Ten Year Itch: Part Three – The Retirement

Army, Chaplaincy, Two Pastor Family

With calling addressed. I’ll approach the sticky subject – money.

When the question, “should I leave Active Duty” comes up, invariably, the answers come back quickly. There is a short calculation, basically how many years do you have left until the magical 20, and then it’s, “well you only have XX left.” It’s all about the retirement.

US-Army-retired-logo

The military pension, as it exists today, was set up for another time. When it was instituted, life expectancy was much shorter and military pay did not equal civilian pay. This, of course had dramatically changed over the years with the advent of the all-volunteer force’s pay coming up to par and sometimes exceeding civilian pay. To be fair, the demands of military life certainly justify the pay and benefits and if you survive to 20 years, the defined benefits package includes half of your paycheck and free healthcare (among other things) for the rest of your life. It’s a sweet deal if you can pull it off.

There have been some proposals to change the system. Proposals that seem beneficial in the long run. As great a deal as it is, I’m wondering if its really a sustainable system when people like me can “retire” at 47, pull a paycheck (while pursuing another career) for the rest of my working days. Truth be told, all I need to do is make it another 10 years on AD (this means not getting into trouble and passing my bi-annual physical fitness test) and I’m set. For life.

Too good to be true? In some ways, it kind of is. It’s a little like winning lottery – the check of the month club – if by that you mean exchanging your blood, sweat and tears for 20 years… it’s all or nothing. Either you make it there or you don’t.

Of course, there is always the reserves – in which I have 11 years good time – which also pays a retirement albeit I cannot draw until I’m 58.

With all the upside, what is the personal and family cost of serving in the military?
I’ve spent years away from my family.
My family and I are currently living in the 9th house in 10 years of Active Duty. My kids, ages 3,5,7, are in their third school district in as many states and 4th school. I think that as a field grade my moves might slow down a little but they haven’t yet and if I extrapolate that reality over another decade, my daughter might be in as many as ten different schools before she graduates high school.
These continual moves have been an adventure and we’ve adapted well but every one wears on me a little more. The last two were just work. No fun. No adventure. Just the “cost of doing business.”
When deployments happen, it’s 24/7 – the work never stops. Basically, the deployed Soldier just lives for the day that he or she can come home and rest. Only, there really isn’t rest for the weary. There is just more work. The optemp of the active duty force is all day/every day. After all, there are other Soldiers deployed and we can rest… when we retire…
We’ve not lived close to family – ever – all our vacations revolve around seeing them. I know this is a reality for many people in and out of the military but it’s a cost nonetheless.
The physical/emotional/spiritual cost on my personal wellbeing is intangible but there are days I feel it deeply.
My children make friends quickly and then suffer when we leave and we are always leaving. Sara and I find that it’s getting harder to maintain deep relationships since we’re always the one’s leaving.
My wife’s career is on hold until I get out. She can always get more education but to actual get a church, she needs stability and to network in a region. I’m not willing to be a geographical bachelor.
And then, there is the very real risk – to my life – being a Soldier. It was one thing to take that risk ten years ago with no children but I’ve changed, I have three who are very dear to me and it weighs on my shoulders.

But it is also true, we are well-compensated. I’ve gained a great deal from my time in the Army, not the least of which has been a DMin (still working on that one), 4 units of CPE and a residency, and all the experience that comes with a decade of ministry.

If I left, it would cost of a great deal. Besides drawing a pension at 47, there would be the exemptions I have from state income tax, homestead exemption, free healthcare (no copays, no deductibles) and other benefits I can’t really think of right now.

The benefits are tangible, the cost, less so.

Which is why Army service is never usually talked about in purely monetary terms – it’s not like other occupations – it’s a calling for most and chaplains especially.

Over the years the most impressive people I’ve met, those whose life has stood out to me are people that have such a clear sense of call that their service in the Army is just a part of that call rather than the sum total. Chaplains who served their deployments and got out (or went to the reserves) because their call to preach/family was stronger than the retirement. Soldiers whose calling to be a firefighter/doctor/police officer/business executive were stronger than a simple 20 year retirement.

Soldiers for whom the Army was a part of their identity but not their entire identity.

In many ways, I’ve envied them, looked up to them, wished I had such clarity of vision myself.

But then, I enjoy being a chaplain. I always have. There are parts I don’t enjoy but there are parts of any vocation that are not fun. What is remarkable to me is that the parts I no longer enjoy are the parts of this work that brought me in in the first place. That’s significant to me.

I have other options. Because of my 4 units of CPE, hospital and prison experience, I’m a good candidate for either the Department of Veteran Affairs or the Federal Bureau of Prisons, both of which would count my ten years of federal service toward a federal retirement.

If, in fact, a retirement was what drove me.

What drives me is fulfillment of the calling, the burning in my soul to be there for the outcast, the forgotten, and the underserved; to preach and teach.

The most fulfilled I’ve ever been was the last two years serving the inmates at the JRCF/USDB and the little congregation at Memorial Chapel. My weeks were full and I was often tired but it was a good tired – like a great workout at the gym – I knew what I was doing mattered. Every. Single. Day.

When it comes to retirement and compensation I’m reminded of a story in our family. There was a time in my mom and dad’s life when they were poor and just starting out. They needed some dishes and a church mother gave them some from her attic. They were beautiful plates with gold rims and ornate designs on them. My father, being a son of the Midwest, was astounded at the gift. He responded to the generosity with, “we can’t take these they are much too nice.” The Minnesota grandmother’s response has always stuck with me, “The’ re just things pastor, just things.”

It’s just money. Just money.