Retirement Lifestyles: “Can I Get Back Into The Military?”

A reader question has hit my IN box several times this year:

“My spouse retired from the military after 20 years of active duty and is receiving their pension. They’re in their 40s and they miss it so much. Is there a way for them to get back in? I know they’d be happier serving than just receiving a deposit every month.”

This conversation goes a lot better when it’s started by the person who misses the military, although I appreciate that spouses are concerned– or even perhaps a little tired of being around the problem. It’s not an easy conversation, but this problem won’t go away on its own.

The short answer is “No, you can’t return to active duty.”

Image of old woman's hands holding an American flag as a metaphor for separating from military service|

Someday we’ll all leave the military.

In this case, it’s due to age, although all the services have experimented with waivers up through the late 30s. I’ve read that a handful of retirees have returned to active duty for short stints of 30-90 days for unusual skills like trauma surgeon or electrical utility grid operation in a battle zone. Other times it could be for a few months developing a special program or research project. Although the answer is usually “No”, if the retiree has a unique skill then they can always talk with the command who needs that skill and let that sponsor help with the waivers.

There may be a deeper retiree problem: they may not only miss the military, but they may have most of their personal identity wrapped up in the military. This is especially common among senior leaders (both officer and enlisted) who may have been responsible for large commands with hundreds of servicemembers. They may have had a great title, an important mission, a large office filled with military memorabilia, and perhaps even a staff to keep them happy. Retiring from that billet can be a huge loss of a temporary identity! That loss is exacerbated if the retiree tries to replace the mission (and staff) with home, spouse, or even family. Retirees have to create their own missions.

Most retirees never have this identity problem. Some knew when they’d seen enough and they wanted to retire from active duty. Others may have looked months ahead and realized that they’d be asked to retire at the end of a tour. The problem can be particularly vicious for retirees who expected a promotion or a follow-on assignment and were abruptly disappointed by the military’s changing priorities. If you’re a hypercompetitive overachiever who thinks the finish line is still years away, it’s difficult to change your plans and priorities in a matter of weeks.

It’s your transition.

Retirees (and all military veterans) have to take charge of their transition. Whether it’s a long-planned retirement or an unexpected discharge, they have to regain the initiative and figure out what brings them challenges and fulfillment. It’s perfectly fine to miss the military, and even to mourn the loss of a particularly strong identity or a choice billet. However, everyone eventually leaves the service, and everyone has to be responsible for their next steps.

There’s always serving the military in another capacity. Contact your local base’s Retired Activities Office, volunteer with a JROTC program at a high school, volunteer as a candidate guidance officer for students considering a service academy, or work with a veteran’s organization like MOAA. It could be as simple as taking a couple of shifts per week or a full-time job at a family support center.

Another idea is volunteer service with other military veterans. Look into disaster recovery with Team Rubicon, or helping with a local wounded warrior program, or volunteering with almost any other community non-profit organization. The key is to figure out what they really miss (leading a group? military camaraderie? mentoring and training?) and then find a way to do it without the military uniform.

A final suggestion is Ernie Zelinski’s Get-A-Life Tree. (Mr. Zelinski wrote a couple of outstanding books about the transition, too). Use it to jumpstart your thoughts and find creative answers that are way better than doing what you’ve always done before. This can also be used by couples and families to come up with shared activities.

I’ve had a copy of the Get-A-Life Tree on my desk for nearly 14 years, but frankly, I’ve been too busy to make the time to fill it out. I don’t want to get back in to the military, but I’ve found my way to continue to pay it forward and mentor while I enjoy the camaraderie. I surf a lot, too!

Explore your new life!

Surfing brings me to another important point: flexibility. I’m 55 years old now, but when I was in my mid-30s I could see that my military career would end at age 41. By then I’d discovered books like “Your Money Or Your Life” and “The Millionaire Next Door”. My spouse and I realized that we were close to financial independence and could choose almost any bridge career we wanted.

As we explored our options, I realized that I didn’t want a traditional corporate career. (Financial independence gives you the freedom to explore.) I knew that I’d find something challenging and fulfilling, but what I really craved was autonomy: more control over my time.

I could have started a corporate career during my retirement leave, but I’m glad that I didn’t. On the official day of my retirement, as a sort of family joke about our new life together, we took surfing lessons. I was hooked and I knew that I’d want to spend much more time at it. Nearly 14 years later, every time I’m in the dawn patrol lineup at our local break, I watch about half of the crowd reluctantly glance at their watches and paddle in to go to work. It’s a frequent reminder that financial independence gives you choices.

When you leave the military, it’s fine to mourn the loss of the life you’ve built. It’s even acceptable to feel a little sorry for yourself about leaving behind a great identity or the world’s best billet. But all the skills you’ve learned in the service make you capable of taking charge of your own transition and leading yourself to your next life. Instead of pining for the things you think that you’re leaving behind, look ahead. Figure out what’s important to you and find a way to add those things to your new life.

Check the “Related articles” section below the book link for more posts on this topic, and more solutions.

The book (scroll down a couple of inches) has great suggestions on other activities, too. Look for it at your local library or buy it online.

Related articles:
Myths Of Military Retirement And Early Retirement
Forget About Who You Were And Discover Who You Are
Retirement: Don’t Recreate Your Old Environment
Retirement: Relax, Reconnect, And Re-engage
During Retirement: Paying It Forward
During Retirement: You Will Change. Your Plans May Change Too.
During Retirement: Where Do You Want To Go Next?
During Retirement: Back To School?
During Retirement: Rebel A Little
During Retirement: Healthy Lifestyle
Volunteering For Charity Or Neighbors
Dealing With “Retiree Guilt”
The “Fog Of Work”
Surviving An Involuntary Separation
During Retirement: The Inevitable Job Offers
Getting “The Job Call”
Lifestyles In Military Retirement: Surfing

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."
This entry was posted in Career, Military Retirement. Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Retirement Lifestyles: “Can I Get Back Into The Military?”

  1. peter gregory says:

    Two days after 9/11 my father, 81 at the time, walked into the Navy Recruiting Station in Pittsburgh wearing his WW2 service medals, including a Purple Heart, Bronze Star with combat V from Iwo Jima, and wanted to volunteer again the Navy. He drove Higgins boats to and from the surf and thought his skills could be of service once more. I was working at the Navy Yard, NDW at the time and got a call from the station and talked to him. There were tears in his eyes, he could not serve again. I will take old school Navy any day of the week. The recruiter on duty gave him a ride home, as he did not drive, I still hear from that Sailor from time to time. Spoke at his funeral in 2006.

  2. One Sick Vet says:

    Some other great organizations that would love your help: Civil Air Patrol ( and Project Healing Waters (

  3. peter gregory says:

    The Navy League operates or sponsors over 160 chapters of the Sea Cadet program. They are always looking for sea service veterans to volunteer in leadership and training opportunities, There is likely a chapter in your local area. NJROTC exists in over 300 High Schools nationally. Another aspect of service well beyond the DD-214 are the National Cemeteries run by the VA. Volunteers welcome both in front and back office operations. In eastern Pa. I have spoken in over 20 High Schools over national holidays such as Memorial and Veterans Days. The Academy has their Blue and Gold programs. These things just do not drop in one’s lap. Just walk and offer your services. You will be as busy with all things Navy or military as you want or like.

  4. Doug Nordman says:

    Thanks, OSV and Peter, those are great groups and programs!

  5. Marta Davies says:

    Very interesting post with great information! I do want to share though, that it IS POSSIBLE to enter the Reserve after retiring from Active Duty. I’ve personally worked with two officers (flight nurses in AF Air Evac units) that made this happen. Both were promoted to the next rank and both have deployed for their Reserve unit. I only know a few of the rules when it comes to pay (cannot earn retired pay when on active duty such as a deployment at the same time, etc), and I believe when they retire again, the service time and grade will be recomputed for a new pension payment. The process for coming back is arduous and most recruiters have no idea how to go about it. But, rest assured, ARPC knows that this is possible. I cannot speak on how the Guard or other branches would look at this, only the AF Reserve.

  6. Buddy Odell says:

    “Don’t wish for what you just might get it”…It’s now 2018 and the Army as a result of drawing down too much and now competing with a vibrant job market, is now taking back Retirees who want to Volunteer to come back as Recruiters and Instructors for certain MOS Branches.
    So for those who “miss it” is your chance..PLUS increased active duty pay and benefits with no deployments are great incentives for some to seriously consider

  7. sarge2 says:

    Many states operate an organization know as “State Guards”. I was a member of the Texas State Guard for a few years. Although the State Guard is voluntary, there are times during natural disasters where you can fill “active duty” billets which will allow you to be paid at an active duty rate. No, this is not the “militia”, but a military support organization, which drills once a month on weekends, and AT during the summer much like the Guard and reserves.

  8. David Wilcox says:

    I’ve just retired from the Army in January. I am miserable. I do have a JROTC position but I really miss the Army. I served 20 yes and 6 months so I have a lot left in the tank. If there is anyone I can contact,please share the information.
    Thank you.

    • Doug Nordman says:

      I understand how you feel, David! I have three suggestions:
      1. If you’re near a military base, consider volunteering with their Retired Activities Office. It doesn’t matter which service the base is with– all of the RAOs deal with similar issues.

      2. If you’re near a military base (again, any service) then consider volunteering with their relief offices (AER or Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society, or Air Force Aid Society).

      3. If you’re not near a military base then talk with your local Reserve center, National Guard armory, or recruiting office. All of those offices should have information about returning to active duty (if that’s your goal) or other volunteer/paid positions.

  9. J says:

    Check out the Coast Guard Auxiliary. It’s the uniformed volunteer component of the CG. They take retirees all the time. It’s not paid, but it is a way to have that mil connection.

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