The Retirement Decision Series Part A: The First 20 Years of Military Service

 Today marks the official end of my 20th year of military service.  For anyone in the military this is a monumental occasion as it marks the earning of retirement benefits, most notably for Reservists is retirement pay beginning at age 60.  I’d like to mark this occasion with a Charles Dickensesque 3 part series looking back at my career, making the decision to stay or get out, and (spoiler alert – I’m staying) what my intentions for the next 0-13 years are (until I have had enough or hit mandatory retirement at age 50).

I’m going to start off with a look back at my first 20 years.  Lucky for you, my memory isn’t great so I won’t be writing out my memoirs, but rather hitting the high and low spots of my career.  This article probably won’t be helpful to anyone other than me, since anyone thinking about joining will no doubt have a very different experience than me, but hopefully you will find it somewhat interesting.  

The first question to get asked is “why did you join”?  After 20 years I still haven’t come up with a great answer. I probably joined because I grew up in the 80s/90s watching GI Joe and thought it would be cool to be in the Army.  When I signed up in the year 2000 the Army National Guard actually was 1 weekend a month and 2 weeks a year of shooting guns, blowing stuff up, and then drinking some beers.  Then 9-11 happened while I was in basic training at Fort Knox, KY.  I returned to a guard unit that quickly awoke to the fact we would be called upon to actually do stuff and probably go to war.  The operation tempo quickly changed to catch up on the things we should know and be able to do to survive in combat. 

Fortunately, our unit had been tasked on a mission to support Bosnia Herzegovina in 2003 so I went there instead of Iraq.  The deployment to Bosnia was one of the highest highs of my military career.  What an incredible opportunity to open one’s eyes to the world early on in life.  I had lived the fairly sheltered life of someone growing up in rural Minnesota and my only international experience at the time was a 2-week trip to France with my high school French class.  Bosnia opened my eyes to what a less privileged part of the world is actually like.  This was the start to a happier life where I learned to appreciate what I have.  Our mission was basically to spend time in the public and be seen so I got to spend most of my days observing the civilization and interacting with the locals. 

In addition to the perspective I learned, I learned to be content with few possessions.  We lived on a small base and only had what we could pack in one tote with us.  The internet sucked at the time so I rarely used it for the 7 months we were there.  One of my fellow guardsmen was the strength training coach for the Wisconsin Badgers football team at the time so we all worked out…a lot. 

I also got my first lesson in finance and frugality here – which laid the foundation for my financial independence journey years later.  Since everything was provided to us (I literally had zero bills and all the food you could eat was free) and there was very little to spend money on other than pirated CDs (music used to come on discs); I learned to save.  Unfortunately, I didn’t learn about investing at the time and the money later went into a car and college.  The upside is not having to take on debt early in life. 

I also had the opportunity during this deployment to travel to Budapest, Hungary and Germany via bus.  This allowed me to see much of the European country side.  Budapest was for a weekend pass so we just got to be tourists and explore what I think is one of the most beautiful cities in the world.  Germany was for a 2-week leadership school which was highlighted with me running through the snowing German woods firing an M-60 from the hip (blanks of course) ala Rambo. 

*Actor portrayal

Other highlights include a few rides in a Blackhawk (once across much of Bosnia), a day trip to Sarajevo, playing tour guide to high ranking visitors to the two castles in our district, and lots of off roading fun in Humvees. 

Hanging out with the locals
On patrol
Celebrating New Years
Srebrenik Castle Tours

After 1.5 years of college and “normal life” we were tasked with a deployment to Iraq, which would end up being much different.  We were sent to Camp Shelby, Mississippi in October of 2005 (shortly after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the area).  We spent 6 months there to complete the 3 weeks’ worth of training prior to heading to Iraq (a bottleneck in the number of people needing training vs. capacity to train).  I’d summarize the time as “we don’t have anything for you to do but you need to be busy doing something”. 

Can you spot me?

After 3 weeks in Kuwait we landed at our assigned base in Balad, Iraq.  This is the part that could be a book but I don’t feel like getting into great detail so you get the very short version here.  We spent several months working the entry control point where we in-processed locals who had jobs on base.  Then we spent several months driving within 5 miles of the base unsuccessfully trying to prevent mortar attacks.  Then we spent a few more months escorting semi-trucks to other bases- to include Baghdad.  Thanks to the troop surge at the time we were extended beyond our 1-year scheduled deployment and ended up spending 15 months in country. 

Again, I saved money (thanks tax-exclusion!).  I learned a little bit about investing, but still not enough.  While many who served had mostly negative consequences (PTSD), I think I mostly managed to overcome those and end up with a perspective that has made me calmer.  Any time I begin to feel stressed about something I put it in the perspective of “is this going to kill me or anyone else?”.  The answer is always no, and I remember it’s not that bad and I’ve handled worse. 

That’s all I have to say about that.

Summarizes Iraq pretty well – my brother in photo

Oddly enough, the day I stepped foot in Iraq was the last day of my enlistment contract.  It turned out they weren’t going to let me go home so I re-enlisted for 3 more years to get that sweet tax-free bonus.  We returned home in June of 2005 and went back to “normal” life.  I spent the next couple of years doing regular guard weekends and annual tours.  As I neared the end of this enlistment in 2009 our unit was tasked to go back to Iraq for another year.  I had no real desire to go back but I didn’t necessarily want to end my career yet so I chatted with a friend who was with me in Iraq who transferred to the Air Guard after we got back.  I also talked with my cousin who was in the Air Force Reserve after a few years of active duty and they convinced me to join the Air Force. 

VR .50 cal weekend training

I ended up joining the Air Force Reserve, although I don’t remember why I picked the Reserves over the guards.  I enlisted in 2009 with my youngest brother.  I joined as a medic because I wanted the medical training and EMT certificate to supplement my career as a police officer at the time.   I went to technical school in May of 2010 at Sheppard AFB in Wichita Falls, Texas.  I was class leader and excelled in the training, earning top graduate while enjoying my time there.  I got to do an additional 2 months of training at Eglin AFB in Florida, spending lots of time at the beach when not working in the hospital.  After this training I leveraged the USERRA law allowing one to take up to 90 days off from civilian employment after orders of >180 days to solo backpack across Europe.  Then back to a couple years of normal life and weekend drills doing training and paperwork.    

In November 2012 I had the opportunity to deploy to Ramstein AFB in Germany to do a real medical evacuation mission.  This was another highlight of my military career.  I got to actually do the work I trained to do in caring for injured soldiers during transport.  When not on duty I got to travel and go on hiking trips.  In true military fashion, however, since I was having blast here, they cut our orders short from 6 months down to 4 months.  This was enough combined active duty time for me to qualify for 100% GI Bill education benefits. 

Bus Driver Extraordinaire

After getting home from Germany I packed up and moved to Miami, Florida to be with my (now) wife.  I was accepted to the MBA program at the University of Miami and thanks to my now 100% GI Bill eligibility and the generosity of UM, I received my $100k degree completely free.  Not only was it free, I received over $2,000 a month to live on so I didn’t even need to work while going to school. 

I also chose to transfer to the unit MacDill AFB in Tampa over the much closer Homestead base because I had worked with people from both units in Germany and liked/heard better things about the MacDill unit.  I also new someone from Minneapolis who was there now (and would later become the Commander).  The Air Force Reserves is a relatively small community and it’s good to get to know people.  My Air Force time during school was a monthly 5-hour drive to Tampa for usual training and paperwork. 

After graduating I heard about a small aid station for the Special Operations Command for South America HQ needing an Air Force medic so I volunteered for that and was accepted.  I had a great time there learning about special operations and meeting lots of interesting people from all branches of the special forces.  After about 9 months of working here, my wife and I decided we were sick of not being able to complain about the weather and moved home to Minnesota. 

I rejoined my old medical unit in Minneapolis and picked up where I left off doing training and paperwork.  Now armed with my MBA and a six-sigma green belt I connected with the base process improvement officer and learned about her planned departure in the near future.  The base leadership was happy to have me fill that role in the interim.  I enjoyed the role and would have applied to do it full time but at the time it was technically an officer position so I wasn’t qualified being enlisted (shortly after I moved on and they filled the role it became a civilian position).

I found a job doing process improvement for a healthcare organization (thanks in part to a military connection).  Since I was no longer doing hands on patient care I was finding it harder to maintain my skills with the limited training received on the weekends so I decided to cross train into another career field.  I learned about a small intelligence unit of IMAs (Individual Mobilized Agumentee -basically reservists assigned to Active Duty units) that worked on the base.  I knew the Chief of the unit’s name and chanced upon him in the HQ building one day and chatted with him.  I was sold on the unit and quickly accepted. 

Soon after transferring to the unit in August of 2017 I learned I couldn’t go to tech school until I had appropriate clearance…and that could take years.  Also, although eligible for promotion, now I wasn’t promotable until I finished tech school.  I spent the next 2 years spending my weekend drills hanging out in the lobby doing what limited training and admin tasks I could do from my personal laptop via Wi-Fi.  Eventually I received my clearance and requested tech school and got a date 9 months out.  That brings me to today, sitting at tech school with a bunch of Airmen basics having just hit 20 years of service. 

You can assume at some point prior to now I decided I would stay in longer than 20 years, although knowing it would take 3 YEARS to get trained for intel might have changed my mind.  In the next installment I’ll discuss my thought process in measuring the pros and cons of staying in to and past 20 years.         

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