There are two points in an officer’s career where it makes sense to off-ramp into the civilian workforce. The first is immediately after your initial obligation is up, and the second is at the 20-year point. After your initial obligation, additional military experience doesn’t add a lot to your resume, and it delays the starting point of your new career. If you stay past that point, the staggering value of a military retirement begins to tilt the equation in favor of staying to 20.
If you’ve got some prior-E time, you’re probably already internally committed to 20. For the rest of you, you need to be thinking about this now.
Don’t fool yourself into believing your own mythology. At some point we all fall under the illusion that we could walk out of this job and straight into Wall Street or Silicon Valley, where we’d finally be rewarded for our genius. That’s a natural progression of feeling undervalued. The reality is that you’ll have to stand in line just like everyone else, and will probably take a pay cut.
My point isn’t “you won’t make it out there.” My point is that it isn’t about money and never was. When you signed up, it was for an elaborate cocktail of reasons: Education, training, tradition, sense of adventure, self-affirmation, sense of duty, desire to lead, escape a shitty hometown, look great in a uniform, whatever. All perfectly valid. When you arrive at the next decision point, the cocktail is different, but no less complex.
Ultimately, nobody knows what’s right for you but you. You don’t owe the Navy a thing beyond your commitment—that’s how a commitment works. I don’t try to reason people into staying, because it isn’t a rational decision, it is an emotional one. From a purely rational point of view, the pay is not worth the quality-of-life impact. To stay in, you’ve got to be a little bit crazy.
Why I Stayed
Again, there are many reasons; I probably can’t identify them all. The pay and benefits are fine. I enjoy going to sea and don’t miss cable TV. I have a resilient family; my marriage isn’t threatened by prolonged absences. I feel that my work here is important, even if it’s mostly important at the strategic level. I’m not particularly interested in wearing a tie or making small-talk with receptionists named Debbie.
Ultimately, there’s still a 9-year-old boy inside of me who thinks ships and airplanes are awesome. I’m not convinced that a jaded 31-year-old worldview is really any more legitimate. I still possess the ability to step back, look around at a busy submarine control room, and say “my job is f*cking cool.” I still feel that way when I’m dangerously tired, and I still feel that way when I’m getting yelled at. Meanwhile, another JO is whining about how long he’s been 3-section. Which of us has the warped perspective?
Piss and Vinegar
Some of you are probably thinking my worldview is rainbows and unicorns. My tour was as rough as anyone’s, and the darkest times were… really dark. There’s a lot about the Navy that is depressing, and a lot that is infuriating. I’m neither immune nor blind to the bureaucratic dysfunction and administrative stupidity, in fact I’d argue that nobody hates that stuff more than me.
it isn’t a rational decision, it is an emotional one
Like most JOs, I wrestled with the rumor that the truly talented leave for greener pastures, while the incompetent and uncreative stay on for lack of better options. The aggregate talent and aggression of my peers in the DH pipeline has convinced me otherwise. I have tremendous respect for the people I work with and I’m proud to be counted among them.
The issues that JOs hate are real. The Navy’s pretty messed up, and it’s been that way for a while—it might get worse before it gets better. The Navy’s been around a lot longer than these issues, and someone has to stick around to fight through it. I liken it to being given a broken division, when the incompetent JO gets the division that’s firing on all cylinders and has a great chief. I go where I’m needed.
We need a generation of headstrong, resilient officers to fix this mess—fighters, survivors. The admirals and politicians who made the mess are irrelevant. If you want to leave, then I don’t blame you. I congratulate you for a commitment well-fulfilled and wish you a safe and comfortable life.
If, on the other hand, you’re a little crazy and like to fight, then let’s do this.