In his 2011 article in the Atlantic, Tim Kane asks: “Why are so many of the most talented officers now abandoning military life for the private sector?” It was a good question. Still is, and applies to thousands of servicemembers who served in both officer and enlisted roles. So why would someone leave before they’re eligible to retire? Do you know someone who asked to leave early? Why leave a “secure job” with “insurance, benefits, and a guaranteed pension” and the perceived camaraderie of a small team?
I wrote the first draft of this article after listening to Ben Killoy on Lori Norris’ Lessons Learned for Vets Podcast. A Marine veteran himself, Ben left the service for corporate America. He bought a $400 suit “like TAP told [him] to” and spent several years working like everyone else. He also went to school full-time and supported his wife and children, trying like hell to do it all and come out the other side a better man. Yet with at least two years remaining on his degree in electrical engineering, he was struggling to balance the class load with his family and professional obligations. Then a well-timed seminar turned the tide for him and his future leading others like him.
Ben’s message resonated with me deeply as he described dads who think themselves failures and burdens to their families. That was (and is) me. I never deployed overseas; I spent my time on active duty deploying within the lower 48. A unique experience among military members to be sure, but an environment equally capable of swallowing up a whole person only to spit them out on the other end with little to show for it that’s translatable to someone ‘on the street.’ Mothers and fathers return from multiple combat deployments overseas only to suffer for many more years at home for all sorts of reasons, not least of which the inability to find a lasting role for themselves in their own families and communities. The mission we signed up for provided meaning, personified in the brother or sister standing next to us.
On the phone with a friend and fellow airman last week, I openly questioned the value of staying in uniform for a “career” (sticking around until you’re retirement-eligible). He’d once questioned his own future in the military, five years ago when we were stationed together. I’d advised him to remain and give it “at least one more assignment.” He was a great officer, great person, and had plenty more to give. But also wasn’t sure his heart was in it. I understood where he was coming from, having questioned my own time in service at every assignment. But I did what I was supposed to do … convince him to stay. He wasn’t the only one. Now five years later, I’m five months from my own voluntary separation and was honest with him about why I’m leaving after 13 years. In the past I’ve tweaked the answer depending on who I talk to. I never lie, but I also hover below perfect honesty. I’m not used to telling the whole truth in answer to this question. Why that’s the case is, I think, related to why we continue to fail servicemembers every year who return from war, leave the service, then can’t integrate with their families and communities.
My friend asked me later whether I’d share my reasons with anyone else. In my experience, these conversations usually stay behind ‘closed doors’ while the public version varies and avoids pinning any amount of responsibility on the institution itself. It’s easier to explain being ‘pulled’ versus ‘pushed’ away. Unlike the subjects of Tim Kane’s piece, I am not now, nor have I ever been, one of the military’s “best officers.” But I know some–officers I’d follow anywhere. Literally. Most of them have either left early or stayed in while writing off the institution as unfixable. And so the tragedy continues.
In May 2018, a senior Air Force officer published the first of several articles on War on the Rocks (WOTR). A disclaimer acknowledges WOTR’s rare decision to publish the author under a pseudonym given the apparent “serious risk” to his career. This officer, since revealed as (now retired) Colonel Jason Lamb, gained something of a cult following for his views on the service’s talent management system. Not that his views were unique; on the contrary, Lamb’s work became a popular topic of discussion precisely because he was expressing what we knew to be true. There was (and is) a chasm between the values the Air Force advertises and the values it reinforces through compensation, recognition, and promotion. This is why I decided to leave the Air Force. At 13 years. With “only seven left ’til retirement.” Because I could no longer stick with an organization not serious about fixing its own problems.
This article was going to continue my own exploration into that failure. Then I came across the 136-page report published by the Fort Hood Independent Review Committee. Shared by a connection of mine on this platform, the report highlighted multiple failures in how Army and Fort Hood senior officers cared for soldiers. Despite millions of dollars and new job titles and programs, DoD as a whole continues to suffer from harassment (sexual and otherwise), assault (sexual and otherwise), and more broadly a climate that can fluctuate from brilliant and leading-edge to ominous and Darwinian. Now I’m infuriated. When will we get serious? When will we stop “talking” and put our money where our mouths are? When will we choose to lead those men and women relying on us to care for them? Not to mention their families? I post often on leadership and receive comments recommending we “keep having the conversation.” Fine. You keep talking. I need to move onto something else.
Fort Hood is but one example of our failure. The fathers Ben Killoy aims to help are another. Countless more men and women of integrity, arriving at basic training or an officer candidate program motivated to serve their country and “give back,” stand to become thousands more. I’m serious and getting after it.
I published this post first on LinkedIn on December 10th, 2020. I decided it was worth publishing to my own page and beyond, for the same reasons I discuss on the body of the piece. “Unwritten rules” and the “worst-kept secrets” about what we say vs. what we do has led to failure after failure. At every level. If we purport to hold the higher moral ground, we’d best think through and discuss what that means and get serious about earning the trust often placed in us implicitly.