Join the military to get rich and retire early?: the rest of the story

(The first part of this post is over at Jacob Lund Fisker’s Early Retirement Extreme blog.)

Now for the rest of the story…

When I was an impressionable young teen, my best friend’s older brother was attending USNA. Every time he was home on leave he wore a Navy sweatshirt and a three-day beard. He’d have a cold beer in one hand and a hot chick in the other… even at 10 AM. He drove a great car. His life looked a lot better than high school! I toured the Yard, attended a class, saw all the cool gear and uniforms, and got sucked into the irresistible challenge. Navy’s marketing is very effective. It’s so effective that when my spouse and I attended the same tour nearly three decades later with our daughter, all of us were ready to sign up.

Before graduating from college I carefully mapped out my temporary duty, initial training, and sea tour to coincide with the end of my active-duty obligation. I wasn’t going to be one of those poor suckers who owed the assignment officers years of indentured servitude on hardship duty. Well, not for a second time, anyway.

My plan succeeded and I left sea duty only five months before my obligation expired. However, my spouse and I had just married, and her next duty station was the Naval Postgraduate School. It was our best tour ever, and to this day I’m still grateful that she got me there. Of course when I graduated I had a pesky new 4.5 year commitment that would take me to 11.5 years. But we were stationed in Pearl Harbor. No complaints there!

By the time that obligation ended, spouse and I had picked up a different one: we’d started a family. I made the cut for XO but it looked like I wasn’t going to get the call, and the future seemed murky. However, I had no compelling reason to leave active duty, and if I stayed then we could be stationed together in major homeports. I looked at other warfare communities and staff corps but they all involved various degrees of “starting over”, and I wasn’t willing to make that transition either.

The subsequent 8.5 years to retirement had some incredibly miserable moments, but they all seemed better than the alternative of leaving active duty. Heck, if I’d left active duty then I might have had to get a real job.

Blissfully ignorant I was: today it’s clear that I was surrounded by unrecognized opportunities. On one shore duty I worked with literally dozens of Reserve officers who would have happily taken me under their wing and showed me how to make the transition.  At another command I could have left active duty on Friday and started a civil-service career in the same office on Monday– and drilled in the Reserves. At my training commands I regularly fended off job offers from shipmates who’d already started civilian careers and desperately needed all the team-building help we smart leaders could offer. I was worried about going without a paycheck, yet most of my transition choices involved collecting two paychecks.

Notice something else about that 20 years of angst? It was never about the retirement benefits. An inflation-fighting pension and cheap healthcare were never on my radar. All the way up to my 18th year, we never really planned for financial independence. We saved and invested, sure, but “never work again” wasn’t even a fantasy. When I considered the idea at all, it was part of a post-military career that would eventually lead to a second pension and then maybe to retirement.

Seems pretty ironic that those ERE teens want to join the military for the retirement benefits.

Another issue is the “military inferiority complex”. As part of being one of the world’s top combat outfits, we’re pretty good at beating ourselves senseless in the name of training and self-improvement. After a tour or two you may feel barely capable of functioning at your current rank, let alone meeting the requirements for promotion. A little humility can’t hurt, but too much of it will cripple your self-confidence. Coupled with obstinance perseverance and self-discipline, it can keep you on active duty far longer than necessary. It can certainly stress you out, and possibly even degrade your mental & physical health.

My conclusion? Don’t join the military for the benefits.  As a Marine friend told me, join the military for the chance to realize your potential. The chance to be part of something bigger than yourself. The chance for more authority and responsibility in your 20s than your civilian counterparts will ever have. The chance to learn skills that will last you for a lifetime, and to test yourself beyond what you would ever believe you could handle.

Stay on active duty as long as the military matches your life & family priorities. If you have a “bad” tour then consider giving it one more tour while you plan your escape to the Reserves/National Guard. If that second tour’s not working for you either, then you should be more than ready to make your own transition. If the second tour gets better, then think about whether it’s worth sticking around for 20– but take it one tour at a time.

Once you’ve been in the military then you can achieve financial independence anywhere. The active-duty pension certainly makes it easier, but a Reserve/Guard pension does it too. Even if you don’t stick around long enough for either one, you have the skills and the ability to do it on your own. “The Military Guide”  is full of stories from people who have done exactly that.

Related articles:
Dual military couples
When should you stop working?

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About Doug Nordman

Author of "The Military Guide to Financial Independence and Retirement" and co-author of "Raising Your Money-Savvy Family For Next Generation Financial Independence."
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