Back to class, part 3: the Ruehlin Associates Career Transition Seminar

Here we go for a third time- back into the interesting realm of transition training and education.  As the title indicates this is the third post that specifically address the classes, symposia, and seminars that I attended as part of the formal transition process.

Today’s post is about the Ruehlin Associates Career Transition Seminar (called just “Ruehlin” for short) which I was very fortunate to be able to attend.  The reason that I say that I was fortunate to attend is because enrollment is limited to around 15 participants (with spouses encouraged to attend), and the target audience is the most senior of the courses that I attended.  Not strictly limited to military people, it is also designed for senior government employees from the civil service who are retiring.  Their target audience, as shown on their website, is centered on that select group of senior people:

‘Many activities offer the seminar to senior officers (O-5 and above), senior enlisted (E-8 and above) and senior civil service (GS-14 and above) who are within a year or two of retirement, or who are on a known countdown. Nearly everyone who attends the course says, “Should have had this five years ago!” That might be too early, but the point is valid…people make gross errors and waste a lot of time because they miss opportunities or find that they have been “shopping in the wrong mall.” We believe 12 to 18 months out is a good target.’

The blurb on their website was on the money.  I wish that I had been able to attend the course at least a year earlier than the short seven months remaining to my separation date.  Even though I attended the session relatively late in the proposed timeline it was still worth every minute that I spent in the course. The Ruehlin course is a little different from the TAP/TAMP and 25+ Pre-Retirement courses, however.  The course is not offered through the base education or career center, but instead is a special opportunity offered by larger units and commands.  It is not a government or military symposium, but instead a private enterprise that specializes on assisting with the transition of senior military and civilian government servants.  In short, it is a professional course put on by a top-notch company that specializes in transitioning senior people.  It is a job that Ruehlin and Associates are very good at.

My personal opportunity to participate in the seminar came up as I made my plans to depart the service known.  I had heard about many of the educational opportunities available during transition, but the Ruehlin was a new one to me.  I had heard about it, but in typical hard charger fashion I didn’t pay any attention and as a result was ignorant of the great opportunity that the course presented.  At any rate, I made it onto an email list of interested parties (i.e., those on the way out or those smart enough to ask if they could get on the list well ahead of their retirement date) and was soon assured a spot at the table for the next course.  Since it is only offered a couple of times per year in my command I considered myself very fortunate to have made the list.  As I would learn, my good fortune was truly immense- as with the other courses I learned lessons that paid off immediately in addition to those that I will be putting to use for the rest of my life.

The focus of the Ruehlin course is identical to all of the other courses in one regard; that being that it is designed to prepare people like me who are leaving the service for life after we hang up our uniforms.  Ruehlin is very different, however, in its fine tuned focus and rigorous execution.  Where TAP/TAMP focused on the mechanics of transition and the 25+ centered on what the business world is like, Ruehlin pinpoints the process of getting a job.  The other two courses did fantastic work on more of a macro level, which dovetails nicely with Ruehlin’s laser-tight emphasis on the employment process.

Soon after I was selected to attend the course a plain brown envelope arrived in my mailbox.  A little puzzled, I opened it up and out fell a green booklet and a letter.  The letter was an introduction and welcome aboard for the upcoming session, and the book was a little homework exercise that proclaimed in bold capital letters:

CAREER PLANNING

and

MANAGEMENT

That got my attention.  Very authoritative!  So did the last bit at at the bottom of the page:

**IMPORTANT**

PLEASE READ THE ENTIRE PACKET AND COMPLETE ALL

OF THE QUESTIONS PRIOR TO ATTENDING THE SEMINAR

What I found inside was a series of assignments unlike any I had seen in a long time.  There were about a dozen sections in the book and each contained a worksheet of sorts.  They weren’t like calculus word problems or anything really difficult, but instead were simple exercises designed to pull a little bit of information from the respondent (me!) about him or her self.  They all had a common theme, though, which quickly became evident.  One section focused on my career- not just what I had been doing in the military, but what would I like to do next?  Another section delved into education, and another looked at organizations and affiliations that I may be partial to.  It also had a memo for the spouse, which was not just a nice touch.  It brought into distinct focus that transition is not a solitary activity; everything that I would do from now on would be inextricably linked to my spouse.  A great and sometimes forgotten point.  So, with a little trepidation and a couple of sharp pencils, I sat down to fill out the blanks and learn a little about myself.

Not long after completing my exercise with the green book it was time to go to class.  It began at 0730 on Monday morning, and was scheduled through Friday.  The dress code was listed as Business Casual, which may as well have been top hats and tails for all I knew.  After a quick search on the internet, I found that the expectation was a collared shirt and slacks with jacket and tie optional.  Sweet!  Not a problem, since I had all of those things.  Thanks to my friends from the 25+ Pre-Retirement seminar, they even matched.  A sharp dressed man indeed!

I arrived at the class which was being held at conference room on base.  I stepped into what I supposed to be a business meeting of short-haired professionals approaching middle age; everyone seemed to be in their forties.  We all were dressed pretty similarly in the uniform yet non-uniformity of “business casual”, with business suits, sports coats, and button down collared shirts as far as the eye could see.  There was a lady with us as well, and she was as smartly dressed as the men.  I saw a few faces that looked familiar, and we chatted a bit as we waited for the class to start.

Promptly at 0730 a thoroughly professional gentleman closed the door and we began our shared journey through the seminar.  He was our facilitator, and like us had completed a full career in the military, retiring as a Navy Captain (which in the Navy is the senior paygrade of O-6, whereas in the Army and Marine Corps a captain is a much more junior O-3) after about three decades of service.  He shared that he worked in a large corporation in an industry that was related to his military background, but that he found transition to be a bit daunting.  He joined Ruehlin and Associates in the mid 1990’s, and had been leading seminars actively since then.  He was very experienced and a thoroughly smooth and professional facilitator.  He was aided in the course by a very good powerpoint slide package that he very professionally and smoothly presented.  In addition, he handed each of a large red book titled What’s Next?  This would be our notebook, hymnal, and Rosetta Stone all rolled into one; it was a comprehensive, well written, and very useful book that took the information presented in the daily seminar to the next level.  In fact, it is such a useful reference that I still keep it on my desk at home and refer to it often as I work on my resume or pursue job opportunities.

One of the first things he shared was John Ruehlin’s story.  He retired from the navy as a Rear Admiral, which is no small feat!  What he found upon retirement, however, was that the lofty office of admiralship did not seamlessly transfer to civilian employment.  Despite his impressive accomplishments and mountains of experience he had garnered through his successful career he couldn’t find a job.  He was unprepared to enter the private sector, and went through a very humbling period of months and months as the impact of transition fully settled in.  After many months of failing to find a job, he had a chance encounter with with a fellow beach-goer while he was attending a cocktail party.  They chatted, and the result of the conversation was a phone number that John could call- his new found friend knew somebody who was looking for somebody like John.  After mulling it for a while, John followed up and called the number he received from his beach encounter, and as a result ended up in a very senior position with a multi-billion dollar bank.

The story is important, because it frames the the entire course.  John Ruehlin learned several things in his troubled transition, and those things became the central themes that we would be learning about and focusing on for the week:

– First and foremost nobody in the private sector really cares what you did in the military.  They care about what you can do for them in the business world.

– Transition is just that- it is transition from one phase of life to the other.  To be successful at it you must be fully prepared to move on.

– Getting a job or starting a new career takes a lot of work, and the best way to be successful is to treat it that way.

The course did an exceptional job of addressing each of those themes.  They were not presented as blocks of instruction, but instead where more like strands of a rope that were woven together through the weeklong course.  Each of the themes deserves a much more detailed explanation, so here goes….

– First and foremost nobody in the private sector really cares what you did in the military.  They care about what you can do for them in the business world.  That seems like a pretty brash statement, but it is true.  While in uniform we are all in a very homogeneous environment where we are surrounded by people just like us.  In the civilian world, that is simply not the case.  Civvie street can be broadly broken  down into two groups of people: social people and corporate people. Social people are friends, acquaintances, or pretty much anyone you meet outside a work context, while corporate people are those who can either offer you a job or know someone who can.  Social people will be interested in your service and will love to hear your sea stories, but corporate people are listening through different ears.  Corporate people want to know two things about you- can you make them money or can your save them money?  If the answer to one or both of those questions is yes, then there is job with them in your future.  If not, then you are just another military dude or dudette with a bunch of stories to tell.

The problem is that you really can’t tell the two groups apart most of the time.  So what do you do?  Stop telling sea stories?  No, because that has been your life for decades.  What we learned to do was to leverage our experiences and desires into any conversation with the goal of connecting with the corporate people.  This is known as networking, and networking is the most likely way that you will get a job!  Research shows that well over 75% of jobs are found interpersonal contacts, and that a tiny proportion are found in the classified ads in the newspaper.  Networking was a central and constant theme throughout the course, and it proved to be very effectively taught.

We worked on our ability to network through a series of academic exercises and roleplaying, we developed short sales-type pitches that we could use when when the opportunity presented itself.  Up to this point, most of us responded to the question “What are you going to do when you get out?” with “Get a real job…”  While that sounds witty, we learned that it was probably the dumbest thing we could say- it instantly discounted us as viable employees to corporate people, and that was certainly no way to get a job!  To overcome this, we crafted a “thirty second sound bite”, which is referred to as an “elevator introduction”, and it is intended to be used when you have a brief amount of time, for example the interval it takes an elevator to move between floors, to introduce yourself, present your credentials, and articulate what line of work you would like to go into.  A more in-depth version is the “two-minute opener”, which expands on the three components of the elevator introduction.  This one is used at job interviews when you are asked about yourself or when you have a conversation with someone and they would like to know more about you.

– Transition is just that- it is transition from one phase of life to the other.  To be successful at it you must be fully prepared to move on.  This is a bit more philosophical, but it is critically important.  Our facilitator told us anecdote after anecdote about people who were just like us that had a miserable time because they never could fully transition.  Examples are the hard charger who cannot let go of the lingo; dropping the “F” bomb in every other sentence at a job interview is a guaranteed way to remain unemployed.  Another is refusing to embrace little things like fashion by wearing horribly outdated or inappropriate attire to an interview or networking opportunity.  You don’t have to look like you stepped out of GQ or Glamour, but you shouldn’t wear the polyester leisure suit you wore to your senior prom either.  One of the most common problem, however, is clinging to the past.  Your career was a great one, but you will be hired for what you can do in the future for the company, not what you did in the military.  The course does a remarkable job of putting your career into a context that it can be a positive and integral part of building your future career instead of having it be the anchor that keeps you from moving forward.

– Getting a job or starting a new career takes a lot of work, and the best way to be successful is to treat it that way.  In the first morning of class we were all introduced to our newest job title: each and every one of us became the Director of Marketing for the company that was ourselves.  We learned that in order to get a job or start a new career we needed to be able to let the world know we were available and potential assets to businesses, and that nobody besides ourselves was going to make that happen.  Ruehlin has an incredibly organized and effective program to teach us how to accomplish this in a few short days, and I what I learned fundamentally changed how I viewed life after the Marine Corps.  We learned to critically assess ourselves in order to learn what our strengths and weaknesses are.  Based on those, we analyzed what we would be good at, and more importantly, what we wanted to do (that was an epiphany for me- I was so used to doing the same line of work that I had never seriously considered anything else!) in the future.  We learned the ins and outs of building a network, including little things like what our business card should look like (don’t hand out your old military card!), the aforementioned introductions, and tips such as what to do when somebody give you their business card (write down a little about them so that you will remember who they are and why they gave you the card).

The meat of the course was spent on resumes.  We learned how terrible ours were (and mine was really bad!) and how to write effective ones that would result in a job offer.  We learned how to write the many types of business correspondence, such as cover letters, thank you notes, references, and responses to job offers as well.  We learned how to write the three basic types of resumes – chronological, functional, and combination – but focused mainly on the combination style (I will be posting extensively in the future about resumes- don’t worry!)  Writing a good resume is a lot harder than I had thought.  It requires a lot of introspection, a lot of research, and a lot of analysis.  Anybody can write a love letter to themselves that says how great they are, but that won’t land them a job.

We also spent no small amount of time on the the mechanics of getting hired.  Resumes will get you an audition, but it’s your performance gets you a spot in the band.  We learned about the etiquette of the interview (be early, but not too early; smell nice, but not like a gigolo on the prowl;  dress like you want to get a job- professionally, not like a surfer dude fresh off some tasty waves) and the importance of the little things, like sending a thank-you note to show appreciation to the interviewer for his or her time.  It helps to do some research on the company that you are interviewing with, too.  If you can show your interviewer that you know more about his company than he does good things will happen.

The course was not just lectures and powerpoint presentations, either.  The facilitator took us through a series of practical exercises where we practiced our elevator pitches and how to interview, and he capped the week off with an hourlong one-on-one session with each participant.  He had the same offer for each of us- an hour of his time to talk about anything we wanted.  In my case, he scrutinized my resume (which had greatly improved thanks to his instruction and mentorship) and we talked about my future.  He pointed out something which I had not really considered- why even go back to work at all?  I had an opportunity to pursue higher education, so why not pursue it?  After all, I was going to be receiving a pension, which wasn’t enough to live on forever, but the GI Bill and other benefits offer some fantastic opportunities outside the traditional career path.  His candor and professionalism made quite an impression, and thanks to him I was able to look at my future from a different perspective.

I  have been truly fortunate to be able to participate in three different transition courses, and each provided a different perspective on the same important subject.  Ruehlin’s seminar taught us in great detail how to go out and get a job, which is a skill that every one of us in the class needed to learn.  More importantly, though, the course demystified the job search process and provided us with the tools to go out into the next great adventure.  In the words of Colonel Mike Frazier, another recent graduate:

“[T]he Ruehlin course was like the end of the Wizard of Oz movie–it pulled back the curtain on retirement.  Now it’s not a mysterious scary thing–it’s just a short fat guy pulling levers–or more accurately, an old bald guy getting organized to do a bunch of planning and networking–which like all field grades, I’m pretty good at doing.  It’s still a challenge, but now I know what I need to do and am much better prepared to attack post-USMC life vice my previous level of uncertainty…”

Well said.  And right on the money!

Lessons learned-

– The Ruehlin course is not offered everywhere, nor is it offered by all commands.  You may have to do some sleuthing around to find where it is being offered, but if you can find it the course is absolutely worth the time and effort.

– This course is complimentary to the TAP/TAMP and 25+ Pre-Retirement courses.  Although they all teach the same basic subject, their differing perspectives and areas of focus make each one incredibly valuable.  You cannot take advantage of enough educational opportunities, and the Ruehlin seminar is a certainly a great one.  It is not the only one, however, so make sure to take it in conjunction with as many other programs as possible.

– The focus of the course is on landing a job, more specifically landing a job while you are still on active duty.  They introduce the concept of the “Hot Window” for employment, which is a few months before your last day in the service.  It is the hot window because employers are not looking to fill positions much farther out than that, and the closer you get to your last government paycheck the more desperate you are likely to become.  To land a job interview and a follow on job offer in that window requires a lot of work, and the course shows you how to do it.

– Successful transition requires a lot more than taking off one set of clothes and putting on another.  There is a significant change in perspective required as well, not to mention a ton of work.  Many separating military people take the first job that they are offered, and in many cases it proves to be disastrous, or at least unsatisfying and unfulfilling.  You have a golden opportunity as you prepare to leave active duty- you can actively prepare for your next career while being supported to do so by your current line of work.  It isn’t the same in the corporate sector- job hunting on the clock at a civilian company would likely get you fired.  You are crazy if you don’t take advantage of all the opportunities available to you, including the excellent Ruehlin seminar!

Death as a way of life

This post has nothing to do with transition, but instead deals with an integral part of being a Marine.  Just a few days ago, on September 19th, a Cobra attack helicopter crashed while conducting a training flight at Camp Pendleton, California.  Two Marines died, good men both, as they trained and prepared to defend our country.  It is a tragedy in the truest sense,  but it is also sad and inevitable part of what we do.  Many of my friends have asked me over the years what I thought about death and dying, and it is a very difficult question to answer for someone outside the profession of arms.  So in an effort to provide a little insight into death and how it affects those of us who travel with Death as a constant companion I am writing this post.

The military is an inherently dangerous business, and by definition a violent one.  In time of war it is expected that some of us will die.  That is the cold cost of doing business; the enemy gets a vote, and he delivers his ballot in the form of a bullet or a bomb.  Just as a fireman battles conflagrations Marines fight our nation’s enemies.  Sometimes the fire wins and a firefighter falls.  Sometimes a Marine does everything right but a sniper’s bullet finds him anyway.  There is no fairness, there is no equity.  It is what it is and we have all come to terms with it.

In my case, my reckoning with mortality came on a September day in Ar Ramadi, Iraq.  I had been in country for a few weeks, and it was my first combat tour.  I lived and operated out of Forward Operating Base Junction City,  which was also known as FOB Ramadi.  It was a vast fort-like compound that held a thousand or so of us, and it was in the heart of the Sunni Triangle at a time when the insurgency was approaching its peak.

My first days were disturbing, to say the least.  Tanks and armored vehicles rumbled by as attack helicopters flew their patrolling orbits overhead.  Fighter jets streaked by thousands of feet overhead, and gunfire ebbed and flowed in the distance.  Our FOB was attacked by rockets or mortars pretty much daily, and sometimes several times a day.  I found myself thrust into this maelstrom, in charge of my Marines and Sailors but less experienced in actual combat than a lot of them.

I couldn’t sleep.  The helicopters never stopped flying, and the tanks came and went at all hours.  Charlie Med, our field hospital, was a hundred yards away and the casualties arrived around the clock.  It was a frantic place, one with seemingly no rhyme or reason, and I was disoriented by the whole experience.  My heart felt that it would explode with every incoming rocket; the thump of mortars in the distance made me weak at the thought of a steel projectile flying through the air with me beneath it as it hit.  I ducked at the small arms fire, and warily looked for cover to dive behind when the next attack hit.  I was a bit of a nervous wreck- the fear of the unknown became palpable.  I was afraid of death, and the fear of dying unsettled me to no end.

Then came that day in September.  I was supposed to go to a nearby base for a briefing- riding in my armored HMMWV and travelling with a platoon of Cavalry in vehicles just like mine, except where I had an armored roof they had turrets with machine guns.

We met at a staging lot at 0815, and as we stood in a loose circle of drivers and passengers discussing the route rockets screamed into the base.  One struck a barracks about 100 meters or so away, another landed in a motor pool, and a third impacted just outside the DFAC (Dining FACility- fancy new term for chowhall).  In an instant, one Marine was killed and a Soldier was mortally wounded.  They didn’t do anything wrong- fate had just snuffed them out.  It was arbitrary.  They never had a chance.   It was capricious.  They never saw it coming.  It was the spectre of Death incarnate; his cold and bony finger touched them, and in that instant they joined the ranks of the fallen.

We had no time to reflect or mourn.  Five minutes later we were on the road, passing through the redoubt and into Indian country as it was commonly known.  We drove about five minutes, and slowed our advance to cross a bridge that led to the other base.  Our little four vehicle patrol had no sooner driven onto the narrow span when machine guns began barking their angry chorus as a firefight erupted on both banks of the river.  The bridge was cut off, and we found ourselves in the extremely uncomfortable position of being on a bridge between to forces that were shooting at each other, and we couldn’t quite figure out which side was which.

That didn’t last long.  Rocket propelled grenades hissed across the narrow river and rocked a bus onto its side in an explosion of bright flame and black smoke.  We don’t have RPGs- but the insurgents do.  Red tracers flew in the direction where the RPGs came from- we use red tracers, so the gunners in our tiny convoy opened up on consonance with our compatriots on the river bank.  Soon enough, there were rockets, grenades, and bullets flying around everywhere- and all I could do was sit there and watch.  I was riveted to my seat.  What do I do?  Get out of the vehicle (our training said no- never leave an armored vehicle, but the exploding bus was a compelling argument to get out!) or open the window and start shooting? (Again, our training stayed my hand- I could not identify a clear target- and without Positive Identification, or PID, I wasn’t supposed to shoot).

So I sat and watched.  The thump and crack of heavy machine guns was accompanied by the staccato rip of their smaller cousins, and in an eternity that lasted a minute or so the far end of the bridge opened up and we started moving again.  In less time than it takes to read this sentence we were pulling into our destination, FOB Hurricane Point.

I wasn’t shaking, but adrenaline had replaced all of the blood in my system.  I was sweating, hot, cold, hysterical, aloof, thirsty, nauseous- it was a wrenching and visceral rollercoaster of feelings and emotions.  I stepped from my truck and looked around.  My cavalry friends were joking and laughing and talking about football.  My more experienced Marines broke out a pack of smokes and lit up.  I couldn’t believe it- the most harrowing experiences of my life had just happened, and it wasn’t even 0900 yet!

It was then that I felt a something come over me.  My pulse slowed, and my breathing came back to normal.  The pensive tension that had sat like a festering knot in my gut melted away, and for some reason I felt that everything would be all right.  In an instant, I passed a threshold into a different place, and became a different person.  It was as though someone had placed their hand on my shoulder, and with their touch all of my fears fled back into the recesses from which they came.

I had joined the ranks of the fatalists.  Fatalist sounds like a harsh word, but it really isn’t.  There are two types of people in combat; those who are afraid to die and those who have accepted that they will.  I left the camp of the former and joined the happier band of the latter, the band of men and women who had experienced the epiphany of mortality.  I came to accept that death was inevitable; maybe in the next minute, maybe tomorrow, or maybe at the end of a long and happy life.  We are all going to die.  What we are able to do in the face of that staggering knowledge defines us, however.  When the weight of fear fell away I found myself free to lead and fight and kill and, if necessary, die without worrying about it.  It was a true revelation.

I still feel that hand on my shoulder from time to time when things get stressful.  It is not an uncomfortable feeling, really, but actually one that is a little reassuring.  The hand on my shoulder is a bony one, and it belongs to Death.  It is his reminder to me that he is coming, and some day he will take me away.  All Marines feel his presence, because he is always at our side, reminding us that we all join him sooner or later.  On Monday afternoon Captain Jeffrey Bland and 1st Lieutenant Thomas Heitmann slipped the surly bonds of earth in an attack helicopter and Death took them before they could return home.  They died as any one of us could, and there but by the grace of God go any one of us.  Death comes for us all, and in our business he shows up frequently.  It is the knowledge that he is forever at your side that frees your soul, because living with fear isn’t really living at all.  Knowing he is there, patiently waiting to take you to the other side, is a truly liberating feeling.  He cannot be cheated; he always wins the race to take you across the mythical river Styx.

Not today, maybe not tomorrow, but someday.

Someday….

Reflections

This past weekend I had occasion to go back to where it all started, well, at any rate where my life as a Marine began.  As a resident of the greater San Diego area I am bounded by Marine and Navy bases and stations pretty much on every side, and during my years in uniform I have been fortunate to serve aboard many of them.  This includes the Marine Corps Recruit Depot, where I shed my civilianhood as a petrified teenager only to return nearly two decades later as a senior officer who helped run the joint.  Oddly, during the course of my career I had gone from being an inmate within the mustard colored walls of that hallowed institution to one of the metaphorical fat men behind the curtain who made the whole thing run.  Upon my graduation from bootcamp I had sworn a solemn oath never to return to the wretched shores of San Diego, but like most youthful bents I disregarded it, came to my senses, and ultimately returned.

The Depot sits next to the Lindbergh Field, which is San Diego’s major airport.  Any Hollywood Marine (as graduates of MCRD San Diego are known) can tell you, it is endlessly torturous to be suffering the indignancies of being a worthless recruit while watching airliner after airliner take off from a runway only a few hundred yards away- the very personification of the elusive freedom that they have sworn to defend but relinquished when they arrived at bootcamp.  It was one of those planes that brought me back to the depot.

My father in law had been down for a visit, and as it was time for him to head home I took him down to the airport.  With the kids in the back seat, we headed down to drop him off, and as we drove past the unmistakable  architecture of the training grounds I noticed that I was running low on gas.  After a few hugs and handshakes, he headed for the gate and we hit the road.  Never one to pass up the chance to save a buck or two on gas, I drove over to MCRD to take advantage of the PX.

We approached the gate, and I saw no small number of teenagers no different than myself some quarter of a century ago waiting for a taxicab ride by the entrance.  Each seemed accompanied by a small mountain of luggage that comes only from an all-expenses paid vacation to such an establishment; seabags (duffel bags for non-nautical types), garment and gym bags in the mottled green that matched the camoflage of their field uniform, and the ubiquitous black satchel that contained their orders and other important papers.  Like a thunderclap, I was instantly transported back to when I was one of them- a young man eager to step out on an exciting journey.  Just as quickly as a thunderclap passes, though, my reverie was broken by the Marine guard at the gate brought me back to reality.  Suspiciously eyeing my longish hair, he offered a salute and a thoroughly professional “good morning, Sir!” as he saluted and waved me through.  It was not as though my life passed before my eyes, but my psyche was twisted with the realization that I was no longer looking forward to my life as a Marine, but instead was passing the baton to those who were.

I cruised over to the gas station and filled up.  My kids had been here many times before, so when I asked if they wanted to see my old workplace they eagerly agreed.  Besides, I needed to get my last haircut (!), and it is seemingly apropos that the last hair that I part with in the service of my country should go into the same trashcan as my first- with the only real difference being that it is a bit more silver now, and maybe just a little less in the dustpan than when I started.

After getting my hair cut (a snappy ‘do called a “low-regulation” – indeed the “lowest low-regulation” that I could talk the barber into) we headed out to see the sights.  Our first stop was that small fitness area behind the “RESTRICTED AREA” sign that marked the hallowed grounds of the Drill Instructor School.  I had served as the director of the Marine Corps premier leadership school some years ago, so I invoked executive privilege  and we snuck over to cavort a on the pullup and dip bars.  Even though I am still a senior officer on active duty, and even though I was the director of the school, I still got chills up and down my spine as I violated the rule to stay out of the restricted area.  Such is the power of the training that recruits endure on the path to become Marines; I still dreaded the thought of a drill instructor finding us where we weren’t supposed to be and taking his revenge upon such dangerous rule breakers as myself and my two rambunctious kids.

I breathed a sigh of relief as we left Drill Instructor School behind and walked up and down the arcade, which is a half-mile long open portico that is the distinctive hallmark of the base.  The smells and sights crossed the chasm of time; the place looks almost unchanged despite the years that have passed since I first stepped foot onto the yellow footprints.  Across the parking lot, on the parade field (or “grinder” as it is universally known), we saw a platoon of camoflage wearing recruits frozen in mid stride,  surrounded by a blur of Drill Instructors in their service uniforms who seemed to be everywhere all at once.  They were being evaluated on their ability to conduct Close Order Drill, or COD.

Again, the time machine between my ears kicked into overdrive and I was back on the grinder, younger, leaner, and terrified that I would make a mistake and incur the painful wrath of my Drill Instructors.  With a shudder, sat on a bench and pulled my kids over.

“What are they doing?”

“What kind of guns do they have?”

“Are they your friends?”

I answered their questions (“Drilling”, “M-16 Service Rifles”‘, “we are all friends”) and watched the magic happen.  It was cathartic to see the next generation of Marines being made before my eyes, and oddly enough it looked exactly as it did when I was here back in the mid ’80s.  It is what makes and keeps the Marine Corps great; the tireless dedication to duty, the selfless passion to the institution, and the certainty that being a Marine is something momentous are all sparks that ignite the burning flame that lights the soul of each and every wearer of the Eagle, Globe and Anchor.

As I watched them march by, it was clear to me that the next generation was as good as mine, and that the passing of the torch ensured that it would burn bright and clear for the next year, the next decade, and indeed forever.  The soul of the Marine Corps is the soul of each Marine, and it rests deep within each and every man and woman who has earned the title “Marine”.  I observed a part of that soul being born, and was proud be be a witness.

To them I say good luck, but make sure to enjoy the ride.  Too soon they will be sitting on a bench watching the generation that follows them march into their destiny just as I did this past weekend.  Despite the hardships, the terror of combat and the boredom that accompanies standing watch in the middle of the night, I would trade places with any one of them and do it again.

Semper Fidelis!

9/11

It is hard to believe that a full decade has passed since the greatest crisis of my generation struck home.  Every channel on television and every site on the internet, it seems, is reeling with coverage of the attacks on this anniversary of that momentous and horrible day.  I think that is good for all of us regardless of your background or political bent; it would truly be tragic if we collectively forgot about the events of that day and the effect the catastrophy had on all of us.

As a youngster I listened as my elders talked about where they were when they heard that President Kennedy had been shot. I was always a little mystified by their clarity- every one of them could reel off, from the top of their heads, where they were, who they were with, and what they were doing when they learned that awful news.  Never in my life had anything so momentous occurred; no event had bonded us as a people in the same way as Lee Harvey Oswald did with his Italian army surplus bolt action rifle.

I remember President Reagan’s brush with his own assassin and watched the space shuttle Challenger explode seconds after launch. The wall fell between East and West and we fought a war in the Arabian sands, but those events failed to captivate in the same manner as that fateful day in Dallas.  It wasn’t as though I wanted something to happen, but I felt that in some strange way my generation lacked that singularity of shared experience that brought everyone into the same place, into the same moment, and seared that moment into their souls.  I had never been party to an event that so universally affected everyone despite their race, religious beliefs, or political bents.

As we all know, that has changed.

In my case I was forward deployed to Okinawa, Japan when the twin towers fell.  I was the commanding officer of an artillery battery that was part of the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, which is a crisis reaction force in perpetual readiness for whatever emergency may threaten the United States or her interests abroad.  It was in the evening, after dinner time, when I caught the first inkling that something was amiss.  The sixteen hour time difference between Okinawa and my home in San Diego made the early morning attacks a night time event for us, and the news came after most of us had gone to bed for the night.

My unit had been out training in the jungle, but had been recalled because a typhoon was headed straight for us.  We headed for the barracks after securing our our vehicles to protect them from the growing storm and storing our weapons in the armory.  With the rain beginning to come in sideways and the palm trees shedding their fronds we headed for our rooms to ride out the storm.  I ate dinner in front of the television set as I watched a football game on the Armed Forces Network, which is the American military’s television and radio system that brings home-spun sports and shows (and incredibly cheesy public service announcements) to those of us posted to foreign shores.  After the game I surfed through the local channels, which if you have ever seen Japanese television you know can be a visually jarring experience complete with incredibly colorful animated programs capable of inducing epileptic seizures and gameshows specializing in things like eating worms and swimming through kiddie pools filled with green slime.  As I flipped through the channels I saw a grainy image of what looked like an office building on fire.  I couldn’t really tell what it was because of the signal interference so I kept on plowing through the channels.  After a few minutes of not finding anything interesting, I headed for bed.

15 minutes later I was ripped back to consciousness by my ringing telephone.  It was particularly jarring because it had never really rung before, and the only people who had my number were my wife and the Marines in my unit.  I rolled over and picked up the handset, and the life I had known to that point changed forever.

“They’re doing it again!” my wife exclaimed.

“Who is doing what again?”

“They’re doing it again!  They’re attacking the World Trade Center!”

My wife had been in New York city during the 1993 attacks.  When the first plane flew into the tower, she instantly knew what had happened and called me.

Suddenly the grainy image made sense.   I turned on the television and watched the second plane disappear into the second tower in an vulgar eruption of orange flame.

After a hurried conversation with my wife, I put on my uniform.  I didn’t know what else to do, frankly, but at least it was something.  I called my officers and told them to round up the Marines while I went to see if I could find out what this all meant.

I bent my cap against the pelting rain and ran to a friend’s room.  He was the operations officer, and if anybody knew what to do it would be him.  Like me, though, he didn’t.  What he did know, however, was the immemorial martial response to crisis.  “Get ready,” he said, “because it’s gonnna be a long night.”

And it was.

Bracing myself against the growing storm, I went back to my room.  The Marines had been assembled, and somebody had to tell them what was going on.  Being the Commanding Officer meant that the somebody was me, and it was a duty that I felt completely inadequate to perform.

What could I tell them when I had no idea what was going on?  A million questions zinged through my head.  I had Marines from New York City in my unit, but had no idea if their families were safe.  I had no idea what was happening half a world away, where people were supposed to be protected because we were trained and deployed thousands of miles from home to keep the wolves away from our heartland.  Were we at war?  Would we be attacked?  Were our families safe?

With my mind reeling with the magnitude of events I stood outside the room where my Marines waited for me to pass the word.  To tell them it would be OK.  To tell them that their families were protected.

I walked into the room.  They rose to attention and warily eyed me as I stood before them.

“Get ready,” I said, “it’s going to be a long night……”

I paid up front

Quite a few posts ago I wrote about what it was like to come out of the metaphorical closet and declare that I was leaving the service.  With that announcement my career, which up to that instant was a successful one and filled with opportunities, was over.  I stepped onto the platform and watched the train continue down the tracks with my peers and friends continuing to ride the rails of a dynamic career.  Some went to the Pentagon, others to the various War Colleges, and no small number headed out for places exotic or dangerous depending on which spot on the globe they ended up.

With a sigh I waved goodbye and wished them well.

Why did I do it, then?  Why did I step off the train?  My career was moving upward and I was very well respected in my field. To parapharase Marlon Brando’s Terry from On the Waterfront, I coulda been a contender for promotion and the plum assignments that lay just down the line.  Why leave?

It is a truly complicated question with an answer that I am not sure I have fully come to grasp yet.  There was no singular event or crisis that drove me out.  There was no enticement from the outside world that drew me away.  As I wrote earlier, I woke up one day to the realization that it was time to go.

Leaving, however, is not that simple.  The time I chose to depart the Marine Corps coincided with the end of the best job that I had during my career- being the Commanding Officer of a combat unit in time of war.  I had been competitively selected to lead a highly trained and specialized unit of Marines and Sailors, and to take them into combat.  It was an incredibly demanding and challenging assignment, but it was the most rewarding thing that I had done in my 27 or so years of wearing green.

It is addictive being in command.  I had been fortunate to command five different organizations at various levels during my career, and each time I handed the flag to the next guy was a significant emotional event.  My last command, however, was the most momentous because I was selected to take charge by a board of senior officers and my orders came straight from the Commandant of the Marine Corps- the top Marine himself.  I was one of the lucky few who was able to command; less than one in five officers are selected to do so at my level.  For a career Marine a successful command tour is a harbinger of things to come- promotion, top level schools like the National War College or a fellowship to a prestigious university like Harvard, and the possibility of command again in the future.  For officers who aren’t selected to command, however, those opportunities are less likely.  Being picked opens doors for your career that for others remain forever closed.

Assuming command is also assuming a debt.  A debt to the Marines and Sailors that you lead as well as to the Marine Corps writ large.  After all, if you are selected by definition you are in the top of your peer group.  The expectation of our most senior officers and no small number of my peers is that you, the one entrusted with such a critical and rewarding position, will give back to the Marine Corps and repay the debt incurred by being given the most important job there is- leading our young men (and women) in the defense of our nation.

Since I chose to depart active duty when I handed the flag to my successor, however, no small number of Marines viewed my departure with disdain.  In their minds I had taken the best job but not repaid the debt that it incurred; I had in essence eaten dessert and skipped clearing the table and doing the dishes.  In their minds I was selfish.

I agree that assuming command incurs a debt.  The trust and confidence in a commander is nearly absolute; he or she is entrusted with the lives of our youth and with the defense of our nation.  Command is also a crucible of sorts.  The commander leaves command a different officer because he or she has learned lessons only imparted by such a demanding job.  Many are positive, such as the satisfaction and pure joy you experience when your Marines do well and your unit succeeds.  Many are negative, such as when you or your unit fails.  Command means being on duty 24/7 from the day you take the flag to the day you pass it on- complete with midnight phone calls because one of your Marines is in the brig to meeting the casualty evacuation helicopter at the field hospital when your wounded Marines are brought in from the fight.  Command tempers an officer as a furnace tempers steel, and it is for this reason that the doors I wrote about earlier spring open.

A debt is indeed owed, and I am a firm believer in paying my debts.  In my case, I paid my debt up front.

The debt is one that I have not been alone in discharging.  My family has paid an enormous price throughout my career, but in particular the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have taken a disproportionate toll.

I have deployed a lot.  That isn’t unusual for a Marine particularly in time of war, but in my case the deployments were punishing.  I deployed to war four times in a five year span of time; again, that isn’t as much as some, but certainly more than most of my peers.  I have young children (currently ages 11 and 8), and the things that I missed are utterly irreplaceable.  Little things like my oldest sons 6th, 7th, 8th, and 10th birthdays.  Little things like being gone either in a combat zone or preparing for the fight for over half of my youngest son’s life by the time he hit seven years old.  Countless holidays-Thanksgivings, Christmases, Easters, Halloweens- spent in a foreign country while my kids open presents or trick or treat without their father.  The worst bit was coming home from deployment when each of my kids was little, though.  It is an incredible punch to the gut when you step off the bus and your kids don’t know who you are because they were too young when you left to remember that you even exist, and in my case it happened with both of them.  My kids paid their part of my debt.

When I wasn’t deployed I was in the field training or off at some conference somewhere.  My wife, who has an incredibly demanding career of her own, held it together despite my absence.  Parent-teacher conferences, trips to the doctor, homework, sports, and everything else that parents do fell to her, and she soldiered on and made it work.  She paid her part of my debt.

So on that fateful day when I woke up and realized it was time to go I did so with a clear conscience.  The debt had been repaid by my entire family: I had spent 30 out of 60 months drawing tax-free pay for being in a combat zone and my family supported me and kept it together despite the crushing demands that deployments bring.  I do not feel that I have not repaid the Marine Corps for the privilege of command.

I paid up front.

(Almost!) my last haircut

So there I was…..

Most great stories and nearly all tall tales start with those four words.  The following post is neither, but more of a cautionary tale about how reality often smashes my errant assumptions, and in this case, it smashed my belief that I had completed my weekly visits to the barbershop.

So anyhow, there I was.  Standing at the customer service counter in the Separations and Retirements section of our base Installation Personnel Administration Center (IPAC- yay!  Another acronym!),  I held in my excitedly trembling hands a folder that contained all of the papers, documents, and adminstrivia required for me to check out of the Marine Corps and start my life as a civilian.  Under the assumption that once the I had completed all of my checkout requirements (don’t worry- posts a-plenty on those requirements are in the works) I would be able to take off my uniform for the very last time and explore the exciting new world of hair care products.  My giddiness was suddenly crushed, however,  by a sign on the bulkhead (Marinespeak for wall) that proclaimed in bold capital letters:

ATTENTION CUSTOMERS:

According to MCO P1020.34G, both

Males and Females must be within

grooming regulations and appropriate

Civilian attire or Uniform of the Day

It wasn’t a new sign.  A little dusty and curled at the edges, it was hung in the typically austere fashion of all such signs in administrative offices across the Marine Corps; a plain black and white sheet of paper inside a plastic document protector and taped to the bulkhead with some yellowing cellophane tape.  It also wasn’t alone.  Glancing around, I saw that identical signs in identical document protectors were taped, pinned, or otherwise stuck to almost every vertical surface in the office.

Apparently they wanted the Marines and Sailors to look like Marines and Sailors when they came to the office to conduct their transition related business.

That, in and of itself, is no surprise.  However, I was a bit taken aback because I realized that I had indeed not had my last Marine Corps regulated haircut, and here’s why:

I have posted several times about the End of Active Service (EAS) date.  It is your last day on active duty, and the next day your obligation to serve your country is complete (unless you have a reserve service obligation of some sort) and you are free to run amok and do all of the things that you couldn’t do in uniform- like grow your hair and sleep in ’til noon.  Totally makes sense.

Ahh, but not everyone leaves work on their last day and wakes up the next morning as a civilian.  There are some benefits that can insert a few days between your last day at work and your first day back in the real world.  Those benefits are known as “Terminal Leave” and “Permissive Temporary Assigned Duty”, or “PTAD”.

Terminal Leave, which is technically titled as “retirement or separation leave”, is referred to as “Terminal”  in the jargon of the service  (“You out yet?”  “Nope, going on  Terminal.”).  It is simply an opportunity to use up whatever leave (vacation time for non military types) that you have accrued before you get out.  This is actually a pretty big deal, because taking your leave instead of selling it back to the government offers some significant advantages.  If you use your leave you continue to receive all of your other pay and benefits, such as housing allowances, subsistance stipends (for food),  medical care, dental care, and so on for as long as you are on leave.  If you sell your leave back, which is the other option, you receive a lump sum payment for your your prorated salary.  In other words, you are handed a check (not really, nobody gets checks anymore- your bank receives an electronic deposit) that totals the amount of salary you would have made had you taken leave, but with the huge difference that no other benefits or payments are included.  Considering that a significant amount of the benefits package in the military is not part of your salary, you stand to lose out on some money as well as medical coverage and such.  Sooo……nearly everyone takes some terminal leave.

Permissive Temporarily Assigned Duty, or PTAD, is another way that you can get some time off with pay before you get out.  PTAD is mil-speak for Paid Time Off (PTO) in the civilian world, and it is allowed in a number of instances and for a variety of reasons.  Examples include time off for the father when the little ones arrive (great for when your kids are born while you are able to be there instead of  being off fighting the Taliban or Al Queda), for military families who are adopting children, jury duty, and the countless other events in life that occur that require you to be absent from work yet should not require you to use up your leave to attend them.  How it works is you, the Marine, are assigned a set of orders that direct you to go do what you need to do and report back in when you are done.  Using the example of paternity PTAD, when the child is born the father is granted ten days off to bring the newborn into the family.  During that time, he is free to care for his family without having to come into work or put on a uniform, which is good because he probably won’t be at his best at work anyway!  At the end of the ten days, he needs to come back to work and check back in.  When he comes back he must be within grooming standards and wearing his uniform.  (Before I get angry comments on how sexist the paternity policy is I must point out that mothers in uniform receive 42 days of maternity leave after birth, and that can be extended if medically required, so the benefits associated with parenthood are actually pretty good!)

Getting back to what Terminal and PTAD have to do with my desire to grow longer hair…

In my case, I had a significant amount of leave on the books.  Leave in the military accrues at a rate of 2.5 days per month, so you earn 30 days of leave a year.  Nice!  If you take it all, then you have none left over, but if you don’t take it all you build up a leave balance that grows monthly.  The regulations state that you can maintain a balance of up to 60 days of leave, but any leave in excess of that number on the change of the fiscal year is lost.  What that means is that  if you have 65 days on the books on September 30th, five of them are “lost” (meaning deducted from your balance with no payment to the leaveholder) and the new Fiscal Year starts on October 1st with your balance reduced to 60 days.

Well, there are a couple of wars going on and it can quite often be extremely challenging to take all of your leave.  For me, I had completed four deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan in the five years leading up to my transition, so I had not been able to take much leave.  In fact, since leave accrues until your EAS, I was looking at over 90 days that I could take as Terminal Leave.  Because there are literally thousands of people like me out there the 60 day annual limit on leave was temporarily increased to 75, and up till October 1st you could carry a balance of 105 days (because you lose excess leave on that day).  Anyway, I had to request for approval to use 95 days as terminal leave in order not to lose the time I had accrued because my terminal leave would bridge the fiscal year.  The request was approved, and so half of the equation was complete.

The other half is PTAD.  As a retiring servicemember I am authorized to take 20 days of PTAD to facilitate househunting, looking for a job, and other transition related tasks.  Similar to leave, every day that you are on PTAD counts- even weekends and holidays.  That means that 20 days PTAD is 20 consecutive days on the calendar that may be taken in conjunction with your terminal leave.  Pretty nice benefit!  You still receive your pay and allowances and can take care of the millions of things that need to be done as you transition.  For those moving away, they can take the 20 days with their terminal leave, which in effect allows them a nearly three week head start on their new lives.  And they get to start using haircare products that much sooner…..

Which brings me back to my coiffure related dilemma.  Since I was not moving away, I was actually eligible for a little more time off because I would be allowed to take my 20 days of PTAD in five day increments.  Locals like me can check out on PTAD on Monday morning and use five days that week, with the orders expiring on Friday at 1700 (five o’clock in the afternoon, which is the end of the work day).  The weekend would be “liberty”, which is naval terminology for time off that is not chargeable as leave or PTAD.  I would then go back in the next Monday and pick up a new set of orders…..and my 20 days became 28.  Excellent!

But……that’s where the signs plastered all over the transition office come in.  I would have to pick up my orders in uniform, or in appropriate civilian attire.  And within grooming standards, which meant I still have a few dates with my barber.  D’oh!

That’s OK though.  He is a great guy, and he knows just how low he can go and still keep my hair within regulations…..

__________

Lessons learned:

– Read the small print, or in this case, the signs that adorn the office.  I had never paid any attention to them because they never applied to me before, but now that they do their significance rocketed to the top of the chart.

– Pay attention to when you are getting out.  If you are not careful you can lose some of your leave when the fiscal year ends at midnight on September 30th, and once those days are lost you cannot get them back.  Your administrative section can help you get the waiver request together.

– If you are taking local PTAD then expect to go in every week to pick up your orders.  I had never heard of this requirement before, but I should have expected it because that is simply the way things are done.  As a result, I have a few more haircuts to take, but that is no big deal.  What is a big deal is if you don’t go in to pick up your orders you can get in trouble for Unauthorized Absence, which is the modern term for being AWOL.

– Terminal leave and PTAD must be approved by your commanding officer, and in some cases the service headquarters.  It is not a right, but is a benefit that may not be approved in some circumstances.  The rub is that while you are on terminal leave and on PTAD your unit goes without your replacement- he or she usually doesn’t show up until your EAS and you job is gapped.  Depending on what you are doing or what is going on, you may be too important to let go.