I recently had the honor and privilege to attend a transition program for service members transitioning from active duty. Overall it was a good experience but when I got home from the day, I had a lot of mixed feelings and emotions.
When I left the Navy, it was my choice. The transition program back then called “TAPS” was a 5 day event for transitioning personnel. They basically handed us a bunch of paperwork, told us what benefits we had and pointed to the door. My last day of active duty, I stood outside the fence of the pier looking at the ship wondering what I just did to myself. It was a disconnection as clear as unplugging an electrical outlet from the wall. Only a year later, I found myself back at the doorstep of the navy trying to get back in on active duty. I wound up just doing active reserves but not transitioning back to active.
While I was in the service I really wanted out because I wanted to live an un-tethered life. The problem was that I couldn’t see how I could use my skills that I learned as a Damage Controlman. My first job out of the service was working in an auto shop changing oil. The target time to change oil, clean the windows and get the car out and back to a customer was 10 minutes. I couldn’t do it. It took me longer and the old chief that ran the auto shop said “kid, you just ain’t meant for this work.” I literally took odd jobs and found myself an undeveloped early 20 something. I worked in the Navy Exchange sight and sound department, the Navy Exchange package store, installed cable as a subcontractor for Cox, took photographs of families and children at Walmart and fixed or tinkered with computers on the side. It was hard for me. I started going back to college and I had a really young family. Things didn’t get better from there for me and it wasn’t until 5 years later that I started on a path where I could find myself.
Back in the present here, I sat with these service members and I looked at them as we spoke of their thoughts and feelings about this transition. Most of them did not know what they were going to do and they felt or at least expressed the same mixed emotions that I felt. Some of them didn’t want to retire but were being forced to because of their age. I am really struggling with this because many people stay healthy and capable well past 38-42. I can’t understand why they aren’t looked at as individuals as opposed to a timeline. One Marine looked at me and asked who he would be without the Corp. I told him that he would be a Marine always and his 20+ years of service will never leave him. He looked at me, shook his head in a nod and his eyes never left mine and said “I understand sir.” I think he acknowledged what I said but the look in his eyes wasn’t understanding, it was fear of the unknown.
This person wouldn’t have left the Marines if they weren’t forcing him to retire. As I traveled home, I wondered how he would actually transition from being a war-fighter to civilian. I also struggled with the emotions associated with that feeling he would have one day being on the other side of the fence.
One day you are part of this thing and the next you are on the other side of the fence.
Maybe not for this kid in the leather jacket but for those who serve and want to continue, we should consider changing the rules. The world is evolving and the DoD should change with it. Another thing to consider is that a large portion of our fighting forces are private companies and citizens. If our large fighting forces are contractors and the costs are as high as claimed by think tank organizations, maybe it is time to re-think how we treat our service members that want to continue to serve. This may also offer the government a lower cost alternative to the high price of defense contractors.
What do you think? How can we help our transitioning service members better?
Is the DoD violating the federal laws around ageism?