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.
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.
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