Deciding When it’s Time to End Your Service

  • Published
  • By Col. Chris Bromen

Are you trying to decide if you should reenlist? Are you considering applying for retirement but not sure if you’re really ready? If not now, at some time in the future you will be faced with these decisions, and they probably won’t be easy. I know this from experience because as a fellow Airman I’ve grappled with some of these very same decisions. Here is my perspective, and a little bit of advice on how to handle this decision.

Over the past 23 years there were three memorable instances when I was faced with the decision of whether or not to hang up the uniform and transition to a civilian career. The reasons I considered separating or retiring were the desire for stability and predictability for my family, and a periodic urge to enter a completely different line of work. Then once I hit 20 years in service, I was satisfied that I had already achieved the professional goals I had set long ago. Factors that influenced me to continue serving each time were the prestige, satisfaction and identity of being an Airman, the exciting lifestyle, and the pay and benefits package. In all cases I spent considerable amounts of time weighing pros and cons, and thinking through a wide range of the potential outcomes. Each time I faced this decision the dynamics grew more complex, and the decision was of higher consequence. I struggled to find good advice on how to make sense of the emotional aspects of this decision. So how did I sort it out? 

It was not so clear at the time, but with the benefit of hindsight, in each case I reached my decision to keep serving by answering two fairly basic, but thought provoking questions. The first question was, “What is stopping me from leaving?” In reflecting on this, the answer was always that the satisfaction of doing our nation’s business was something I was proud of, and it was stronger than the things influencing me to leave. The other question was, “Am I still willing to go anywhere the Air Force needs me to go, any time?” Admittedly, as the years have gone by and I’ve missed more family events, and the world is ever more unpredictable, this question has gotten more difficult to answer “yes” to. But for me, the answer has remained “yes.” The business of serving our nation is important enough that I am still willing to sacrifice the things I mentioned, for service to what I believe is the greater good.

From my experience with these decisions, here is my advice to anyone considering the decision to end your service. First, have an honest talk with your supervisor or commander about it. One reason is because this person probably has more experience than you, and can offer perspective and advice.  Another reason is this person will likely be in a position to either approve actions, or help influence actions that will get you to where you want to be. It is human nature that people are more likely to help if you are truthful and honest with them.

If you are a supervisor, invite conversations about your Airmen’s future and their intent to continue service. Sometimes Airmen feel some guilt for considering separating, and some anxiety that letting their intentions be known could hurt their standing in the eyes of their supervisors. Accept that someone who is considering separating is entitled to and deserving of the same mentoring, support and coaching as anyone else. Supervisors and commanders should actually encourage people to explore career options and prepare themselves for eventual civilian life. Giving people this support will help them make the best decision. They will respect you for it, and will be more likely to give their best efforts for however long they remain in uniform. 

Everybody will eventually separate or retire. When to leave is seldom an easy decision, as you are not only leaving a career, but an institution that has been a huge part of you for many years. It is natural to have all sorts of emotions and to doubt your decision. So talk about it with your leadership, and ask yourself the tough questions about whether or not you are still prepared to do everything expected of a member of the Air Force. Transparency with yourself, and your leaders will help you reach a good decision you can be proud of.