staying in touch with the people who matter to you.  Just because we’re not in the Army anymore, it doesn’t mean that the relationship needs to end.  I’m not the best at staying in touch, but that’s an excuse.  I’m also not a big social media person…another excuse.  But I do try and stay in touch via certain platforms, texts, and phone calls.  

My retirement ceremony was intended to be a reunion of sorts…and it was…but making a concerted effort to reach out to the men and women with whom I served is something I need to be more deliberate about.  It’s good for the soul and important for us as a collective group to keep tabs on one another.  

Finding my identity

This hasn’t been a huge issue for me.  I know that’s not the case for everyone.  No doubt, being a Soldier has and will always be part of my identity, but fortunately I haven’t really struggled looking for a new purpose.  I’ve always had interests outside of the Army.  I have my family and I have my hobbies, and I have a good job that keeps me fulfilled.  

There are some folks I equate to a Great White Shark – “once they stop swimming, they die.”  These are people who have had nothing but the Army and when it ends…what else is there.  This in no way is a negative statement.  It’s a fact and one that the Army needs to come to grips with sooner rather than later.  I worry about these Soldiers, and as an Army we need to make sure that we do everything we can to ensure they are set up for something meaningful and purposeful when they retire.

The good news is that there are a lot of transition programs available to Soldiers.  Any random Google search will pull up several opportunities outside of the military directed transition course.  But as a community, we need to increase the awareness about such opportunities, and perhaps more importantly, give these transitioning Soldiers the time they need to find their new mission.  This is a leader responsibility.  Not to promote one veteran’s group over another, but organizations like Team Red, White, and Blue; the Travis Manion Foundation; Guardian Revival; Heroes and Horses…just to name a few…exist to support Veterans.

Veteran suicide is real and in no way am I inferring that the cause is due solely to the lack of time or resources to transition.  That said, why leave anything to chance.  Perhaps I am feeling particularly strong about this topic given the death of my good friend and teammate this past July 2023.  DB isn’t the first teammate I have had who took his own life, but he was the first retired senior officer I served with who did.  And I think that’s what made this particularly hard on a personal level.  He had a great Army career, and he was loved – adored – by those he led and those with whom he served.  But the last time I spoke with him, I know he was searching…still searching… They all hurt, but this one really hurt.  This is a space where I want to help, but I’m still sorting out how.  At the very least, I’m trying to make a concerted effort to stay in touch with guys.

For me, right now, I do worry a lot more about money, finances, taking care of a house, and basic life stuff that I didn’t worry much about while I was in the Army.  Paying bills and the like have always been a thing, but living on post throughout my career, with access to fitness centers, housing, hospitals, commissaries, etc. is a privilege you don’t really appreciate until you’re out.  Things seem more complicated on the outside. 

Initially, I tried to push away from all things Army.  I wanted to put some space between the Army and me, but after about 4+ months, I’m making my way back.  I’m embracing my service and being a Veteran.  I love the Army and I want to talk about it, and I want to share my stories.  While I don’t want to be that guy who has his DD214 plastered all over his truck – not that there is anything wrong with that – I do want to continue to contribute to the profession.  I’ve officiated (in civilian clothes!) a commissioning ceremony and a promotion ceremony since I’ve retired.  I’m talking with young people interested in the Army.  I’m proud of my service and I love the people with whom I served.  There’s a reason the Army coined the phrase “Soldier for Life.”

I have found a local veteran’s group that also draws in law enforcement and other guardians.  While I’m not super active in this group right now, I have participated in a few events that I really enjoyed.  These are typically backpacking and hiking trips.  I was apprehensive at first because I wasn’t sure who I would meet, or how I might relate to others in the group.  But the events were welcoming and put me at ease, and many of folks are my age or close to it, which was important to me – we can relate to each other.  Shared experiences matter.

I have been searching a bit for my physical identity – no more APFT/ACFT; no more combat deployments; no more Soldiers to set the example for; no more physical requirements to do my job.  Fortunately, fitness has always been important to me, so staying healthy and in shape isn’t a struggle, but I need something.  I have done some climbing and hiking, and the outdoor events with the veteran’s group have helped.  This is the space where I think I’m settling.  The fact is that I need something more than just maintaining my general health and fitness.  This will work, but it’s not enough.  If I can’t be a military tactical athlete anymore, perhaps I can be a mountain athlete (or some variation thereof).

Speaking of physical, I did the standard beard thing that most military-types seem to do after retirement.  I grew out my beard for about 5 weeks, but it comes in white and makes me look old.  I shaved it off, but I may go back to it.  I’ve been back and forth on growing out my hair – right now I’m in the grow my hair stage.  I’m not losing my hair, and it’s not gray, so I figured I might as well keep it going while I can.  In short, I’m still trying to find my “look.”  

Not having to wear a uniform is nice, but now I have low-level stress as I figure out what to wear every day to work.  The good news is that we’re casual at the workplace, so it’s not overly stressful.  But I still need to look respectable.

The Army kept me young.  Coming to work and being part of organizations with young men and women as the centerpiece kept me invigorated and young at heart.  While my body was getting older, staying in shape and mentally focused to deploy, fight, and win and to lead by example kept me young.  I literally never thought about how old I was.  Now that I am retired, I do find myself occasionally reflecting on my age and have even caught myself saying “I’m getting old.”

As I was working on this essay, a friend reached out and said he was heading to Mt. Washington on Thursday to do some climbing, and that I should come along.  He’s a FDNY firefighter and he was heading up there on his off day.  I declined and told him that I needed to work.  His response gave me pause: “I thought you were retired.”

BLUF: I’m still trying to find my footing in (Army) retirement.

Brian Reed is a Soldier with 33+ years of active service as an Infantryman in the US Army.

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