Today I’m bringing you some testimonials from a variety of people (mostly Air Force because I’m Air Force) about why they left the military. Why? Because there seems to be this thought that if you start your career wanting to retire from the military, you are going to retire from the military. And that’s not how it works.
I’ve thought a lot about how I want to frame this post. My impetus for this post is the Blended Retirement System, but it’s more than just “which retirement system should I choose?” Believing you will retire from the military can cause you to make a lot of assumptions about your financial future and when those assumptions turn out to be wrong, it can have serious consequences.
So while today’s focus is going to be generally on the BRS, I also want you to think about other financial decisions you may be making on the assumption you’ll be in the military for an entire career. Are you choosing your degrees based on that? How are you using your GI Bill – or not using it? Are you not investing money in retirement plans because you assume you will receive a pension? And have you calculated how much that pension is really worth? Are you saving up an Emergency Fund, or do you think your job is so secure you won’t need one?
Career Expectations and The Blended Retirement System
So many of the arguments against the Blended Retirement System can be boiled down to people saying “I’m staying with the legacy system because I’m going to retire from the military and the legacy system is better for retirees.”
While I do believe the Blended Retirement System is the best option for the vast majority of servicemembers (100% of people who don’t retire from the military and some who do), I don’t want to come across as thinking everybody should switch. There are plenty of people who should not switch.
I was speaking with a guy in the Navy recently. He looked pretty young…I wasn’t sure how young but I would’ve guessed around 23-25. I also didn’t know what rank he was, so I didn’t have that to guide me. I asked him if he was switching to BRS and without hesitation he said “Nope!”
I of course immediately assumed the worst. I thought he hadn’t thought through this monumental decision. The answer seemed so offhand! So I said “Why not?” He then explained that he was almost 12 years time in service and had just been picked up for E-7. Yeah, I was way wrong on his age and assumed rank! He’d also been investing for a long time and knew that his investments alone had him on the right track for financial independence. The pension, if he gets one, would be a bonus – he wasn’t staking his retirement future on it. So he could afford to take the risk of staying with legacy, especially since his time in service and career potential were significant.
I high-fived him and went on my way. He’s making the right decision.
At the same time, I’ve run across dozens of people (maybe hundreds?) with under 6 years time in service who insist they are staying until retirement. Many of these people haven’t even finished their first assignment. I can’t seem to get across that staying in the military until retirement isn’t just about their current choice. The military (especially their bosses), Congress, their family situation, their medical situation, and the possibility of their opinion changing all play a big role in what actually happens.
So today I’m publishing stories from friends of mine (and one virtual stranger who agreed to be included) about why they left the military. They range from Navy enlisted with 4 years of service, to Air Force enlisted with 15+ years. One left for medical reasons. Another reached high year tenure. Most left because the military just wasn’t working out for them anymore, even though they expected to make a career of it.
The point isn’t to get anybody to switch to BRS. I have no dog in that fight other than a deep-seated hope that military people will make good financial decisions. But I do want people to think beyond “the legacy pension is larger and I want to retire from the military, so I’m sticking with legacy.”
Forget that many people will end up with more money in retirement under BRS than under legacy. The BRS/Legacy decision is about much more than dollars. It’s about your life. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. This is a lifestyle decision disguised as a financial decision.
Testimonials have been lightly edited for grammar, spelling, clarity, and to make my blogging software happy but are otherwise published as the person originally supplied them. I did remove some personal details to protect their privacy if they were not necessary for the story.
Corey: E-6 in the Air Force, about to separate at the 15.5 year point
I originally enlisted in the Air Force because as an 18-year-old slacker, I didn’t have many other options and definitely didn’t have any discipline so I figured I’d join and learn a skill that could eventually make me some money.
From day 1, I was never committed to the path of staying in until retirement or doing a few years and then getting out. I took it all as it came, and when I needed to make a change, I did. I retrained at my 10-year mark from aircraft maintenance to be an MQ-9 Sensor Operator. I then realized that I needed more out of life.
There’s too much life and opportunity for bigger and better outside of the Air Force. Life changes. What you need out of life may change. Don’t be set on an idea you had at 18 years old because, well, what the hell do you know at 18? I was entirely content with how my career and life were going up until the moment I wasn’t anymore.”
Chad: I was in the Air Force as a space operator for 5.5 years attaining the rank of Staff Sergeant
I initially joined the military for the simple reason that my father had a rule that once two conditions were met, we were out the door. Those two conditions being high school graduation and being the age of 18. My siblings and I found that the military was the only realistic option. Both my parents were Army, and they told us to all join the Air Force as they saw firsthand the quality of life differences between the branches.
I joined for 4 years with the expectation that I would earn the G.I. Bill, get out and go to college. However, as it turns out I did very well in the Air Force. Seeming to be well liked, and succeeding, I began considering staying in and going officer.
After winning operator of the year for the Wing I figured I had a real shot and decided to extend my enlistment and start preparing my commissioning package. In the end, I wasn’t sure that leadership was right for me, and decided to get out after a second enlistment extension and needing to choose between reenlistment and leaving.
While in the Air Force I was fortunate enough to work in the engineering flight (orbital analysis) after I finished crew duty. Thanks to that I got a taste for engineering work and knew that’s what I wanted to go to college for. Using the G.I. Bill I managed to get my engineering degree and ultimately found myself working for NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) helping to study the weather and climate.
I am very proud of the way things turned out. While I may have not known it at the time, things turned out better than I hoped. I feel as though I am now fighting for the country more than I ever did in the military. Helping to fight a foe not so easily identified or recognized. So while getting out was the right call, it’s also true that I would have never gotten here without what I earned and learned in the service.”
Michelle: I was a Major (Select) with ten and a half years in when I left the Air Force
I joined the military out of an incredible desire to serve as many people as possible. The Air Force or the convent were my chosen possible paths and my AFROTC scholarship decided for me. I was given the AFSC 13S, a space or nuke operator at the time. Luckily, I track-selected for satellite operations and went to Schriever AFB, Colorado. I loved satellite operations and I was very good at it.
I had planned from the beginning to spend at least twenty years doing what I could to serve our country. I held amazing positions, my favorite of which was speechwriter for a three-star General. Early in my career I interviewed at the Air Force Academy to be an instructor. It was one of my life goals, now that I was in the AF, to teach there. I finally got to, eight years later.
I am not an Academy grad and the experience was not quite what I had envisioned. The cadets were outstanding and getting to teach the next generations of AF leaders was remarkable. Unfortunately, as one gains rank, things get political. I am not the kind of person to sugar-coat my opinions or keep my mouth shut; I am also not the kind of person who performs to gain rank or renown. Therefore, I have not ever particularly “fit” the stereotypical AF officer persona.
My outspoken and “non-traditional” manner was never a problem before politics became central to everyday operations. I was unhappy and stressed out. My plan had been to get my doctorate, serve another operational tour, then come back to the Academy and teach until I died, basically. Now things were different. Was this hiatus in academics going to cripple my operational career as it had so many others?
Force-shaping came along and offered quite a bit of money to get out. I thought, and frankly prayed, for a long time about how I could continue to serve though I had a horrible feeling I was on a sinking ship. I decided to serve others by teaching outside of the Air Force; I would use my G.I. Bill to get my doctorate.
I now use my time for my education, for teaching, and for serving my community in as many ways as I can. It was the right decision. This life allows me to be authentic to myself and my calling. The Air Force gave me many things, but I still wish the flexible retirement plan was available when I was in so I could have left with something for ten years other than just my personal retirement investments.”
(Mil$ Note: I promise I didn’t ask her to say that)
Charlie: Active Duty Air Force, 15 years, E-5 (SSgt). 3C0X1 (3.5 years), 3C0X2 (3.5 years), 6C0X1 (8 years)
(Mil$ Note: This means Charlie worked computer and contracting jobs for 15 years total).
I got into the military because I wanted to go to college and didn’t want to rely on loans. I was involuntarily separated at 15 years, in April of 2017 because of high-year tenure. I had planned on staying until 20.
I could not make TSgt…7th time was not the charm. I could have studied better, blah blah blah, but I hate playing the “what-if” game. It’s bittersweet because I lost out on a retirement, but I think I was mentally ready to get out anyway…the last 5 years would have been torture. That said, I received separation pay based on my rank and time in service. It amounted to about $42K and it was pretty much gone in about 6 months. I used it to pay off a bunch of debts and vehicle loans, and take the family on a nice vacation.
Since then, I used my experience as a contract specialist to acquire a job about 6 months after I separated. I now make about twice as much as I did when I left the military. The job is amazing, the benefits are great, and best of all…I get to grow a beard. The DD-214 is a nice warm blanket.
Even though it wasn’t my choice to leave the military, I’m satisfied with the way things turned out. I’m definitely happier living the civilian life. When I read stories of other people getting in trouble for things like not wearing a reflective belt or having their hands in their pockets…I sigh and chuckle to myself…that’s the feeling of a warm, fuzzy DD-214. It’s very refreshing.
I do not miss those shenanigans at all.”
(Mil$ Note: Before anybody starts thinking Charlie was bad at his job and that’s why he didn’t promote, let me say that I worked with him for several years and know him to be a talented technician. I was shocked to hear this story. Anybody who has been in the military more than a few years knows a good person/operator/troop/whatever who was forced out. Sometimes you just can’t quite do things the way the military wants you to do them.)
Linn: Major, USAF, Active: 2004-2013, Reserves (no break in service) 2013-Present (4+ years). I was a 13S Space Officer to start, 13N Nuclear Ops Officer from 2005 – 2012, 2012-present 13S Space Ops Officer.
I entered the military to serve. I was the 10-year-old kid that would come home from school, grab a notepad and take notes on (the first) Gulf War updates/reports. I believe that every American should serve somehow (earn their citizenship)—civil service, community service, law enforcement, military etc. I felt and still feel that I can leave a positive impact on the world and my country by utilizing my talents to help others stay free and do what they want.
From the time I joined AFROTC at Indiana University I planned on staying in 20 years at least. I didn’t (and still don’t) care much about what rank is obtained but more so about the impact I can make. I defined a successful career as a fully completed 20-year retirement. I, however, decided at about the 10-year point to separate. I did this for a few reasons. It became clear to me (after surviving my 4th Reduction In Force) that those that made it to Colonel or General weren’t always because of their abilities but more so because they stayed in.
Furthermore, as a 13N at the time they had (and still are) cutting funding, reducing command spots and rotating officers through the three missile bases (I have friends who have literally gone from Minot, to Malmstrom, to FE Warren, school and then back to Minot etc).
Finally, I decided to get out because I felt that I could make more of an impact in the world by creating jobs and starting a business in the civilian world while still serving in the Reserves and that’s what I did. After separating I briefly worked for a Bio-Med contract manufacturing company and then once I had saved enough money I started Ampla Enterprises LLC (a real estate holdings and development firm). Currently we have a portfolio that consists of 6 employees, 2 venture capital investments, a carwash and rental properties.
Given my current feelings on the Active Duty Air Force’s direction I am happy with my choice and even though I won’t get my pension until I am 60 years old, I get to choose where, when and largely how I serve in uniform. I have been both a Traditional Reservist and an Individual Mobilization Augmentee (IMA, basically a “hot backup” for an Active Duty position in an Active Duty position/unit. I am currently an IMA and get the same training, job description, clearances and to a large extent work as my AD counterpart.
I serve approximately two 3-4 week chunks at a time (usually Oct-Nov and Feb-Mar). The Reserves has allowed me to control more of my career, for example, I am in charge of my own ancillary training, fitness, medical etc. Additionally, I applied for and chose the job I am at and will apply for and choose my next one as well. That said, I only get paid when I work. This means that I am still eligible for TRICARE but I have to pay approximately $257/month to get it.
I also don’t get my pension until I am 60. At 60 it will be approximately 50% of the high-3 equivalent (this is the old system, not the new blended one) times the number of years I have served (keep in mind, I only work about 60-85 days per year so it is calculated as 1 point for 1 day worked in the Reserves). This means that if I end up with 4500 points at the end of my 20 years then it would be 50%ish of the average of my highest 3 paid years for approximately 12.3 yrs of total service (4500 points/365).
Long story short I am on target to be at about 5000 points and 22 years of service as a Lt Col when I plan to retire. This will result in my netting approximately $2500/month starting at 60 for the rest of my life.”
Kevin: I was a Captain in the Air Force when I separated after six and a half years of Active Duty.
At that time in my career (6.5 years), the Air Force was offering voluntary separation pay to incentivize officers in my career field and year group to separate or face involuntary separation. The separation pay was just the catalyst for making the decision, but the main reason I separated was that I thought my abilities and interests did not align with the Air Force needs. I thought I could create more value somewhere else.
This was a difficult decision for me. Even though I initially joined the Air Force to pay for college, I was very excited to serve when I commissioned. I planned to reach full retirement and aspired towards an exceptional career (O-6 and above). Leaving the military was one of the best decisions I’ve made.
Since leaving, I did management consulting for a couple years and then finally settled into Marketing and New Business Development roles. I love the challenges my new career brings to me, the speed at which things happen, and the opportunities for advancement. I never had that feeling while in the Air Force.”
Megan: When I left the Air Force I was a captain in the acquisitions career field with a little over 7.5 years service
The AF allowed me to attend college without acquiring massive debt and to graduate with a job working on the cutting edge of the US space program. Then ultimately I was able to be part of a bigger force, keeping the US, its allies, and my friends on the frontline a little bit safer even if it was behind the scenes.
I did plan to stay to retirement as I enjoyed what I was doing for the most part, had great jobs and a good record, the AF paid for my Master’s degree, and there was a lot of opportunity. However, I left in 2014 under the Voluntary Separation Program. My husband is also an officer in the AF, is in a completely different career field, and he also had 6 more years of service time than me while being in a frequently deployed career field. I separated so that we could live together and be a family.
I’m currently a stay at home mom of one and am working with a manufacturer to produce a clothing line for new moms. I also advise the national staff of a pro-national defense community service organization for college students.
Separating was pretty scary at first, but since I’m still connected to and supporting the military the transition was pretty easy. I like the freedom I have now to make decisions without red tape and life all around is much less stressful. We’re also very fortunate that we can make things work on a single income.”
Brian: Navy veteran 2002 to 2006, I served for 4 years as enlisted E-4. My job was diesel mechanic
I intended when I enlisted to retire from the military. However, I got married a year and a half after I joined the service. My wife also serves in the Navy from 2002 to present. She is an enlisted E-6 Hospital Corpsman and together we decided that I would be the one to get out of the service to attend college, and be the home supporter for raising our family. She was offered a specialty school for preventive medicine. We have moved every 3 years, sometimes more than we wanted too. We have owned a house in Florida since 2010.
My wife recently re-enlisted to her retirement date to complete 20 years in the Navy. From 2007 to 2017 I worked for the DoD and sought to invest in Roth TSP to provide a decent retirement. My wife also participates in the TSP. Recently I have started working for GSA, as an Emergency Manager, the dream job I have been studying and volunteering years of my time towards becoming.
Now financially speaking, I will be able to provide a steady sufficient income that will allow my wife to retire, and come home, with the opportunity to seek employment that she wants to do. As in typical enlisted marriages, the service member has to take the first job offered to make ends meet, our plan is to avoid such circumstances.”
Denise: 13 years on active duty Air Force
I commissioned in the USAF in 2002, with a bachelor’s in English. My parents had been military, and I had done JROTC and ROTC in college, as well as Civil Air Patrol. I was kind of destined for the military.
My original plan was only to do my 4 years and get out. Then I wanted to do my second tour and get out. Finally, by my second assignment, I decided I would stay in for the 20 years and retire. I loved what I did and the people I worked with.
In 2005, just 3 years after my commissioning, I gained over 50 pounds in 1 month without any change to diet or exercise. This led to a battle with my weight for the rest of my career. In 2010, they finally diagnosed me with polycystic ovary syndrome. Basically, I had triple all hormones and my ovaries were the cause. Even with weight issues, I was accepted into, and graduated from, the USAF Weapons Instructor Course.
I ended up being a commandant of a school house. I was a branch chief under a two-star General and even had a guidon level job as a Major in operations. My career was great. However, my weight continued to be an issue.
As it turns out, because it took so long to find the cause, my body chemistry had changed and now my body processed everything as fat. It’s not diabetic, as I make insulin. My body just doesn’t use it because the hormones blocked it. In 2011, I got a blood clot from the birth control I used to regulate my hormones. That means I can no longer take birth control.
In 2013, I had a surgical procedure to try to stem the weight issues. That caused side effects and then my thyroid stopped working. In 2015, 13 years after I was commissioned, I was forced out due to physical fitness test failures. My General tried to keep me and get waivers. However, the military said since I was still technically deployable, I could not get a med board or medical retirement. And since I was forced out due to failure to meet standards, I could not get separation pay either.
So, in August 2015, I found out that I had less than 10 days to get my papers in order. My final out was 20 August 2015. I was given 6 months of active duty healthcare and 2 years of base access. I ended up going on unemployment until that ran out. It took me almost a year to find a job, even though I have an honorable separation. Now I have a good job that pays significantly less than I am used to, and receive disability from the VA. However, I have 13 years that I cannot put towards retirement until I get a federal job and even then, I have to buy back the time. Also, in 2017, I went through a divorce and sold the house I had during my active duty time. That caused me to take money out of what little savings I had.”
As always, I want to thank my friends for agreeing to be part of this. As you can see, their reasons for leaving the military are varied but the gist of it is “something changed.” Whether it was their perception of their career, or their family situation, or their medical situation, or whatever – life changed. That’s what I’m trying to get across, and that’s why it’s so important that you consider the future when making decisions. I hope these testimonials help you with those decisions.