Dashed upon the rocks of reality, or how I came to realize how much of a knucklehead I really was!

As I was saying in my last post, going from decision to reality when it comes to transition is a whole lot harder than I had anticipated.  Much to my surprise and chagrin, I was not nearly as savvy at the ins and outs how things work as I thought I was!

I have been around the block a few times in my career, and was smugly secure in my assumption that all I really needed to do was tell my admin shop that I was retiring.  After all, that was one of the things that administrators were for, weren’t they?  Didn’t they administrate, and wasn’t processing a retirement simply an administrative process?

Well, yes and no.  Yes it is administrative, but no, it is not simple, as have learned and continue to learn.

As I sat at the desk of the retirement counselor, I was sure that I had figured out everything I needed to know in order to get the retirement ball rolling.  That happy assumption was dashed upon the rocks of reality when he cheerfully told me that I couldn’t retire yet.  After my head got done exploding and my guts unwrenched, I asked him why.  Because, he said, you are not eligible to retire yet.  The pressure between my temples shot back up, and I the room started to spin…

Backing up a bit, the basis of my smugness was that I did what I always have done during my career- I prepared for the meeting with the retirement counselor by doing my homework.  I logged into the Marine Corps website and surfed to the retirement section, where I started researching how to retire.  There was a wealth of information (including a nifty letter from the Commandant commending retirees for their service- very classy!) that I read through to prepare.  In particular I read the MARCORPSEPSMAN, which is Marine-speak for the Marine Corps Separations and Retirement Manual (never say in six words that which you can say in one barely pronouncable super-contraction), which had all the information that I thought I needed.  Boy was I wrong!

My assumption that I could announce my retirement was based on some calculations that are articulated in the manual.  Here is how it works:  there are several key dates that pertain to your career, and these are the Pay Entry Base Date (PEBD-more acronyms!  Yay!), the Armed Forces Active Duty Base Date (AFADBD), End of Active Service (EAS), and a few others that I will throw out along the way.

The PEBD is the day that you raise your right hand and swear to support and defend this great nation of ours.  For some people, that is the day they ship out for recruit training, but for most people there is a gap between signing the contract and swearing in and heading out for the apocryphal yellow footprints, which are the actual painted yellow footprints, located on the grounds of the Marine Corps Recruit Depots, that are every Marine recruit’s initiation on how to stand with your heels together and your feet at a 45′ angle whilst being informed by your new bestest friends what a baaaaad idea it was to sign on the dotted line.  At any rate, I digress.

The time gap between signing and shipping is filled with what is known as the Delayed Entry Program, or DEP (another acronym!).  The recruit or officer candidate signs the contract and swears in, establishing his or her PEBD.  After a period of time, the recruiter shows up at the door and gives the unsuspecting recruit a ride to the airport, whereupon the hard part begins- recruit training or officer candidate school.  The day that the recruiter picks you up is your AFADBD; the day that your active duty begins.  Your retirement is calculated based on your AFADBD- you are eligible for retirement 20 years and 1 day after your AFADBD.  The AFADBD only counts time on active duty, so your DEP doesn’t count, and neither does any time that you spend off of active duty (for example, you get out and come back in or are in the reserves or National Guard).

For enlisted Marines and junior officers, their time in service is determined by the length of their enlistment contract.  Generally along the lines of four years or so (a little different for officers), and it begins with your PEBD.  So, now we have three different dates: PEBD, AFADBD, and EAS.  PEBD is when you sign up, AFADBD is when you ship out, and EAS is when you get out.  Pretty simple so far.

Except for my case.  I have both active duty and reserve service, which takes the simple and makes it complicated!  I initially enlisted into the reserves for eight years.  What that meant was that I had a PEBD, which has remained unchanged throughout my entire career.  I had an AFADBD on the day I shipped to bootcamp, and my active duty time continued until I was released from active duty and entered reserve status, whereupon my AFADBD became obsolete because it only applies to active duty types.

After a great time in the reserves, I finished my undergraduate degree and made the commitment to be an active duty officer, should I survive OCS.  With that decision, several of the dates I wrote about earlier changed.  My PEBD stayed the same (because I had no “broken” time in which I was not serving on either active duty or in the reserves) but I established a new AFADBD and a new EAS.  My new AFADBD was the day I shipped to OCS, and my new EAS was 42 months later (again, officer’s contracts are slightly different than the standard four year gigs for enlisted types).   After a year on active duty, my status changed from being a reserve officer to a regular officer (known as “augmentation” in the Marine Corps), and my EAS changed from an actual day on a calendar to “Indefinite”, which means that I served until I either quit or got thrown out.  Or retired, as I was trying desperately to do when I sat down with my counselor.

Easy enough.  I should be able to retire 20 years and one day after my AFADBD, right?  But what about my reserve time? Does any of that count?

Why, yes it does!  And that takes me back to the shocking revelation with the retirement counselor.  The time that I had served on active duty during my reserve contract counted towards retirement, and even though I had studied the arcane and byzantine rules and regulations applying to retirement rules and had done the math to show that I had enough time to retire, that wasn’t good enough.

I needed proof.  Lots of proof.

It turns out that even though we have a lot of records in computer databases and whatnot, there are a lot of records that aren’t so digitally available.  It turns out that since I enlisted back when Reagan was in his first term and typewriters were all the vogue, there were no digital records to prove that I had served.  Even though there was a document that showed my service (called the Career Retirement Credit Report, or CRCR for more acronymical dominance) there was no digital copy of the source documentation to provide a record of my service.

I needed to actually show, with original documents, that I had been in the reserves.  More importantly, I needed documentation of each and every day that I served on active duty during my reserve time, because each active duty day (for training, deployments, and such) would count towards my AFADBD, in effect moving it backwards in time.

Holy mackarel!  I needed documents pushing three decades in age!  Whatever to do?

Fortunately for me (and to the chagrin of my wife) I am a bit of a pack rat.  In a box somewhere in my garage there lay a folder, and in that folder was every Leave and Earnings Statement (LES for you acronym lovers!), which is the pay stub for military types.  So, donning my best felt hat and with a whip in one hand and a flashlight in the other, I did my best Indiana Jones impersonation and went spelunking into the depths of my garage (anyone who has seen it can attest to the heroism I displayed that day) and found the folder!

Happy day!  I blew the dust off of the folder and sorted through the pile of dot matrix documents.  I sat down at the kitchen table to sort through the three inch thick sheaf of brittle paper, and a couple of hours later I had a source document for every day I had served on active duty during my reserve service.

Unfortunately, it was there that things got complicated.  My counselor informed me that he was happy I had found the documents, but that there was nothing he could do with them.  For that, I needed to go higher.  A lot higher.  Up to the Headquarters of the United States Marine Corps, where there was someone, somewhere, who could help me.

Since I was (and still am) happily living in the San Diego area, the requirement to bring my pile of papers to an office in Northern Virginia presented some problems.  That is when I abashedly swallowed my smugness and looked around for some help, and that is where seeking the advice and help of others comes in.  After sleuthing about and doing my own adventure learning and research, it was time to admit that I couldn’t do it all myself.

I made some calls, and realized what an idiot I had been to try to do it all on my own!  More on that in the next post…

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The main reason I am writing this blog is to help others as they transition.  In order to best help, I am putting the salient lessons on transition for the post at the end, under the line at the end of the post.  Anyhow, here are the takeaways for this post:

– Do your research.  Find out what rules and regulations apply to your situation (service, active/reserve time, etc.)  before you talk to someone.  That will help you have a much more intelligent conversation than I had, and will smooth out the rough spots.

– Get your administrative ducks in a row.  Make a folder of all pertinent information (LESs, enlistment contracts, dates of commission, etc.). This is particularly important for reservists and those with reserve or broken service, as there may be no other copy of the documents you have.

– Do what I didn’t do- talk to people and get advice!  I didn’t, and it set me back a month or so as I pulled my head out and organized my files.

– Links to various agencies and documents that I refer to are on the blogroll to the right of the text.  I added the MARCORSEPSMAN and a few others today.

So now what?

So you have taken the plunge and let the world know that you are moving on.  Now what?  Unlike pretty much every aspect of military life there is nobody grabbing you by the noggin and telling you what to do.  So it is time for a little adventure learning, some sleuthing, and a seeking out the advice of those who have either gone before or are transitioning now.

I’ll start with the adventure learning part.  For my entire career people have told me what to do, and in doing what they said I learned a great deal.  As I got older and higher in rank the telling softened from short pithy phrases like “WHAT THE F*%#$^! DO YOU THINK YOU ARE DOING??” to more more genteel greetings with “Sir” on both ends of the sentence, like a “Sir” sandwich.

“Sir, would you like me to bring the HMMWV around front, sir?”

“Sir, would you like some broccoli with your unidentifiable brown meatlike substance, sir?”

“Sir, everyone is at the table…can we start the meeting now, sir?”

(For what it’s worth, Marines come by the “sir” sandwich honestly.  When I was a teenaged and petrified recruit my Senior Drill Instructor sweetly informed me that “the first and last words out of my filthy sewer would be SIR!”, just like Gunnery Sergeant Hartman from the movie Full Metal Jacket.)

I far prefer the latter to the former, but as I am now transitioning I generally get neither.  I do get the polite “Can I help you?” with an occasional “Sir” thrown in for effect, but nothing reminiscint of my carnivorous days in the pack.  Now it is the pedantic pabalum familiar to the herd.  So it goes.

Back to adventure learning.  I quickly ascertained that being a rank-conscious martinet would make my transition both painful and annoying, so I opted for the more low-key approace, which suits me and my personality just fine.  I wandered around various administrative sections and asked what I needed to do to retire.

“Excuse me Marine, but could you tell me what I need to do to initiate my retirement paperwork?”

After the Marine gave me the blankest stare I have seen since I asked my ten year old where the empty candy wrappers in his pockets came from, I asked to see his boss.

A motivated noncommissioned officer came up, and sure enough, he didn’t know either, but he knew who did.  I talked to his boss (by now I had made it to the Warrant Officer ranks- the experts in their fields) and he pointed me to just the guy I needed to talk to.

A retired Marine who was in charge of outprocessing Marines who retiring.  Who would have thunk it?

So, armed with the who, I set out to find the where; where he works and when I can meet him.  Employing my best Sherlock Holmes impersonation, I employed my digital Watson (aka my tired, slow, yet generally functioning work computer) for some help.  After a few emails zorched across the cloud, I had what I needed- an appointment!

Off I went to a decrepit old concrete building with a lot of civilians and a few Marines attentively working on whatever they were working on.  I met the transition guy, who was absolutely great!  He asked for my social security number (the Holy Grail for identity thieves, but the single most important number to a military type because every aspect of his or her life is pinned to it) and entered it into his computer.

Lo and behold, he pulled up all the information I needed to start the process!  Happy day!

Until he told me I couldn’t retire yet.  D’oh!  More on that in the next post…and how I should have spent more time seeking out the advice of others before I arrived at his desk…

Coming out of the closet…or at least out of the fighting hole

Not that closet.  The “I’m getting out of the Marine Corps” closet!

So you’ve made your decision to hit the right turn signal and head for the offramp.  If you are like me, there are really a couple of stages in making the decision — firstly, you make the call to retire or get out, which is great.  Secondly, however, you have to tell people about it.  All kinds of people, like your spouse, your parents, your kids, your peers at work, your boss, your subordinates, pretty much everybody.

Great.  Easier said than done, or easier typed than said, I suppose.

Telling the family is pretty easy, because they were part of the decision to begin with.  With a sigh of relief, they readily embraced the thought of me being home for the holidays, so that was done.  Telling my extended family was likewise pretty easy; an email here, a phonecall there.  Again, easy to do because every single person in my family supported my career and more importantly my decision to move on.  The same with my friends outside the military.  They were very supportive, as they always are!

Not so easy when it comes to work, though.  In my experience, there are generally two types of people in the military:  meat eaters and grazers at the salad bar of martial life.  I have prided myself on being carnivorous, and have worked diligently and aggressively to be the best enlisted Marine and officer that I could possibly be.  However, with my decision to retire, I left the pack and joined the herd.  With such a migration came some startling revelations.

First, how do you tell everyone that you are, in effect, quitting?  In the Marine Corps we revere our veterans and still consider them Marines.  We expect excellence from every Marine in uniform, and invariably get what we expect.  There is a gulf, however, between contributing Marine and valued veteran.  It is really more of a pit than a gulf, though.  Before you get to wear a suit or a tuxedo to the Marine Corps Birthday Ball you have to go through that etherial process known as transition, a process that I am currently undergoing.  And before you start your transition, you have to tell your boss that you quit, and once those words leave your mouth they cannot ever be unsaid.  Just like death and pregnancy, quitting the service is pretty final.

In my case, I did so by email.  My boss was in Afghanistan and I wasn’t, so stopping by her office was a bit unreasonable.  At any rate, once the decision was made my electronic notice of career irrelevance headed out to the other side of the world, and within hours my email inbox received her reply.  I sat at my desk and just stared at the email header, trepidatious to open it for fear of what it might contain.  After all, I had just uttered the unmentionable, and with that email ended my career.  Fortunately, she is a great boss and was very thoughtful in her reply.  She gave me some great mentoring advice and asked how she could help.  Whew!  One down, about a zillion to go……

Once your boss knows, you can be sure that the word will be out at the speed of heat.  That is when I began telling people, or “socializing” it as we like to say in the military.  Interestingly, my pronouncement was invariably met with one of two responses from my military friends, seniors, peers, and subordinates: either a broad smile and “hey, that’s great!  What are you going to do next?” or a disdainful scowl accompanied by “quitter!”

The first response was always followed by a pleasant conversation.  The second response, well, not so much.  It was usually followed by an uncomfortable silence broken only by the sound of my ego as it plummeted to the floor and shattered into a thousand pieces.

Another interesting note is that with my announcement to move on the conversations that I had subtly changed- I was no longer a part of the inner circle where decisions were made and deals were done.  I now stood on the fringes, watch the action that I had spent many years in the middle of.  Again, bruising for the ego but part of the process.  After all, it’s nothing personal, but in the words of Tony Soprano, “it’s just business.”  The positive side is that I no longer had to stay late when things got hectic, or tell my family that I was on a short list of people who may have to leave on a moment’s notice to somewhere hot and dangerous, so it all works out.

So, once you hit the blinker and head for the off ramp be ready for the conversations that you will have.  The decision you make is your own and your families, but as with all things in the military everyone else has an opinion…

Taking the plunge…

It happens to everyone in uniform.  Sooner or later you take off your uniform and face the reality of a future that stands in stark contrast to the military life that you have led.

It doesn’t matter if you serve four years or forty,  ultimately we all get out.  Lifetime service went the way of cavalry horses and airship pilots and as a result each and every one of us who has sworn to serve our country ultimately ends up returning to civilian life as citizen.  A veteran to be sure, but a citizen.  Just like everyone else.

So how do you decide when to leave?  For a lot of military folks the decision is made for them because they cannot reenlist or they reach their maximum service limit.  For others, they may be medically separated due to wounds received in combat or to accident or illness.  For the rest of us, though, we are faced with a decision that we have to make.  When should we head for the offramp?

For me, the decision was an incredibly difficult one while at the same time one of the easiest that I have ever had to make.  Difficult because I love the life I have led in the military, and it has been my home for nearly three decades.  Easy because the decision made itself.

I woke up one day and realized it was time to go.

Every Marine, Soldier, Sailor, Airman, and Coast Guardsman has a unique story written by his or her unique career.  Although every one of them starts at boot camp or recruit training or officer candidate school and ends with a discharge or retirement ceremony, the days, weeks, months, and years between the beginning and the end are invariably different.  In my case, I woke up that fateful morning and realized that I had done everything that I wanted to do in the service of my country: I had seen the world, led men and women in peace and war, and been tested in the crucible of combat.  I also have missed countless birthdays, Christmases, anniversaries, and the hundreds of “firsts” that are part of my children’s childhoods.  I awoke that day and decided that I had been gone enough.  It was time to serve my other life- the one without a uniform.  The life that I will live for the rest of my days, the one that starts and ends each day in the same place and the same people.  My wanderlust is sated.  It’s time to stay home.

At any rate, that is why I chose to retire and move on to a new and different life.  A new adventure awaits…after I get done with my final physical, and my veteran’s affairs appointments, and my retirement seminars, and….and….and…

Orders to Nowhere….

Hello there!  This is the first post on what I hope will be an ongoing endeavor.

So why am I writing this, and what does “Orders to Nowhere” mean?  Well, let me start at the beginning, or at least close to it.

I am a career Marine, and I have been serving for over a quarter of a century.  At the ripe old age of 17, while Ronald Reagan was still in his first term, I raised my right hand and swore an oath to support and defend the United States of America.  Soon after I enlisted I received my first set of orders.

Orders, in military terms, are a set of documents that tell you where you are supposed to go and what you are supposed to do when you get there.  The closest thing in the civilian world would be a transfer from one location to the other, but the difference between the military and the outside is that civilians have the option to take it or leave it.  Not so much in the military.  You don’t have the option of turn them down because you don’t like them.  That’s why they call them orders…

Anyhow, that’s the way it works.  Every couple of years or so the Marine Corps (or the Army, the Navy, the Air Force, and even the Coast Guard) issues out a set of orders to send you to your next assignment, and off you go.  Pretty much everything is decided for you- where you are going, where you will be working, and even in many cases where you will live.  All things considered, it is a pretty good gig because all you have to do is what you are told to do- pick up your orders at your administrative section and off you go!

That is, until you find yourself on the offramp from military service, which interestingly is where I find myself now.  For the first time since big hair and parachute pants were all the rage I am faced with making a transition from a life that I have thoroughly loved (most of the time, anyway- there were times when I hated it, but such is life) to one that I left a long time ago.

This blog is about that transition.  As each day passes I find myself learning things I didn’t know (but are second nature to pretty much everyone else) and doing things I that I have not done in a looooooooong time (like getting to know my hair comb again!)

I hope that you, the reader, get something out if it, particularly if you are in the service.  Someday you won’t be, and maybe I can help make your transition a little smoother by sharing how mine goes…