The Military Guide


Retirement Lifestyles: “Can I Get Back Into The Military?”


A reader question has hit my IN box several times this year:

“My spouse retired from the military after 20 years of active duty and is receiving their pension. They’re in their 40s and they miss it so much. Is there a way for them to get back in? I know they’d be happier serving than just receiving a deposit every month.”

This conversation goes a lot better when it’s started by the person who misses the military, although I appreciate that spouses are concerned– or even perhaps a little tired of being around the problem. It’s not an easy conversation, but this problem won’t go away on its own.

The short answer is “No, you can’t return to active duty.”

Image of old woman's hands holding an American flag as a metaphor for separating from military service|
Someday we’ll all leave the military.

In this case it’s due to age, although all the services have experimented with waivers up through the late 30s. I’ve read that a handful of retirees have returned to active duty for short stints of 30-90 days for unusual skills like trauma surgeon or electrical utility grid operation in a battle zone. Other times it could be for a few months developing a special program or research project. Although the answer is usually “No”, if the retiree has a unique skill then they can always talk with the command who needs that skill and let that sponsor help with the waivers.

There may be a deeper retiree problem: they may not only miss the military, but they may have most of their personal identity wrapped up in the military. This is especially common among senior leaders (both officer and enlisted) who may have been responsible for large commands with hundreds of servicemembers. They may have had a great title, an important mission, a large office filled with military memorabilia, and perhaps even a staff to keep them happy. Retiring from that billet can be a huge loss of a temporary identity! That loss is exacerbated if the retiree tries to replace the mission (and staff) with home, spouse, or even family. Retirees have to create their own missions.

Most retirees never have this identity problem. Some knew when they’d seen enough and they wanted to retire from active duty. Others may have looked months ahead and realized that they’d be asked to retire at the end of a tour. The problem can be particularly vicious for retirees who expected a promotion or a follow-on assignment and were abruptly disappointed by the military’s changing priorities. If you’re a hypercompetitive overachiever who thinks the finish line is still years away, it’s difficult to change your plans and priorities in a matter of weeks.

It’s your transition.

Retirees (and all military veterans) have to take charge of their transition. Whether it’s a long-planned retirement or an unexpected discharge, they have to regain the initiative and figure out what brings them challenges and fulfillment. It’s perfectly fine to miss the military, and even to mourn the loss of a particularly strong identity or a choice billet. However everyone eventually leaves the service, and everyone has to be responsible for their next steps.

There’s always serving the military in another capacity. Contact your local base’s Retired Activities Office, volunteer with a JROTC program at a high school, volunteer as a candidate guidance officer for students considering a service academy, or work with a veteran’s organization like MOAA. It could be as simple as taking a couple of shifts per week or a full-time job at a family support center.

Another idea is volunteer service with other military veterans. Look into disaster recovery with Team Rubicon, or helping with a local wounded warrior program, or volunteering with almost any other community non-profit organization. The key is to figure out what they really miss (leading a group? military camaraderie? mentoring and training?) and then find a way to do it without the military uniform.

A final suggestion is Ernie Zelinski’s Get-A-Life Tree. (Mr. Zelinski wrote a couple of outstanding books about the transition, too). Use it to jumpstart your thoughts and find creative answers that are way better than doing what you’ve always done before. This can also be used by couples and families to come up with shared activities.

I’ve had a copy of the Get-A-Life Tree on my desk for nearly 14 years, but frankly I’ve been too busy to make the time to fill it out. I don’t want to get back in to the military, but I’ve found my way to continue to pay it forward and mentor while I enjoy the camaraderie. I surf a lot, too!

Explore your new life!

Surfing brings me to another important point: flexibility. I’m 55 years old now, but when I was in my mid-30s I could see that my military career would end at age 41. By then I’d discovered books like “Your Money Or Your Life” and “The Millionaire Next Door”. My spouse and I realized that we were close to financial independence and could choose almost any bridge career we wanted.

As we explored our options, I realized that I didn’t want a traditional corporate career. (Financial independence gives you the freedom to explore.) I knew that I’d find something challenging and fulfilling, but what I really craved was autonomy: more control over my time.

I could have started a corporate career during my retirement leave, but I’m glad that I didn’t. On the official day of my retirement, as a sort of family joke about our new life together, we took surfing lessons. I was hooked and I knew that I’d want to spend much more time at it. Nearly 14 years later, every time I’m in the dawn patrol lineup at our local break, I watch about half of the crowd reluctantly glance at their watches and paddle in to go to work. It’s a frequent reminder that financial independence gives you choices.

When you leave the military, it’s fine to mourn the loss of the life you’ve built. It’s even acceptable to feel a little sorry for yourself about leaving behind a great identity or the world’s best billet. But all the skills you’ve learned in the service make you capable of taking charge of your own transition and leading yourself to your next life. Instead of pining for the things you think that you’re leaving behind, look ahead. Figure out what’s important to you and find a way to add those things to your new life.

Check the “Related articles” section below the book link for more posts on this topic, and more solutions.

The book (scroll down a couple of inches) has great suggestions on other activities, too. Look for it at your local library or buy it online.

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Related articles:
Myths Of Military Retirement And Early Retirement
Forget About Who You Were And Discover Who You Are
Retirement: Don’t Recreate Your Old Environment
Retirement: Relax, Reconnect, And Re-engage
During Retirement: Paying It Forward
During Retirement: You Will Change. Your Plans May Change Too.
During Retirement: Where Do You Want To Go Next?
During Retirement: Back To School?
During Retirement: Rebel A Little
During Retirement: Healthy Lifestyle
Volunteering For Charity Or Neighbors
Dealing With “Retiree Guilt”
The “Fog Of Work”
Surviving An Involuntary Separation
During Retirement: The Inevitable Job Offers
Getting “The Job Call”
Lifestyles In Military Retirement: Surfing