After ten years in the Army, I left active duty about two and half years ago but stayed in the Reserves because part of me was afraid to completely cut the cord. I wanted that safety net even as I left for my MBA and what I hoped would be better and more exciting opportunities. Now, I am deployed again, and a bit disconcerted at how easy it is to slip back into the full time Army role (even only temporarily).
I never really considered the military my passion. I appreciated the opportunities and the life style it afforded me, there were times when my duties gave me a strong sense of pride and accomplishment but I wouldn’t say it ever completely surpassed a job for me in the same way it did for many others I knew. A lot of times people would say they would know it was time to get out when it stopped being fun. I don’t think I ever would have used that term to describe my attitude towards the Army. I was a good officer but I was never convinced it was the right fit/match.
And yet I stayed on active for 10 years, and as recently as the 9 year mark, I thought I would be staying for 20. I certainly didn’t think I would be in that long when I arrived at my first duty station. My plan was to do my four required years, switch to Inactive Ready Reserve and go back to school to be an English professor. Except as I got closer to that four year mark, I saw more and more articles about how many people with PhDs in academia struggled to get hired full time, instead being hired for a class or two a semester, sometimes at different colleges, and the financial struggles that came with that lack of stability. After four years of steady income (and in many cases being better off financially than some of my fellow liberal arts majors), I wasn’t ready to give that up for an insecure future. I could handle a few years of belt tightening but a life of it? Not so sure about that.
It actually is very odd – while some people, especially those in the medical field, know they can make more on the outside, in other ways, the Army can make people very hesitant and afraid to leave. First off, there was the retirement factor (the system has recently changed but I still fall under the old version). Until recently, it was an all or nothing system. “You served 12 years, sorry nothing for you, you have to be in 20 years.” It makes people think twice before leaving, especially after a certain amount of time in. In my case, I chose majors I enjoyed in college, not considering the employability factor so I honestly wasn’t sure what I would be able to get on the outside but I definitely didn’t think it would compare to the Army benefits (medical, the time off – 30 days leave per year plus four day weekends on Federal Holidays). It’s also so easy to become isolated from the world at large. Everyone around is military. Many of the Department of the Army Civilians have either served in the Army or retired from the Army prior to switching over, and some are even still serving as Reservists. Same with many of the contractors – many have some military experience or background. All around us we see ways to continue working for the Army even after leaving the Army. I finally realized my real fear was to never try anything else, and to simply leave one for the other. Plenty of people do it, and there is nothing wrong with that, but I didn’t want to still be coming to the bases in the Middle East after completing 20 years in the Army. I wanted to find something that excited me rather than slipping from one system to another because it was safe or familiar, and was the path of least resistance. Many of the DA Civilians feel a genuine call to service but since I already viewed the Army as the safe option, I definitely didn’t want to spend two careers choosing the safe (to me) option.
On the other hand, the Army can also make people cocky about their prospects post-military. “Everyone wants to hire vets, they know veterans have great work ethic, you have leadership capabilities, etc.” It’s very odd how the same system can both create fear to leave and hubris about one’s job prospects! I didn’t think I had fallen too far into the hubris category, but there was still some self discovery on my part in realizing that maybe I had drunk a little bit of the Kool-Aid after all. And maybe it was less over-confidence in my experiences and skillset, and more that I thought I would be able to hit the ground running when I took my first position after completing my MBA. It’s not that I didn’t start out strong, I just started feeling like I was a bad fit after a few months when it was time for the next rotation in the rotational program. As much as I moved around in the Army, those functions built on each other, even when I was thrust in completely new situations. In my corporate moves, there didn’t seem to be much building of knowledge that would be helpful from one section to another; they certainly didn’t seem to have the time or structure to teach and mentor someone that didn’t already have a background in their section’s functions/specialties. It was disheartening to go from being someone that had built a professional reputation and was confident in their work to feeling like an elevated intern (granted, a lot of that was probably less about either institution and more about internal imposter syndrome or insecurities). At least some of the issues were also a misunderstanding of what I truly wanted, what I was getting into and what I was good at vs. what I had simply dealt with – being able and willing to move around doesn’t actually always mean it’s something one wants to do.
There’s quite a few topics in this that I could build on in later conversations, but my point now was that being back in the military life, it would be so easy to fall back into it because the pay is decent, it’s familiar, and I know what is expected. I know people that extend multiple times rather than return to their civilian/corporate jobs, and I can certainly see how it would be easy to stay in full time Army mode even if it doesn’t help me with long term wants and desires. I don’t want it and yet there is something disconcertingly seductive about the familiar, and how easy it is to fall back into old habits and mannerisms.