Updated: Aug 29, 2019
What if I told you retiring from the military will be tougher than you think, but not for the reasons you think? If you are rapidly approaching that fun (and often weepy) day, where are you at mentally? Are you worried about your career transition? Our military institutions seem to focus there, and rightfully so...it's a big deal to find pay and benefits that keep your family secure and happy. Can I share a secret? You're going to figure all of that out and it's going to be fine. That's not to discount it, but there's an army of folks ready to help you. It might not come fast, but you'll find your footing and stabilize in a new career. But somewhere along your transition novel there's a plot twist; what was easy becomes hard and what was hard becomes easy. During my first year in retirement I learned the hardest part of transition had little to do with my new job. It had everything to do with leaving the military family and lifestyle. In aviation, spotting other aircraft is a big part of staying alive. You scan the sky for other jets that might be on a collision course so you can alter your path to avoid them. With experience, you learn not to focus on the lone target you have spotted that might be a conflict. That traffic is no longer the one that's going to kill you...it's the other traffic you haven't spotted that'll do you in. I want to share my "other" traffic with you. I had my eyes firmly fixed on the career transition. While focused on that aspect I never saw these other three things coming or naively disregarded them.
Making new friends might actually take some work.
For 22 years making friends was easy. Everyone wore name tags on our little green pajamas (flight suits) and a beer on Friday to introduce the "new folks" was a given. That's how the military functions. Family is part of our ethos. When you move away from home to serve your country friends become family. And when you show up to a new base they embrace you like long lost cousins. Honestly, you really don't have to make much of an effort. Like a groom at the wedding, just show up on time and the rest will happen automatically; the system has been put in place to get you through the moment. :-)
Effortless friends are not a given once you leave the military. If you take a job in the same location where you transitioned, you'll probably already have a good network available. If you move to a new home, consider resetting your expectations. You have likely moved every 2 to 3 years and are used to forming fast friendships. People in your new neighborhood might have been there for many years and see you as an outsider. Relationships might take longer to form. That's not the case everywhere, but neither should you expect much beyond a warm welcome and courteous handshake. That might be the end of the line if you don't put in the effort to move relationships farther. There's no "hail & farewell" scheduled, no potluck, no "mandatory fun" where you can socialize whether you like it or not. These things might be a part of the neighborhood, workplace, and community that you settle in, but you shouldn't plan on them happening automatically. New relationships will require you to put in some work.
The transition might be harder for your spouse than you have anticipated.
Results vary wildly on this one; especially if you pick up with a new career that largely mirrors the hours of your old one. But it's very important for those continuing with the airlines or private aviation to consider how compatible your new schedule is with what your spouse is accustomed, otherwise you'll end up with a Pepe Le Pew situation. For most of my career I disappeared like a vampire to the crypt before morning sunlight. I walked out the door between 6:30 and 7 and returned between 5 and 5:30. During that time my wife came and went as she pleased, worked from home, managed the household, and had all the quiet time she wanted once our children were in school. Fast forward to my schedule today. I might be gone for two weeks then home for two weeks. Surprisingly (to me at least), the two away were easier on my wife than the two at home. Now don't get me wrong, she still loves me (most of the time :-) and we have a great marriage, but she needs space and quiet time at home. Her daily solo existence has been disrupted. Like the unexpected sound of a chainsaw in a mist shrouded forest, I killed the vibe.
It has taken many months of work to sort out our new normal, but we're getting there. When I was in college, my family occasionally trekked up to Denver to eat at a Mexican restaurant called "Casa Bonita." It was pure spectacle. They had an elaborate village scene recreated inside the building complete with a cliff diving show. Aside from the cliff divers, the other thing I remember were little flags on each table. If you wanted more food you raised the flag. A server would rush over and ask what train was heading down the track next on the Gluttony Express. Jenni and I needed a similar solution, a little flag or sign that she could raise that meant "go away; alone time please!" We've both adjusted now. I've picked up with my hobbies more, taken on a little extra work that interests me, and found philanthropic outlets that create the space at home she was used to when I had set work hours. If you move on to a job with hours similar to the ones you kept in the military then save this thought until you retire again...it'll become a factor then. But if you enter the world of commercial aviation, some variation of this will probably play out at your household. This isn't insurmountable, but it was definitely traffic I didn't see coming.
You should find activities that give you purpose and make you happy.
I was searching online for an image that summed up the notion of purpose after military service. I began typing,"finding new purpose after...." Google auto-filled the rest of my search for me,"....military service." I'm not the only one that's searched that. In fact, what's been a struggle for me is a hurdle for many veterans. I was surprised to find a great article from an organization called Make the Connection that covered many of the same themes. Wearing a flag on your shoulder probably means more to you than you realize. Once you no longer have that as a backdrop for your life you might find yourself wondering, "how do I contribute now?" For many transitioning military members it can simply mean giving more time to organizations where they serve now. Church, Boy/Girl Scouts, coaching youth sports, and similar things all offer a way to give back with soul nourishing service. If you don't have a tribe yet just take a look around. There's no shortage of organizations in your community that would prize your time and leadership. In return, you'll regain some of that purpose that military service offered.
I think another ingredient for successful transition is finding a hobby or interest where you can get lost. The sunset photo above came from a hill near my house a few weeks ago. I get to wander in search of these images more often now and it brings me great joy. What are the things that bring you happiness outside of work? Invest some time exploring those areas prior to your transition. I've seen retired and transitioned friends amp up their cycling, hiking, photography, and writing. And again, not to belabor the point, but if you are going to transition to commercial aviation then you will need an outlet, or someone in your house runs the risk of going crazy (you, your spouse, or both!). You might be surprised where these hobbies take you. My blog grew out of a desire to share my images and help others. Another good friend found writing as an outlet as well and has a great blog where he shares observations from layovers and family life. Hopefully you already have a long list of things you want to do when you retire or transition, but if they aren't on the tip of your tongue, do yourself a favor and think about it with a beverage of your choice.
Life after military transition can be every bit as rewarding and fun as the time you spent in uniform. After a year out of the Air Force, my family and I have adjusted to our new life. The boys are happy in school, we've made new friends, and we are growing roots in our community. But honestly, it was tougher for my wife and I than we thought it would be; and it wasn't because of work pay or benefits. It was because I flippantly disregarded the meaning military service added to my life, the easy friends of a like minded community, and the disruption a very fluid work schedule can wreak on your family stasis. I hope this helps as you prepare for your next steps. Keep an eye out for that "other" traffic...you are on a collision course with these things whether you spot them or not!