The reward for standing on your head


“I can do it standing on my head.”

There is no telling how many times I said or heard that statement in my Navy career (1982-2003), but the conversation where these words appeared was almost always the same: a discussion about time — the time remaining on watch, at a duty station, in an enlistment or until retirement.

Service members in the U.S. military are eligible for retirement after twenty years, an almost magical number that gains in significance the closer one gets to it. There are perks to being retired, for sure — a pension, health care, shopping privileges at the tax-free Exchange and low-cost commissary — but don’t for a moment fool yourself: The benefits are slimmer than promised and the upfront cost is quite high.

The Shooter by Phil Bronstein is an article about the SEAL Team 6 man who killed Osama Bin Laden;  a hero by any measure but also a man whose decision to leave the Navy after sixteen years resulted in no pension and no medical benefits for himself or his wife and children.

I’ve heard this situation, a service member leaving within sight of retirement with nothing to show for it but the scars, called: Do not pass Go, do not collect $200. The first thought that came to my mind was this: Why didn’t you just suck it up or transfer to a training command, teach other SEAL candidates — do those four years standing on your head if you had to?

Of course I don’t know this man’s situation. The article says he has some serious medical issues, not uncommon based on the type of service he performed as a SEAL. He also has children and an estranged wife, and there is no denying the emotional toll of military service on the member or family — a toll heightened by the type of missions this man performed for our country.

But that’s the crux of the article, isn’t it, what I believe the writer is trying to emphasize. This man is among the heroes who put their lives on the line for our country in hot spots around the world. More to the point, this is the guy who got Bin Laden and now he has no pension and no health care? That’s really, really wrong, almost un-American wrong, right?

It is wrong, very wrong. But don’t for a second believe it is limited to the heroes who got Bin Laden.

*  *  *  *

When I enlisted in 1982  the Navy recruiter only briefly mentioned retirement. The reality is most enlistees do not make the military a career, so the recruiting pitch focuses on the immediate benefits of service. Although the main pitch today is education — either money for college or classes while on active duty — in my day, in the Midwest, it was the fun and adventure of traveling to and visiting foreign lands while being paid, fed three or four times a day and sheltered: the infamous “three hots and a cot.”

BootcampOf course health and dental care are provided, too, so if you get sick or need a tooth pulled — no problem! (Photo: my official boot camp portrait)

At some point in the pitch my recruiter added, almost as an aside, that if I decided to stay on and serve  twenty years I would be set up for the rest of my life with a pension and free health care for myself and my family. “You’re twenty now, right?” he said. “In what other career can you retire at forty, hey?” And then we went back to talking about how much fun it was to roll through The Gut in Naples, or visit the beaches of Spain.

After confirming I was not then, and had never been, a member of the Communist Party, the recruiter signed me up for four years. I was sure that would be the extent of it: four years, get some money in my pockets, see some of the world, get my life on track and then move on. The same thoughts, I am confident, the vast majority of enlistees have. “I’ve been getting out since the day I got in,” was what I usually said when asked about my career aspirations.

The reality for many enlistees is this: they will spend ten months in Bayonne, New Jersey — jokingly referred to as “where the debris meets the sea” — for every day they see beautiful Palma de Mallorca or some other desirable port visit. They will be on call 24/7/365 and work long, hard, lonely and often mind-numbing days in warmth and boneshaking cold, sunshine and pouring rain. The pay for all levels from Admiral to Seaman Recruit is not great when compared to civilian counterparts; the benefits, including medical and dental care, housing allowances and tax-free shopping, are nice but the quality varies greatly with location.

Along with the negatives there are many, many positives to military service. With this in mind, many will re-enlist, sign up for four more years, when their initial contract is up. The photo at the top of this post shows my first re-enlistment; the officer administering the oath is Captain Thomas J. Colavito, USN (Ret.), a mentor who conspired with my wife to get me to return to night school to finish my degree. The photo below is my second re-enlistment after I accepted orders to attend Officer Candidate School. Vice Admiral J.S. Donnell III, the enlisting officer, gave me great advice about what to expect at OCS.

2nd reup

The military knows re-enlisting is the first sign of a potential “lifer” in it for a career, and the services often offer bonuses and other inducements as having experienced, quality junior- and mid-level managers is essential to maintaining continuity of operations. It is important to note that it is unlikely at this point, the first re-enlistment, for retirement to be very high on the list of reasons for staying. Yes, it is there, but pride, satisfaction with their chosen field and continued income and benefits — in whatever order — are likely more important. That is how it was for me.

Dissatisfaction or civilian job offers lead some to call it quits after a second tour of duty, but the odds of leaving decrease each year served up to the ten-year point and practically disappear thereafter. Once you’ve “hit ten” as it is called, everyone knows the service member is committed to a military career and the retirement package becomes increasingly — almost suddenly — important. Why invest so much time toward a retirement plan including a pension and medical benefits to throw it away?

The services know this as well as the member does, and the perks and inducements begin to disappear. Choice of duty assignment often becomes antagonistic for post-ten year members, who have lost the only bargaining chip they ever held: the choice to walk away. They (the service) know, and you know, and they know you know…that you’re not going anywhere.

That pension and those medical benefits have become a vision of the promised land, hazy, indistinct and almost within of reach. You just have to stick it out, go where they tell you and do what they want. Stand on your head if you have to, but you have to make it to twenty.

Of course, the promised land is never as good as you imagined it would be. The pension plan has changed (read: worsened) several times over the past thirty years — I’m fortunate to be grandfathered into a version that isn’t too bad — and those medical benefits are not as first promised. I shell out for premiums and co-pays for medical and dental just like my civilian counterparts, perhaps not as much but the “free for life” sales pitch was just a lot of hot air.

Tax-free or subsidized shopping is one of the best benefits, but the reality is I retired near my last duty station and live fifteen minutes from the associated shopping complex. Many, many retired service members move “back home” or to other places away from bases so they never enjoy this benefit.

*  *  *  *


(Photo: commissioned as an Ensign at Officer Candidate School, Newport, Rhode Island.)

The vast majority of military retirees never squeezed a trigger for their nation outside of weapons training, but all of them served with honor. Some stood on their heads to get to twenty, but they made it and got their hands on a pot of gold that looked so much better in the catalog. They are all heroes to me.

Do service members leaving before twenty years like The Shooter who killed Bin Laden deserve better than just a pat on the back and nothing else? I believe they do. Should we be outraged that The Shooter has no tangible benefits after his sixteen years of service, including felling our Most Wanted Terrorist? No more so than for any other service member in the same circumstance.

Believe me, there are plenty of them out there. So by all means lament The Shooter, who sounds like a decent and honorable man deserving of our thanks and appreciation, but don’t forget this: he is hardly alone and even those heroes who make it to retirement are not rolling in gold.

But then again, that tarnished pot of gold at the end of the rainbow isn’t why we served, either.


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