I reported to Officer Candidate School on October 1st, 2010, making me two short weeks away from hitting my ten-year mark on active duty. It’s a personal shock of sorts to admit I’ve been in for 10 years. No one in my family has ever served. Joining wasn’t even an idea until I hit college and realized all my plans to join a federal agency (a bygone desire of mine) required some kind of practical experience. So I decided to join and spend the four requisite years paying my “buck-o-five” for freedom before moving on to what I really wanted to do. Now here I am, six years into a SOF career at my ten-year mark, in a job that I love, but still haven’t decided to make the military a career.
But now – at ten years in – there’s something to lose. If I’m going to get out, I better do it now. I’m 32 and not getting any younger.
Am I staying in? Why? Where is this going?
Whether I drop resignation papers now or spend 20 or 30 years in, I’ll eventually have to get out. And then what? What do you do after 11, 20, or 40 years in?
This line of questioning is endless as it is cyclical. There are forces holding me in and others pushing me out. It’s a stalemate.
What’s Holding Me In
#1: The Mission
This isn’t the “God and Country” B.S. you’re probably expecting, but a love of the every-day-is-different excitement and drive for constant improvement. Most importantly, it’s the close connection that exists between the work I do and the end result. I have an enduring love of service, but I can find service anywhere. The love of service won’t help me fill-out another training spreadsheet or attend another “OPSEC stand-down” event. If the military has taught me one thing, it’s that the only way you’ll be satisfied is if you learn to shrink your circle of concern to the same size as your circle of influence. In other words, focus only on what you can control. This is easier some days more than others, but the ability to find or create a close connection between what my “circle of concern” (i.e. my team, company, etc.) is doing in furtherance of its mission – its circle of influence – creates higher levels of self-efficacy than I think I’ll be able to find anywhere else.
#2: The Predictability and Structure
I count some of the hardest days of my life within the last ten years: the physical pain of rucks on my back and the long-term degradation of my knees, back, etc.; the months/years spent away from home; the emotional pain of losing friends – some for reasons that keep me up and I still can’t justify.
But …. military life is easy and mostly predictable.
After some back-of-the-napkin math, I realized I’ve spent more than three years as a student in the military (MOS training, PME, SOF selection and pipeline schools, etc.). Adding in deployments (three years), work-up training, etc. there’s probably been a total of four days of unstructured time in my career when someone wasn’t telling me exactly what do and how to do it. If I stay in, my military future will almost certainly be equally structured and predictable: a series of “key billets” punctuated by broadening assignments, a couple more trips to PME, a few forecastable promotions, and a twilight tour.
This structure and predictability is equally demotivating and comforting. The complete removal of consequences from life in the military (i.e. getting “fired” means you get moved but don’t actually lose your job) can attract and retain the worst type of people and creates profound mediocrity in our higher ranks. But it also allows me to focus on what I’m doing within the organization instead of how it will affect my paycheck.
Despite its downsides, this is the devil I know, and not easily traded in for life on the outside.
There’s also predictability in the unpredictability. A new billet every two years means never getting stuck in a bad job or with a bad boss for too long. It means the potential of travel or of living in a new place every few years. The countdown to and from deployments and re-deployments, the movement through work-ups and DFTs – it all creates a steady hum of uncertainty that is a soothing rhythm in its own way.
This is all to say nothing of the alluring benefits that come from a 20-year career. Ten more years is a small price to pay for lifetime retirement income and insurance – two guarantees which will create freedom to do anything. This is probably the strongest force that shows up around the ten year mark. It makes a really good case for sticking around.
#3: (Most of) The People
Few people get to spend their days surrounded by people who are exactly like them – who enjoy doing the same things, who raise their kids in the same way, who share the same disdain for popular culture, etc. Life in the military is to me the last vestige of what society as a whole seems to have lost: a bastion of civility, of responsibility born of sharing a common space with other humans. It’s a culture that still values actions and performance more than identity and feelings.
Almost every day I experience someone or something that makes me question this viewpoint – there is a bell curve in every population. But I could pick a name at random from the DOD’s Alpha Roster and say with pretty high certainty that I would have a lot in common with that person and enjoy their company. That dynamic seems pretty rare in the civilian population these days.
#4: How Green Is The Grass on the Other Side, Actually?
The massive physical and psychological divide between our military and civilian populations makes it difficult to assess what life in the civilian sector is really like. Will my success in the military translate to success on the outside? What skillsets are actually important? What are the people like? How will I perform when removed from the massive support structure the military offers? Most of these questions are probably unanswerable, which makes it even more difficult to take the plunge.
What’s Pushing Me Out
#1: A Desire to Run my own Life
The fatigue of missing holidays, anniversaries, and other events is getting old. It also doesn’t feel right to spend the most active years of my life living in a part of the country I hate. The wife and I just bought land out West – a long-term dream coming to reality. But that reality will remain deferred until I leave the military. But the desire goes beyond living where I want. It’s a desire to take the training wheels off – to succeed or fail on my own merits instead of those created by the timing and randomly-produced luck of a grinding bureaucracy.
#2: I Don’t Want to be a GS or a Contractor
What do you do after spending 10, 20, or 30 years in the military? Most seem to answer this question with an easy transition into a GS or contractor position. The reasons are obvious: you stay in your career field, but make more money and get to maintain banker’s hours. Statistics would tell me that the best way to avoid the attractiveness of GS/Contractor work is to get out soon. After ten years, the allure becomes too strong. Your experience/expertise is worth too much and you’re too old for there to be any logic in starting over in a completely new field – a transition that implies, at the very minimum, a trip back to school and and an entry-level gig. This gets harder to swallow with every passing year.
#3: Organizational Rigidity
The military’s highly structured, bureaucratic, can’t-get-fired environment creates a culture that is at the same time risk-averse and wholly resistant to change. The military is really good at getting rid of the bottom 10% of its talent pool through poor evals, failure to achieve physical standards, etc. But it’s also really good at getting rid of its top 10% performers by creating an environment that disincentivizes hard work and self-efficacy.
The structure and predictability that provides so much comfort to some creates a living nightmare for driven individuals who want to improve their environments and loathe inefficiencies built on tradition. As a result, the military retains and promotes those who:
1) Don’t do anything so stupid as to get someone killed unnecessarily; and
2) Don’t bring attention to themselves, for God’s sake, by taking the types of risks required to instill meaningful improvements.
To continue in this organization is to toe the line of bureaucratic process led by individuals who are both created and valued by this structure and thus unlikely to change it.
Where I’m At Now
As of now, two weeks before my ten year anniversary mark, there is no clear winner. The war between the forces holding me in and those pushing me out is waged daily as the strength and relevance of each of them ebbs and flows.
To leave now would feel like running away from the frustrations of life on the inside, instead of running toward some greener pasture somewhere else. But there is something small, something inglorious, about making a decision like this – not a calculated dec
ision born of commitment and long-term thinking but rather a weekly, monthly, and yearly continuation created by the warm waters of familiarity; a level of risk-aversion in its own right.
But, not making a decision is a decision in itself ….
Author is an Active Duty SOF Officer.