Guest Post Wednesday: “You’ve Been SERB’d!”

This guest post is brought to you by an Army officer who’s been voluntold for the Selective Early Retirement Board.  For you younger readers who’ve never heard of such a heinous process, the drawdown military is partyin’ like it’s 1994 all over again.

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I’ve finally been cleared for takeoff!

After “redshirting” the real world for nearly 30 years, I’m finally going to experience how 99% of the rest of America survives lives day to day. For the second time in my military career, the Army finds itself in major drawdown mode and it looks like I won’t escape the corporate decision “to trim force structure that is excess to strategic requirements”.

As a former enlisted Soldier who as a Lieutenant Colonel (O5) was fortunate enough to command a battalion, I successfully navigated the terrain in the early 90’s that saw 1 of every 3 Army lieutenants receive invitations to leave the service. But after 3 combat tours, 2 yearlong unaccompanied assignments to southwest Asia, countless months in remote training environments (at every temperature extreme), and all the office politics associated with senior level commands, I’ve decided that missing the birth of children, numerous anniversaries, birthdays, holidays and family milestones to last two lifetimes, it is time to move on.

In reality, the Army greatly aided my decision-making process with the announcement that old farts “vintage” members of the O5-O6 variety don’t have an abundance of potential in a possibly 20 percent smaller force and announced a selective early retirement board (SERB). A SERB is the Department of Defense’s way of downsizing. For those of us who are subjected to being retired early, it feels a lot like being cut from the team after years of being a first-round draft choice. Despite being a stellar performer, I have become a casualty of timing and expense; every excess O-5 costs the same as three O-1s with a much shorter shelf life.

My initial reaction was one of anger, disappointment, bitterness, and yet somehow, relief after I accepted that like Father Time, “Uncle Transition” is also undefeated. Nobody stays forever. I’ve done well to defy the inevitable for as long as I have. I now have a date certain to move to the next phase of my professional life. Yet while I recognize this is a corporate decision that is not about me, it is still a challenge not to take it personally.

Why am I writing this guest post? Primarily, I want it to document my transition from professional Soldier to professional retiree. I also hope that putting thoughts to paper will help me decide what I want to be when I grow up and learn from those who’ve already made the transition. Finally, I’ve resolved to not overly focus on the emotional instead I will, hopefully, provide readers with a map of the chokepoints, hotspots, and landmines for those making the transition over the next few years.

From Citizen to Soldier

My 30-year journey began humbly enough. Initially, I enlisted for a three-year tour to pay off my student loans, gain a little experience, and provide medical benefits to my new family. In four years I served as an enlisted Soldier, I saw every promotion from E3 to E6 come in the minimum time. At the three year mark of my initial enlistment, I realized that this Army thing was okay and that I wasn’t taking full advantage of my talents or master’s degree. I applied for and was chosen to attend Officer Candidate School (OCS). After gaining a commission through OCS in 1989, it seemed every promotion after O2 always came with strings.

I had the misfortune of earning a commission just as the Cold War was coming to an end. In 1989 the Army commissioned more than 5800 Second Lieutenants (O1s). An average “year group” (military terminology for personnel management of a class of officers) or management class is approximately 3000 officers. I’ve been right-sized my entire 24 commissioned years through various retention boards, delayed promotion list releases, and even reducing the size of my year group by redefining the commission year.

Despite the career advancement hurdles, I’ve always been considered in the upper 10% of my peer group, at least until now. After successfully serving as the executive officer of a battalion in combat, the operations officer of a deployed 3500 man brigade, and commanding a recruiting unit of more than 340 personnel, I found myself at a terminal assignment after not being selected to serve as an O6. As difficult as it was to hear that your performance was not quite good enough, I’ve made peace with the fact that I did my best.

Now what?

The SERB meets this August with selection results released a month or two after that. After a career of looking forward to list release (at least until the last couple of promotion lists) this is one I’m thinking of not waiting around for. One of the provisions of the selective early retirement process is the opportunity to save face by quitting before you’re fired. I can submit my application to voluntarily retire now and avoid the get out now selective process. If I exercised this option I will leave approximately five months before I was originally planning to or I can wait for the list results and leave on my original timeline with the mental scar of knowing I was asked to leave.

What about Finances?

Financially, the difference between the choices is roughly $90 per month. The dollar figure is really not a major deciding factor since the good news in all this is that my wife and I are in pretty good shape fiscally. I started my adult life with a solid financial foundation. Not that I was born with a silver spoon or platinum trust fund; instead my parents left me something better – an excellent work ethic and an appreciation for living within my means. While we were never wealthy while I was growing up, we lived with the expectation that you always paid your own way, gave to those less fortunate (though at the time I doubted such people existed), and saved for the day when you could no longer work.

I started investing with a simple “portfolio” of a $50 series EE savings bond purchased through allotment from my handsome $723 monthly E3 salary. Considering that I had finished college during what was then thought a severe recession, I counted myself fortunate to have not only a job but also to be debt free since one of my enlistment incentives was government repayment of my education loans. At the time we were a family of four and barely scraping by but I thought it was important that we put aside something. I was more interested in developing the discipline to save since I had the education on investing and assumed I would have the assets to invest sooner or later. I spent nearly as many hours then studying investment options (all of which I couldn’t afford) as I do now. Interestingly, the basics of living within your means, saving and investing for the future, having a plan, and investing in what you know or are comfortable with are as important now as they were then.

Currently, my wife and I are in what I call in quasi-empty nest mode. All of our kids have finished their undergraduate degree programs and are (or soon will be) beginning graduate studies on their own dime. We consciously decided not to be landlords during my career and have only owned one house. Partly as a result, we are debt free and have been for quite some time. The wife has finally gotten on board with my vision of financial management, so we live somewhat frugally and below our means.

We invest and save more than 50 percent of our household net income. We’ve methodically built a mid-six-figure portfolio despite the fact that my wife has not worked outside the home for more than 10 years for personal reasons and because of health challenges. I’ve run the numbers through various “what if” drills and I’m convinced that we will be able to live fairly comfortably on my retirement and continue to fund a portfolio to that will augment the pension and still achieve my goal of a seven-figure portfolio by age 60 to leave a fiscal legacy.

From Soldier to Chief Life Officer

The truth of the matter is that the methodical, quantifiable aspects are the easier part of this problem set for me. As I go from Soldier to Chief Life Office the less analytical, harder to enumerate challenges, are where I am not as sure of the way forward.

For instance, I don’t think I will have to and I’m not sure that I want to work so we are considering “opting out” of the workforce. Not being tethered to a job offers more opportunities. In terms of housing, we still have to answer the question of where we want to settle.

My chief concern, like many military retirees, is restlessness. This has been a frequent topic of discussion with my retiree coworkers. After more than 15 moves in 30 years, I’m concerned that the nomadic DNA cannot be excised with a set of retirement orders. The answer may lie in something that has piqued our interest – an RV.

I’ve looked at several in various military lemon resell lots and see them as a compromise. With an RV we can hit the road at will and still have roots in a community. Another question is how close do we move to family? Again our compromise is that we want to be close enough to get there in an emergency and far enough to prevent most drive-by/drop-in visits. We also want to be an acceptable (four hours or less) distance to a military installation to take advantage of military benefits like the commissary while they last.

I’m sure that over the next 10-12 months I will discover answers to questions that I haven’t even thought of and others that I’m conscientiously ignoring for the moment. I know I will have to address issues of medical care co-pays and deductibles, long term care insurance, state taxes, and other things that Uncle Sugar has taken care of on my behalf. In the meantime I plan to continue to pay due diligence to my transition by attending all the recommended transition courses, talking to those who have already retired, and of course, following blogs like this one.

All in all, I think this SERB thing is going to work out just fine. I’ll let you know of any blog-worthy discoveries along the way.

Reminder: This is a guest post. Please be polite, or the comments moderator will kick in.

Related articles:
“But… but… but what will I DO all day?!?”
When should you stop working?
I’m going to retire. Now what? (part 1 of 2)
How many years does it take to become financially independent?

WHAT I DO: I help you reach financial independence. For free. I retired in 2002 after 20 years in the Navy's submarine force. I wrote "The Military Guide to Financial Independence and Retirement" to share the stories of over 50 other financially independent servicemembers, veterans, and families. All of my writing revenue is donated to military-friendly charities.

  1. I may be on that list with you. I’m an O-6 with 27 years. Like you I also took it personal at first but have grown to live with it. My chain of command recommended, however, that I let the Army kick me out and take my chances but at the same time prepare for retirement. In my case, the only advantage to dropping my retirement paperwork would be about one extra month in the Army. I’m also overseas so retiring won’t be as easy but I’ve already started prepping, VA medical work, resumes, etc. So….we’ll see. If I get the boot, it will leave a bit of an empty feeling, like not finishing the marathon, but it also won’t be the end of the world. The only problem is you do feel as if the Army is just kicking you to the curb. A month before, my assignments officer was telling me they needed me for another overseas assignment as my specialty is short of O-6’s, but as soon as the SERB message came out- the same guy told me I was dog meat and should drop my paperwork. It’s all about numbers and money so you have try to not take it personal. Best of luck to you and thank you for your service.

    • Thanks, Gary, good advice!

      Please let us know what the SERB decides and what lessons you learned from your preps. This is valuable front-line reporting for other servicemembers dealing with the drawdown.

  2. Thanks for a very insightful post…I can imagine that it must have felt like a kick in the gut to have to go thru SERB with the current “right sizing” initiatives DoD is fully engaged in.
    I recently retired as well and currently on my terminal leave. I would like to say I left on my own terms…turned down battalion command so I can stay here in paradise, Hawaii. The command would not have been in a bad location (Italy)…but it is not Hawaii. Having achieved FI, ER was very much in play.

    Having not been in the position you are in (i.e. subject to SERB), I can only imagine some feelings of anguish, betrayal, unfairness, etc…but those are the realities of a fiscally constrained armed forces. I would think I would opt for submitting my own retirement packet ahead of the SERB so I can get out “on my own terms” and, as you aptly put, avoid the “mental scar” of being asked to get out.

    • Thanks, Mel! SERB sends a pretty strong signal to those who are still willing to serve, but I wonder if it also culls the herd a little too much. It’ll be interesting to see if the military personnel systems get this drawdown right this time, and this time they really mean it.

      I think you made the right choice of life priorities when you were given the “unrefuseable offer” to leave the islands.

  3. Some things to consider:
    1)Taxes on military retirement vary from regular taxes within a state- sometimes it is better then it looks. OTOH- property, county and city taxes can be bears hiding in the woods.
    2) If you plan on using military hospitals, you need to retire within a certain distance. If you have not used Standard before, you might be in a bit of a shock to find that doctors in some places will not take military retiree insurance. Do get Delta dental though- still widely accepted.
    Prescriptions can be filled by mail (which is currently very cheap). Make sure you have a good VA physical before you leave.
    Commissary?PX? Believe me, grocery stores are very competitive these days. Coupons are your friends. Walmart often outdoes the PX. Gas is cheaper in town here.
    3) I know a few military retirees who did the RV thing for a year and then settled. They put their “stuff” in storage with the military and then had “their last move”. Still Possible???
    4) Don’t be surprised when you get antsy. You have been in charge of loads of people who have to listen to you. It is a hard transition to just being the guy in a neighborhood.
    5) Don’t discount your extended family. If you choose to move to them- move to them. They have gotten used to you not being there and will probably not visit if you are “not too close”. I have seen this disappointment happen time and time again. You are either moving to re establish ties or you are not. Both have pros and cons.

    Retirement from the military is unlike any other. Welcome to the club!

    • Its amazing that I am seeing more good info on this blog than at the HRC website or from our branch managers or from the ACAP webpage. But atleast its out here to find. I to am at the end of the road most likely as a prior enlisted into the officer ranks guy. Started by jumping out of air planes up and training in places like Panama to commanding Cavalry troops in combat during the surge in Northern Iraq split over 3 locations. Did a tour in the STAN as well. I have seen the best in my 10% performers and the worst in my senior leaders in combat operations and in garrison. I learned alot in my 20+ yrs and the Army has taken away as much as it has given. Sacrifices by my family like many others are immeasurable. Once I to accepted that I was being voted off the island I embraced it. I would just like to know when we will be notified so we can actually plan for the future.

      Would I do it again. Yep! For selfless service? Not really. For the Flag on my arm and the soldeirs to my left and right. Yep!

    • Thanks, Kate, Jan! I’d hope that the high-tax states would have benefits that’d put a price on the difference. We paid no attention to taxes, but even if we’d thought about it we’d still be happy to pay the “Paradise Tax”.

  4. Very smart considering state income taxes. As we contemplate life post-service, it is frustrating to discover that the state with friends and family is also one of the states with the worst taxes. Good luck to you, and thank you for your service!

  5. LTC X–

    Thanks for your service! We’ve contemplated a RV life on occasion, so I’ve done a little research into full-time RVing and its costs. Here’s a great list which will at least get you into the right ballpark:

    Comment? Question? What's on your mind?