By Laura Prater
It’s been exactly a year since Clay, my husband, retired from Active Duty Army after 20+ years of service. When he was an Army Recruiter, I used to listen to him on the phone or sometimes I’d walk into the office as he was talking to a potential recruit.
He had a passion for his beloved Army.
I could see it in his eyes and I could hear it in his voice. He loved the Army. He loved his soldiers. He had an uncanny ability to coach, counsel and mentor soldiers and their families. His focus was always on his soldiers.
There were times I felt a little jealous, but I mostly understood and fully supported him. Throughout his career, he never learned the word failure. He won Soldier of the Month and Quarter, NCO of the Year, laid down and established a Fiber Optic network while getting mortared and rocketed in Iraq, and took control of a hostile group in Kosovo while running MWR missions for soldiers in outlying FOBs. These are just some of the things I have read in his award write-ups that he keeps tucked away in a footlocker in the garage.
He doesn’t know that I know he’s hidden them there. There’s more. Actually, there’s a lot more.
I don’t know how he did it or why he did some of those things. He’s never talked about his career nor his accomplishments. He’s a humble man who leads by example. I’ve received countless messages, emails, phone calls and face-to-face words of gratitude and appreciation from many of Clay’s old Army buddies– peers, subordinates and supervisors– who have all said one thing in common: he’s a great soldier and a greater man.
As a recent retiree, our hope is to share some information for your transition back to what we affectionately refer to as the “civilian world.”
Our Retirement Decisions
“When I married the love of my life, I was knee-deep in my recruiting assignment. I was a “Sunday Dad “when I didn’t have to work Sundays. This lasted for four long years. When I left recruiting, I was assigned to an Infantry Battalion at Fort Bliss, Texas. I was there for 2 weeks by myself waiting for our new home to become available. When the wife arrived with our kids, we had 2 weeks together before I deployed….again. Our oldest was 5, our middle was 2 and our youngest was just 6 months.
I returned from deployment and we moved on to the next assignment, and then the next assignment and so on. The training exercises, deployments, late nights and early mornings were constant with this life. My last assignment was an unaccompanied tour in South Korea. That was the straw that broke the camel’s back, so to speak. Throughout my boys’ lives, I was always gone. My oldest once told me that he didn’t even know me. My middle son and I used to have a strong bond until I deployed. I was missing out on so much with my 3 boys. I decided to retire from the life I loved because of three little boys I loved so much more.”
Clay transitioned to the civilian world from a 20+ year military career. He enlisted when he was only 19 and still wet behind the ears. He retired when he was almost 40, embarking on a new career, and trying to figure out what it was that he wanted to be when he grew up. I think he expected some sort of discipline and adherence to the rules and regulations he had grown accustomed in military life in his new career.
What he experienced was the opposite. He was met with a disregard to the rules, people complaining about working 45 hours a week (his last assignment required him to work between 60-80 hours a week) and no discipline. The rank he wore proudly on his uniform carried absolutely no weight anymore. He was now referred to as Clay or Mr. Prater instead of his military rank/title.
Once we decided where we wanted to retire, we immediately began looking for community outreach programs as well as churches. The church we found was a lot bigger than what we were accustomed to, but big churches often offer more life groups than smaller churches. Clay began attending two separate life groups- outdoorsmen and veterans. The veterans group met once a month while the outdoorsmen group met every week. These men and women in both groups helped him understand more about himself as well as helping him understand his new role as a retiree. Whether it be through a church, veterans group, or another community outreach organization, this is a great option in finding a shoulder to lean on, who understands the life, and will understand what you have been through.
“As my wife continued to thrive in her new role as a military spouse [0f a retired soldier], I was sinking into a depression. She went from being known as my wife to me being known as her husband. It was a role reversal that I was not ready for. I went from being the guy who prepared short-term and long-term training plans for his soldiers to the guy who was given a work schedule. I went from being the guy who made decisions that affected the lives of his troops to the guy who was trying to figure out the difference between a weed and a flower (long story). I was never that guy who wore his rank while beating his chest. I enjoyed coaching, counseling and mentoring soldiers. I went from having a lot of responsibility to no responsibility.
Don’t get me wrong, my family is my responsibility, but it’s hard to transition from a place where you’re the ‘top dog’ to a place where you’re just trying to figure it all out. I reached out to some of my fellow retirees. Their advice and mentorship helped me get through this difficult time. Never be too shy or think it’s weak to ask for help.”
Clay began his job search early. When I say early – I mean early. There are a list of websites to visit when looking for a job. He used USAJobs and Indeed the most. If you’ve spent 20 years in the military, things have changed quite a bit. I urge you to begin your search early. Don’t be afraid to take the first job offered, but also don’t be afraid to say “no” if the job is not a right fit for you and your family.
“My Permissive Temporary Duty (PTDY) began April 2015. I actually began my job search October 2014 while stationed in South Korea. Early? Yes, quite. However, I spent 20 years in the Army and never experienced this type of job interview. I figured why not get some experience under my belt.
I downloaded the Magic Jack app to my phone while in Korea (the app gave me a stateside number). The first interview I had was with a tile company. Did I really want to work with tiles? No; however, I needed the experience with interviews. After the interview was complete, I asked the interviewer to give me feedback. The feedback was constructive and greatly aided in my preparation for future interviews. The interviewer was about to offer me the job, until he I told him when I would be returning to the States.
I set up and conducted many more telephone interviews and perfecting my answers to the same basic questions. Once they found out my return date to the States, the end was always the same. That was okay, I just needed the experience. Besides, it’s never too early to start looking for a job.
Once I returned to the States, I did what I knew to do prior to enlisting in the Army– I applied in person. Well, that doesn’t exactly work anymore. Everything is online now. You have to fill out an application, submit your resume, submit a cover letter and give references. It is tedious, but necessary.
I applied to probably 100 jobs, interviewed for maybe 25 of those, turned down a few and accepted a few. As I write this, I am currently working my third job since retirement (1st job was seasonal, 2nd job, I loved but was too far from my home, 3rd job is great and it’s only a 4-minute drive from my home).”
Time for Yourself
While on PTDY and Terminal leave, take advantage of this vacation to decompress and unwind. Chances are you’re leaving from an overseas assignment or a high-OPTEMPO unit. You need time with your family and learn more about yourself. You’re leaving from a structured environment where plans were made for you. You no longer have that and now your task is household chores and mowing the lawn.
The best advice I can give you is to find a gym, get into a routine and learn about yourself and your family. Clay did this and swears by it. The gym will help you decompress and exercise always makes you feel good. A routine helps keep your mind occupied. Take time with your family. Take your kids fishing or camping. The memories you establish now that your military career is finished are more important to your family than the uniform you wore.
“I used my permissive TDY to unwind and spend much-needed time with my family. If you’ve been deployed or are leaving from a high-OPTEMPO unit, you need time to decompress. Please, take time to decompress. Find a hobby or continue a hobby. If you’re married, ask your spouse to create a “honey-do list.” Focus on the list and keep your mind occupied.
I also took this time to continue my job search and setting up interviews. If you’re college bound, take advantage of this time to get your ducks in a row with the college you plan to attend. I was home for about 2 or 3 weeks when I took my first job at a home improvement store. It was only seasonal job but I thoroughly enjoyed it.
I was starting to go crazy just sitting at home. I love my family and enjoy spending time with my wife and kids. I was in a quandary– my family or employment. The easiest way I can put this that makes sense to me is how I felt when taking ordinary leave while serving. When I took leave, I was excited to see family and spend some much-needed down time decompressing. However, after a while, I was ready to leave and return, not necessarily back to the unit I was assigned, but back to a life I knew. I hope that makes sense.”
These are a just few things to consider when transitioning from your career in the ranks to your career outside those ranks and finding your place post military. The transition for us, especially Clay, was similar to that of a roller coaster ride. He had ups and downs, good days and bad days. One day he poured out his heart to me and said that he felt as if he had no responsibilities to speak of. In his mind, well, in reality as well, he had went from being the top dog to the low man on the totem pole.
Clay doesn’t miss the Army that much. Neither of us miss the deployments. Neither of us miss the training exercises or any of crazy hours.
What he and I both miss tremendously are the people.
There is a camaraderie forged through trials and tribulations, deployments and training exercises, early mornings and late nights. It is a bond that just isn’t found elsewhere. He just doesn’t have that same camaraderie out here as he did while in the Army.
When he gets together with veterans, the conversations always gravitate towards their experiences in the military. Many want to relive the glory days because so few understand. When he gets together with non-veterans, very few understand the life he just left– the life that will always be a part of him.
If You’re Transitioning Out
Welcome back to the civilian world.
Take time to decompress and always communicate with your spouse, if you are married. Don’t be afraid to reach out and ask for guidance.
We wish you all the best in your new adventure.
Clay is a retired SFC who spent a tad over 20 years Active Duty in the Army. He joins his wife Laura blogging over at www.RaisingSoldiers4Christ.com