Back in 1981, the rock group “The Clash” released a song entitled, “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” and one of the verses in the lyrics says:
“Should I stay, or should I go now? If I go there will be trouble, and if I stay it will be double.”
Admittedly this song is about a relationship problem, but it’s a question that most every military member asks themselves at least once during their career. The exceptions would be those who get booted out or separated with no say in the matter. And of course, the longer the career, the more often the question might come up. It’s also sometimes a very difficult decision to make, for a host of different reasons.
There are four major groups that military members fall into when we are discussing this topic.
- First Termers (Someone on their first enlistment)
- Full-time Active Duty
- Full-time Reserve components
- Traditional Guardsmen and Reservists (Part-time)
Even though these groups have some unique elements and circumstances, they generally all share the same thought processes when they start thinking about pulling chocks (leaving the service).
Where they often differ is in the factors motivating them to stay in. For example, a first termer doesn’t really have a twenty year retirement check as a motivation to reenlist when things are going really bad for them. But an E-7 with fifteen years of service sees that twenty year retirement check just over the horizon, and it’s a much greater motivation to stay, even when they are extremely unhappy in their job. Truth be told, I’ve known hundreds of people who were 5-7 years away from retirement who felt completely trapped. So why were they unhappy? Please note that the following is not necessarily listed in order of importance.
Reasons For Wanting to Leave
Frequent Deployments and Separation from Family
It Just Got Too Stupid
It’s Not the Military That I Signed up For
Combat and Operational Stress
Inadequate Training or Equipment
Poor or Toxic Leadership Issues
Lack of Recognition or Reward
Long Hours and Demanding Workload
Uncertainty or Frequent Changes in Deployment Schedules
Lack of Clear Communication
Input Isn’t Valued or Acted Upon
Equal Pay for Unequal Work
Untreated Injuries and Health Issues
Discrimination or Harassment
Lack of Career Progression Opportunities
Inadequate Support for Mental Health
Bureaucracy and Administrative Hassles
Inadequate Family Support Programs
Inadequate Housing or Living Conditions
Lack of Trust in Leadership or System
Unequal Punishment Based on Rank
I won’t go into any detail on these points since my intended audience is military personnel, thus I know that you understand what each one means. Suffice to say that each point is a valid reason for being unhappy and wanting to leave. But should you leave? Here are a few points to ponder and a few suggestions that might be helpful.
- “The military” is in many ways a generic term. The military nature of each branch is different and sometimes those differences are extreme. Also, each branch has differences within itself as to how “military” it is. I spent my whole 38 year Air Force career as a Crew Chief on fighter and attack jets. It’s only recently that I’ve discovered that the lives of Crew Chiefs on tanker and transport aircraft is way different compared to us fighter pukes. They lead much slower paced lives and are more laid back. I don’t want to bore you with the details, it’s just the nature of the missions and the aircraft.
So where am I going with this? Basically, it’s that you might consider switching jobs or branches. Or apply for Warrant Officer or a Commission. There’s also a huge difference between the active duty and their reserve components. The things you really dislike about your current situation might be totally negated in a new job or different branch.
I once knew a guy who had served in the Army, Navy, Marines, Coast Guard, and finally the Air Force where he retired. He was interesting to talk to because he was able to describe the differences in all the branches. What was truly amazing was that he was successful in all of them.
- For Traditional Reservists and Guardsmen there is one benefit that they often don’t think about when considering separation, and that’s health insurance. Typically, they are thinking that they have their civilian 401k and when they have enough invested then they can retire. But they forget that the nice company health plan disappears the moment they leave. Have you ever priced a personal health insurance plan? If you haven’t then you are in for a shock. And don’t forget that Medicare doesn’t start until age 65 and there are monthly premiums. It isn’t free.
Having said all of that, if you get your twenty year letter (retirement) in the Guard or Reserves, then when you hit 60 you get Tricare and a retirement check. And when Medicare starts at 65 then you go on Tricare for Life and have double health insurance. At the very least your Guard retirement check would cover all the various premiums and probably all the copays.
Now I totally get that most twentysomethings aren’t very interested in thinking about health insurance at age 60. But it is a benefit that would help you to retire early and have a consistent income regardless of how your 401k performs.
This is also a consideration for those high-timers in an active component thinking about leaving. The guaranteed check and Tricare make for a nice buffer and reduce stress when your post-military civilian employer starts having financial difficulties. Also, you can put more money in your pocket by opting out of the company health insurance or keep it and have double coverage.
- Life isn’t always greener in civilian companies. Many of the challenges you are facing in the military are also challenges you will likely face in the private sector. Believe me, I spent decades working for major corporations in the civil and military aerospace sectors, plus other avocations including academia. All of them had many of the same problems that the military struggles with. Personally speaking, I had more bad experiences in my civilian corporate jobs than I did in my military ones. I’m not trying to be a downer; I’m just hoping that you don’t see civilian life through rose colored glasses.
Perhaps the one advantage of civilian employment is that if you hate your job or boss, you can just quit. That works okay for a twentysomething single person who can just move back home until they get a new job, but it’s not an option for someone who’s married with kids, and a mortgage, and a whole host of other expenses. Of course, if you have that military retirement check and health insurance…
- There are a few things that corporate employment never gave me. One was a sense of purpose. I always felt that my role was just to make money for the company. Ultimately, that’s what the company wants from you because that’s their main goal. Regardless of mission statements, community engagement, and charitable outreach, they can’t do any of that without being profitable. I never lacked a sense of purpose in the military.
Another thing I never got in the civil sector was a sense of camaraderie. Oh, everyone talked about being family and part of a team, but it’s nothing like being on the military team. Maybe it’s partly because of my previous point about just making money. Try going to a corporate team-building event after having been in the military. Sorry, most of them are lame.
- Regret. I’ve known lots of people who got out before their twenty and then later in life had real regrets that they didn’t finish, and now it’s either too late or their health has deteriorated to a point that they couldn’t get back in. It’s really sad to listen to their stories and regrets. Some just did one enlistment while others had multiples under their belt.
In any case, don’t burn any bridges before you leave, and don’t wait until you can’t come back. At the very least you could finish a career as a Traditional Guardsman or Reservist. Even if you don’t like your military boss in the Guard, you only have to put up with them for two days out of every 4-6 weeks. I know because I’ve done it. Lol!
- The full-timers in the Guard and Reserves are often in a very difficult situation. Some of them have to put in thirty years for a full retirement and since these units don’t typically have lots of turnover (no PCS like active units) the politics can be brutal. Tick off your boss and ten years later he may still be your boss.
If you’re feeling trapped there are still options besides bailing. Get a degree and apply for a commission. Look for a position in a new unit. I know that one freaks people out, but people move to new cities and States all the time for civilian jobs. Consider cross-training into a new career field. Maybe move to a different branch, the IRR, or doing an MPA tour.
I’ve even known people who just got a civilian job and jumped over to being a part-timer to finish their twenty and then later found another Civil Service/AGR position with another unit.
Perhaps the first one is, don’t do anything rash based on emotion. Try to objectively list the pros and cons of staying and going. Talk to people you trust, both inside and outside of the military. I’ve had subordinates who really thought things out well and ultimately. I agreed with their reasoning and supported them in separating, even though they were great troops. And be realistic about the civilian world. It’s way too easy for it to have a halo effect when things aren’t going so well in your military career.
Next, try to make some changes if things aren’t going well. We all know the old saying about repeating the same process and expecting different results. Again, talk to people you trust and do some research on the interwebs. Crosstrain to a new specialty, commission, find a new position, change branches, move to the Actives or Reserves, start a small business. Just don’t sit and decompose at your desk.
Horror of Horrors – consider some professional counseling. Career counseling is often helpful but don’t shy away from emotional counseling. Pay out of pocket for a private counselor if you are afraid of your leadership finding out, it’s not as expensive as you might think. They have helped me in the past so please don’t let the “stigma” stop you from talking to someone. A few quick sessions might give you some tools to cope with a toxic boss and get you to your twenty.
Another option is to try to fix the items which are causing you to want to get out. Admittedly this is probably one of the most difficult things to do considering the bureaucracy of the military and the good ole boy network, but people have been successful in spite of the odds. Sometimes just fighting the battle is enough to make someone feel better. The old “burr under the saddle” principle if you know what I mean.
Lastly, your mental health is the most important factor of all. I once knew an ANG technician that had horrible eczema. He would come in off the flightline, grab a trashcan, and scrape layers of dead skin off his arms, hands, and legs with a flat blade screwdriver. He seemed to always be in agony. Then he hit his thirty and retired. A few weeks later he came in to visit and his eczema was totally gone. He said that the doctor told him that it was 100% stress related. I’ve known people who became alcoholics because of stress in the military, others who had nervous breakdowns, and some who committed suicide. If military life is doing that to you then get out. But get all your ducks in a row regarding your medical records before you do.
One final bit of advice. Use the military for everything you can get out of it. Take advantage of every benefit and program that you can. Extra training, college degrees, professional certifications, bonuses, Skill Bridge, GI Bill, VA, whatever. And I give that advice to first termers and those a year away from retirement.
And if you are going to separate/retire, do it in a well-planned fashion, not spur of the moment, and don’t tell anyone until you absolutely must. That will work to your advantage.
Dave Chamberlin served 38 years in the USAF and Air National Guard as an aircraft crew chief, where he retired as a CMSgt. He has held a wide variety of technical, instructor, consultant, and leadership positions in his more than 40 years of civilian and military aviation experience. Dave holds an FAA Airframe and Powerplant license from the FAA, as well as a Master’s degree in Aeronautical Science. He currently runs his own consulting and training company and has written for numerous trade publications.
His true passion is exploring and writing about issues facing the military, and in particular, aircraft maintenance personnel.
As the Voice of the Veteran Community, The Havok Journal seeks to publish a variety of perspectives on a number of sensitive subjects. Unless specifically noted otherwise, nothing we publish is an official point of view of The Havok Journal or any part of the U.S. government.