18 May 2017

The End of the Road

I made my decision on a deserted stretch of Highway 8 near As Salman, Iraq, on the last day of February in 1991. It was a much easier decision than I had anticipated, but in the closing hours of Operation Desert Storm I knew that I was committing to a career in the United States Army.

I was not yet four years removed from a discussion with my Professor of Military Science that, at the time, had convinced me that my time in uniform would be short:

“Congratulations! You’re Regular Army!” He said.

“That’s great,” I replied.

“And you've been branched Ordnance!!” He added.

“Ordnance? What’s that? That wasn't even on my dream sheet.” I answered.

“They’re the guys who fix typewriters. You’ll love it!”

Fuck me. Typewriters? What the hell? “Really?” I replied. “I thought I would be branched Engineers?”

“Really? What was your major?”


“Oh. Well, congratulations! Regular Army!!”

Not long after arriving at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, I contacted the headhunter firm Cameron-Brooks, and began planning for life after the military. I attended the seminars, read the books, and discussed the future. I completed work on my master’s degree, focusing on a career in industry where I could put my education to work.

Then came the phone call that changed it all. Report to Sherman Army Airfield. You’re deploying to Saudi Arabia. Six months later, I changed my mind. This was fun. It was rewarding. I’d seen the Army at the height of AirLand Battle and I liked it. I was staying.

We all face that decision in our careers, often more than once. Some make that decision early, others not until much later. In his recent post, Should I Stay or Should I Go, Major Jake Turner revisited a conversation with a disgruntled lieutenant colonel that caused him to consider when “enough was enough.” He offered four questions to gauge when the time is right to hang up the spurs, to call it a career.

Like Jake, I maintained my own mental checklist that I used to assess my own “career cutoff point.” Over the years, I revisited the items on that list at roughly five-year increments, until finally committing to my own exit strategy. My list grew from years of being mentored by more senior and seasoned leaders, and from watching others, like Jake Turner’s grumpy lieutenant colonel. 

Am I still having fun? Few careers are as much fun as the military. I mean that seriously. The day it stops being fun is the day that it’s time to reconsider your options. Yes, you’ll have good days and bad days, but when the bad days outnumber the good, you need to take a knee and drink water. It could be decision time. 

Is it a job? The Navy’s best marketing campaign sums this point up quite well: It’s not just a job, it’s an adventure. When it becomes a job, it’s time to stop and smell the coffee. And you’ll know the difference. It’s no longer exciting, not even remotely interesting. You’re just going to work to slog along in the same mud you do every other day. 

Am I making a difference? One of the most rewarding feelings is the knowledge that the profession is better off with you in uniform. Some people have a greater influence out of uniform, while others don’t make a difference at all. The minute you no longer are making a difference it the moment in time you should take a professional pause and ponder your contribution. If you’re just part of the machine, your passion might be elsewhere. 

Do I still care about people? The less you care about the people around you, the more likely that it’s time to move on. If it’s about you, and only you, you’re in the wrong profession. 

Do I watch the clock? Are you a clock watcher? Do you arrive later and later every day, take longer and longer lunch breaks, and keep a close eye on the clock to know when to “cut slingload”? These are indicators that you’re not all in anymore. Signs that it’s time to punch out for good. 

Can I deploy? Some people can’t deploy. I get that. But I always took great pride in my deployability, to the extreme of pulling out 13 stitches with a Swiss Army knife in the Sherman Army Airfield latrine so a flight surgeon would clear me to get on a plane. We have a great influence on our ability to deploy, and we share great stories of leaders who deploy again after being grievously injured. If they can do it and you can’t, that’s another indicator. 
Am I toxic? Are you Jake Turner’s lieutenant colonel? Does everyone you work with hate you? Do you poison the well every time you drink from it? Yeah, time to hang them up before you get yourself into trouble. 

Do I live the Army Values (or the values of my branch)? Don’t be that guy. The day you can no longer uphold the values of your profession is the day you need to walk away. There’s nothing worse than knowing (or not knowing) that the people around you think you’re a cretin. They see what you do and they talk about it. Remember, what happens on deployment doesn’t necessarily stay on deployment, especially if you bring it home with you. We all make mistakes, just don’t wear yours on your sleeve like a badge of honor. 

Is my family happy? Few things impact your career as much as your family. If they’re happy, it’s a lot easier for you to be happy. If they’re not happy, then you need to do some soul-searching. Communication is the key to every happy family. Listen to them, and listen closely. 

Can I still laugh? Ever know someone who only laughed when something bad happened to someone else? You don’t want to be that guy, either. If you can answer “yes” to the first question, then this one is a close second. Don’t take yourself too seriously and you’ll go far (the opposite advice I was once given). Learn to laugh, to live, and to enjoy the little things. When you stop laughing, start packing. You’ll be doing everyone a favor. 

Eventually, we all make that fateful decision. Some sooner, some later. When the time comes, we all know when to go. Or, in the words of Jake Turner, “Well, everyone but that angry lieutenant colonel.”

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