I attended a group retirement ceremony yesterday for one officer and five NCOs. I watched it while sitting next to our unit’s physical therapist. She had patients to see and I had a medical appointment to attend.
In the military, it’s a really bad thing to miss an appointment, to not be when and where you’re supposed to be.
The doctor was getting restless. She sat there arms crossed, checking her watch, and finding items to comment to me about.
But she didn’t want to be rude and leave in the middle of it. Neither did I. We left at the same time. I didn’t want her to feel alone in standing to face the people behind us.
I didn’t feel restless. I felt confident I’d make it on time.
And, it was starting to hit me.
I’m only a few years away from retiring.
I began to wonder, is it possible to feel both happy and sad at the same time? What would that be like? When would it hit these men?
KICKED OUT SHORT OF RETIREMENT
A few months ago, I got tasked with escorting an NCO whom the Army decided to kick out. The purported reason proved enough for the Army to require an escort who outranked him.
Well, just because I outrank him doesn’t mean I’d successfully control him if he acted up. The man was twice my size, and probably many times my skill in hand-to-hand. He also side-hustled as a bouncer.
We also had the same number of years in service. We came from a different branch of service into the Army. We recently endured divorce, loss of custody of our children, fell into a deep depression, and deep enough to seek behavioral health for depression and other mental difficulties. Our behavioral health conditions significantly impacted our motivation and our careers. We became friends.
As I got to know him, I discovered that he had a pretty amazing career plan in front of him already. He was waiting around for life to happen to him. He was in charge of his life.
He was also, from the beginning of his separation process, going through denial… to outrage… to bargaining with the Army… and to an even greater depression than that which he was already suffering from the loss of his family due to divorce.
ANGRY AND SAD AND HAPPY ALL AT ONCE
He told me that for the longest time, he was extremely angry. The Army made a mistake. He argued that the Army was wrong and that he was being unfairly targeted. I believe him. He was still somewhat angry up to the moment it was over.
The very moment he signed for his DD Form 214, the discharge certificate…
I think I spoke first. We had been conversing as we usually do. Just everyday chit chat. Then I asked, “What next?”
He said, “That was it. It’s over.” Seventeen years. Done.
As we walked out that office, and through the hallway. I could see it hitting him.
It only took a few yards down the hallway.
The NCO had very light features. Pale complexion. Light blue eyes. Short, platinum blonde hair.
I could easily see his face turning red. The perspiration building on his forehead. His eyes begin to water.
I could hear his difficulty in trying to speak. His voice breaking. His difficulty in concentrating. The shaking in his voice, and see the shaking in his hands.
As well as the slow, yet soft curling of his left hand into a fist.
He started to walk a little slower.
I asked something about where he parked and began to walk faster. He needed me to distract him for the moment.
He didn’t want to let me see him lose it.
In just a few more feet, we talked about what next. The new job he had already lined up, and how the separation timed in just right, allowing him to begin along the timeline he and his new employer had hoped.
I remembered him as I watched the other men on stage with their families, retiring after more than 20 years. One soldier at 30 years.
The closer I looked at them, the more I remembered that NCO a few months earlier, and the more I wondered what it must be like. The more I wondered, the more I began to feel what I imagined that they were probably feeling.
I imagine that as dissatisfied as I may feel during the workday, after so many years, one feels a kind of joy in looking forward to the next chapter in life, especially in the change and variety it will bring.
Yet, it also brings some fear. Fear in the loss of the certainty previously developed. And painful, in saying goodbye. To lose something in which one had found so much meaning, for so long.