Every man and woman who has ever served in the military has asked themselves the question. While simple, it is one of the most difficult questions that you will ever have to answer as member of the armed forces.
Should I stay or should I go?
Why are you reading this article?
Because you are reading this article, it is safe to assume that you are a member of the United States military. It is also safe to assume that you are “in your window” and on the fence about your possible reenlistment.
You are not alone. In fact, more than 10,000 people per month google the phrase “should I stay or should I go.”
It is a simple question with only two outcomes: stay in or get out. But, it keeps us up at night, causes us stress, and leaves us feeling lost and unsure of what to do next.
It is a hard question to answer, probably the hardest question that you will answer in your military career, and each of us approaches the question in a different way.
Are you a one-and-done?
You joined the military right after high school because you did not know what to do or you had no other choice. You had some good times, you had some bad times. You made some great memories and some even better friends.
Now, you are approaching your ETS date and need to decide what to do next. Do you go back to school? Do you join the workforce? Do you reenlist or take that well-deserved promotion?
Sure, you hated the military sometimes, but it wasn’t all that bad, right? You can gut it out for another 3-6 years, can’t you? After all, Uncle Sam will give you a lot of money if you do another tour. It’s worth it, right?
Are you mid-career and debating whether to go the distance?
If you are like me, you are smack-dab in the middle of your career.
I have spent 11.5 years in the United States Army Reserve, receiving my promotion to Sergeant First Class (E-7) in the last month of my tenth year. When I reach my ETS date in a few short months, I will have 12 years time in service with only eight years standing between me and my 20-year letter.
You gave the military a lot during those first 10 years: weekends, holidays, and never-ending nights. You have missed once-in-a-lifetime opportunities with family and friends: holidays, birthdays, weddings, and funerals.
At the same time, you have done things that most people could not or would not do. You were there for your buddies during the best and worst moments of their lives. You are neck deep in the system; the military is a part of your identity. You can’t give up now, right? You don’t want to quit do you?
You need to be there for your teammates. After all, they picked you up when you got knocked down, didn’t they? Besides, you are halfway there. If you quit now, you would be throwing it all away, right?
Did you make it 20 years but can’t decide if you actually want to retire?
You did your time and earned your retirement. 20 years is a long, long time. You made the military a core piece of your identity. People look at you and can tell that you serve.
You would stay in the military forever if you could. But, your body isn’t what it used to be. Yet, you aren’t ready to throw in the towel. The young guys are young, really young, and you know that you aren’t getting any younger. You have mastered your job and have taught the kids in your unit everything they need to know to be successful.
You are Papa Bear.
Still, there is a part of you that wants to be done, a part of you that needs to be done. You want to focus on the next chapter of your life and spend more time with your family. You want to go on trips without filling out a request for leave or telling everyone in your chain of command where you are going. Hell, you’re a grown man/woman, aren’t you? You can take care of yourself, can’t you? Now, you have the opportunity to get out and live the life you want to live, free from obligation.
Are you a reservist?
As a reservist, you have a unique perspective in that you have developed your military and civilian careers concurrently.
Because of your experience in the military, you quickly rose to positions of leadership in your civilian career, careening past Joe Civilian on your way to the top. As a result, it has gotten a lot more difficult to make time for your reserve duties. Between your family and your career, you don’t have time for much else, let alone an extra career.
“But, your commitment is only one weekend a month and two weeks each summer.”
First of all, there isn’t a reservist alive who only works one weekend a month and two weeks each summer. That line is fed to kids by recruiters to get them to sign on the dotted line; it is far from the truth. To be clear, I am not complaining about the commitment. I am simply stating the facts.
Second of all, everyone reaches a point in their civilian and military careers when they realize that “something’s gotta give,” at least if you want some semblance of work-life balance. Eventually, your military career will cut into your civilian career and vice versa.
You cannot do it all and do it all at 100%. In the end, your performance will start to slip in one, if not both, of your careers.
Are you a prospective student?
Perhaps you made the decision to leave active duty, transfer to the active reserve, and attend college full-time to earn the degree that you never got a chance to pursue. Sure, you could have pursued a degree online. But, did it happen? Did you actually complete it? Or did you get distracted by endless deployments, months of training, and that other tiny detail: your family?
If you never finished your degree, it is not your fault. As I said earlier, you can’t do it all. Your family and your career were more important at the time. No one can fault you for having those priorities. Now, your priorities have changed, and you have decided to start in a new direction. That is great, but you still need to decide whether you want to stay in or get out.
As someone who attended college full-time while serving as a reservist, I can say that your military service will certainly present a challenge from time to time. Your education can still be delayed by deployments, training, and a myriad of other military-related events. It is important to understand and accept that before you move forward with the student-reservist option.
On one hand, you would continue to gain experience and a little extra money if you stay in. On the other hand, you would be free to learn without distractions if you get out. (Do you remember how many times you tried to complete correspondence courses and how many times you failed to complete correspondence courses?)
Why did I write this article?
I wrote this article to solve my own problem and “scratch my own itch.”
You see, my ETS date is March 14, 2016, and I need to answer the question “Should I stay or should I go?” within the next three to four months. I have found that writing helps me clarify my thoughts, turning them from a garbled mess into something slightly less garbled.
I also wanted to help people like you answer the question, and I decided that writing an article like this was the most effective way to accomplish that goal. Hopefully, you find some value in all of this.
Who the hell am I anyway?
I am Sergeant First Class John Harvey Garvens, a part-time Soldier-musician in the 85th Army Band, United States Army Reserve.
I joined the United States Army Reserve on March 15, 2004 as a trombone player during my freshman year of college at Illinois State University. I completed basic training in July 2004 and attended a number of professional development courses along the way, including the Basic Leader Course, Advanced Leader Course, Senior Leader Course, and Master Resilience Trainer Course.
I have performed for high-ranking government officials, including the President of the United States, and traveled throughout the United States, Germany, and France as a member of the 85th Army Band.
I have marched down the city-streets of Chicago and played concerts in towns so small that they cannot be seen on a map. I have heard cannon fire at promotion ceremonies for generals and held back tears at more memorial services than I care to count.
I have seen and heard and played a lot in my career. Now, I must answer the question: should I stay or should I go?
What is my problem?
If I have done so many interesting things throughout my military career, then why on Earth would I ever want leave? What is wrong with me? Am I thinking clearly? Am I missing something?
I don’t know for sure how many people have told me that this decision is a “no-brainer,” but I do know that the number is more than two. When I mention the idea of leaving to some, they stare at me incredulously as if I just slapped them in the face.
“You can’t leave.”
“You’re throwing it all away.”
“We would be lost without you.”
Statements like those don’t help the matter. They only make it harder to make a decision. Perhaps it is a character flaw, but I do care what other people think, especially when those people are some of my closest friends.
What do you do when you love the people but hate the bullshit? What do you do when your priorities change? What do you do when you see the long-term benefits of retirement but notice eight years of question marks right in front of you?
Again, you can’t do it all and do it all at 100%. If you are okay with sub-standard performance, then, by all means, do it all. But if you are at all like me, sub-standard performance is unacceptable.
Something’s gotta give.
What are my options?
There is a certain kind of freedom in a lack of options. If you have no options, you make no decisions. You accept your lot in life, never regretting a decision because you never had the chance to make one.
We all say that we want options until we get them. Then, decision indecision takes over and leaves you wanting to do everything but choosing nothing.
At this point in my life, I have a number of promising options. I can do whatever I want, but I have no idea what I want to do.
Do I dive deeper into my day job? Attend to business school? Travel the world? Start a business? Try everything? Or do I maintain the status quo and play it safe, hedging my bets to avoid risk?
How do I make a decision?
When making a decision, especially a life-altering one, I like to look at the pros and cons of each option, weigh them as equally as possible, and choose the option that aligns the most with my long-term goals. I also like to play out the results of those decisions as far as my imagination will let me and think about how each option will affect my life in 5, 10, and 20 or more years.
In this case, there are only two options: stay in or get out. That’s it.
Logically, the decision is simple, but people do not make decisions with logic. Besides, there is a big difference between a simple decision and an easy decision. They are not the same.
That said, here is a simple framework of questions that can help you examine all sides of the decision:
- What do I gain if I stay?
- What do I lose if I stay?
- What do I gain if I go?
- What do I lose if I go?
Write down your answers to each of the preceding questions. You should not have a nice, pretty list at the end. Instead, write furiously and answer the first question. Then, continue writing and answer the next question. Repeat the process until you answer each question.
As an example, here are my results, assuming that, if I stay in, I serve until I receive my 20-year letter.
What do I gain if I stay?
- Friendships: I would be lying if I said that my military colleagues were not some of my closest friends. I have known many of them for more than a decade. They know more about me than my own family in some cases, although they probably wish that they didn’t. We have shared lots of great memories and some not-so-great memories. Staying in would give me an opportunity to create even more memories with my second family.
- Money: Money is the elephant in the room. People tend to avoid the topic, but let’s put it front and center for a moment. Military benefits are no joke, especially education and retirement benefits. When you collect retirement money from the military, you collect money until you die, which adds up to some serious cash. To throw that out because of a few shitty months is foolish. On the other hand, there are far more important things in life than money: your family, your friends, your health, etc.
- Status: Like the friendships, I would be lying if I said that the status did not matter at all to me. Being a Sergeant First Class in the United States Army is kind of awesome, even as a trombone player. You flash that ID card at the airport and a special line opens just for you. You order lunch at a restaurant with your buddies and discover that Mr. Anonymous picked up the tab again. Most importantly, you hear “thank you” from people as you walk down the street. I personally feel awkward as hell when people thank me for my service, so I imagine that they are thanking the Soldier overseas who hasn’t slept in 24 hours, showered in a month, or seen his/her family in a year or more.
- Satisfaction: It would feel good knowing that, in some small way, I am giving back. As a military musician, I have a tendency to marginalize the significance of my job as if it doesn’t matter. But, it matters to someone, and there is value in that. Music connects with people in a way that no other art does. Music gives people hope and makes them feel alive.
What do I lose if I stay?
- Career: My civilian career has taken off over the past four years. I started with next-to-nothing and worked my ass off to get to where I am now. That said, the Army Reserve adds one additional stressor to my life that, in a short amount of time, will cost more energy than it’s worth, at least to me. While I don’t know exactly how long that will take, I know that it will happen before I hit my twentieth year of service. I do not want my military career to hinder my civilian career, especially since I find my civilian career more fulfilling than my military career.
- Education: I am currently studying for the GMAT and preparing business school applications. Based on the feedback that I received from veterans on a campus visit to Duke University, it is possible to serve as a reservist while attending business school, but it is not effective. Especially when you consider the distractions associated with the Army Reserve. As always, you can’t do it all and do it all effectively.
- Growth: As I mentioned, my civilian career has exploded in recent years. In that time, I have seen my colleagues’ careers take off ahead of mine. Based on what I have seen, my most career-oriented friends leave the military once they reach the tipping point where their civilian career outshines their military career. Once they reach that point, their military careers become irrelevant, at least from an income perspective if not from a personal fulfillment perspective.
- Challenges: The military has been good to me and for me. I learned and grew a lot over the past 11.5 years. Now, I am at the apex of my military career. Sure, I could transfer to another band and become a First Sergeant or go to Warrant Officer Candidate school and become a Bandmaster. But I am not interested in either of those jobs. Come to think of it, I am not all that interested in my own job and find the vast majority of my military work unfulfilling. I have become complacent.
What do I gain if I go?
- Freedom: The thought of exiting the military is certainly appealing. I have never known adult life as a total civilian. There has always been that subconscious “but Uncle Sam says . . .” in the back of my mind. I think that it would be nice to have the same freedoms as everyone else.
- Security: While there is certainly security in the military from a financial perspective, there is little to no security from an “everything else” perspective. I am fortunate in that I have never deployed, but I know several people who were not so fortunate. Some of them wanted to deploy, most of them did not. All of them changed. Call me a coward if you want, but I have no interest in deploying, ever. I disagree with our presence abroad and want no part in it.
- Progress: I can focus on other priorities like my civilian career, consulting business, advanced education, and more. Leaving the military would give me the opportunity to participate in activities that are currently unavailable to me due to the time commitment of the Army Reserve. I know that some people claim that the time commitment is pretty minimal. Maybe if you are an E-1. For the rest of us, our months are filled with additional duties, many of which are unpaid.
- Renewal: Ending my career in the military offers an opportunity for renewal. I can start fresh in a sense and begin a new chapter of my life. The army served me just as much as I served the army. However, everything has its season. I have had a great career in the military. I met a lot of great people, received rapid promotions, and learned a tremendous amount about myself and others. “But, what about the money?” some will ask. Money is a pretty poor reason to spend eight years doing something that you don’t want to do. You can always make more money; you can never make more time. If I manage my money well on the civilian side, it will more than replace any losses that I would have experienced if I stayed in the military.
What do I lose if I go?
- Relationships: Most of my closest friends are people that I met in the military. If I decide to leave, we will all hug, smile at each other, and say, “Let’s stay in touch,” but that rarely happens in the real world. “Let’s stay in touch,” is a diplomatic way of saying, “There is a chance that we will never speak again, but I am glad that we met.”
- Music: Without the military, it will be more difficult to find ways to play my horn. For the past 11 years, I have had a guaranteed gig, a rare treasure in the music industry. While I could look for opportunities to play in local communities, the likelihood that I will actually find a gig and play consistently is very small. I need to be okay with that. In a sense, I will be saying, “Let’s stay in touch,” to my horn. That said, I never liked band music anyways, so it isn’t a total loss.
- Security: Government jobs are generally secure. Leaving the military means that I will lose a number of benefits that would make my life more secure in the future: retirement pay, VA benefits, etc. Like the possibility of losing music forever, I need to be okay with the loss of military benefits and feel confident that I can provide for myself no matter what. I have known a number of people who have been saved financially because of the military. They lose their job, for example, and pick up extra duty to account for the loss of income. Plus, the government offers discounted health and dental insurance along with a slew of other benefits that can be a lifesaver during unemployment.
- Experiences: Some of the best experiences in my life have been because of the military. I’ve traveled throughout the United States, Germany, and France, performing for the citizens of the world. Like my benefits, I will lose those experiences. Sure, I can travel around the country and the world as a civilian, but it isn’t the same.
- Completion: Right now, I am 60% of the way through a traditional 20-year military career. “You’re over halfway there,” my colleagues tell me on a regular basis. Mathematically, that is true; I am more than halfway done. But, eight years is a long, long time. Like the first 11, the time would undoubtedly fly by in a blur. Before I knew it, I would be standing in front of the unit, addressing my Soldiers for the last time. I would have finished what I started as a 19-year-old kid.
What is the answer?
The hardest part of this question is that there is no right answer. You simply need to make a decision: stay in or get out. You need to make your own list of pros and cons for both of the answers and make the decision for you.
Neither you nor I can decide what is best for each other. In the end, we can only decide what is best for ourselves. Your decision to join the military and your decision to leave the military are highly personal and require careful consideration. After all, your life is literally on the line. You signed an agreement with the United States of America that says that you will give everything that you have, up to and including your life, for your country. This is not a decision that can be or should be taken lightly.
Ultimately, this is your life, and you need to live the way that you want to live. Both choices are available to you, and both choices are equally valid. Each person has their reasons for staying in or getting out, and all of them are a little bit different. Stick to your guns and don’t be swayed by pamphlets and promises. Do some honest self-reflection and make a decision that works best for your personal and professional goals now and in the years to come.
No matter what you decide, be proud of your service and reflect on it fondly. “Leave well,” as Joe LeBoeuf, a professor at Duke University, said during an event that I attended at the Fuqua School of Business. Remember that you did what most people can’t do or won’t do. While you should not romanticize your service, you should not marginalize it either.
You served, period. Less than 1% of all American citizens can say that.
What did I decide?
So far, I have not made a decision. Call me anal retentive if you want, but I like to consider every possible scenario before I make a decision. I do not want to leave any stone unturned. That said, I am 90% certain that I will leave the military in March. But, I will leave well, as Professor LeBoeuf advised. No anger, no resentment, no bitterness. For 11 years, I used my greatest talents to serve the United States of America.
I am ready to start the next chapter of my life.
I once read that Colin Powell, when making a decision, first spends as much time as possible researching every possible solution to make an informed decision. Then, when he has to make the call, he goes with his gut. The lesson here is that you should trust your intuition.
My intuition tells me that I am done and that I have great opportunities on the horizon.
What did you decide?
I hope that you found some value in this article. I also hope that it helps you make an informed decision on whether to stay in or get out of the military. Like I said earlier, this decision is highly personal, and you need to make the best decision for you and your family if you have one. Whatever you decide, know that your decision is valid.
If you have something to add, please leave a comment and share your thoughts.