This Is Just Between Us, Right?

I’m going to admit it:  I miss being in the Army.

It’s heresy to admit you miss it once you’ve been retired from active military service.  Most people can’t wait to retire, take all their old uniforms to the post thrift shop for consignment and do something different.

I was like that at first.

When I finished my 20 years of active duty (jammed into a nearly 29 year overall Army career), I was ready to retire. Lucky for me that the law requires officers like me who hold Reserve commissions to retire when they rack up 20 active years of service.  This keeps the most senior jobs open for those officers with regular Army commissions – the professionals, as it were.  So even if I could have found another job in uniform, by law I couldn’t have taken it.  I had done and accomplished far more than I ever expected but there was really nowhere left for me to go. 

It had been a crappy couple of years.  Late in 2005, my marriage failed and failed spectacularly.  A few weeks after that, I changed assignments. (Changing jobs is reported to be one of the more stressful life experiences and a new assignment is essentially the same.)  Late in 2006, nearly a year after we separated, my spouse was diagnosed with breast cancer.   I became her caregiver throughout her recovery.  The day in August that I had my retirement ceremony was the day after she completed her last radiation treatment and was declared cancer free.  At the ceremony, she got a standing ovation when I shared with my colleagues and friends her courage and determination.  I had gained about 40 lbs. by then.

Those last nearly two years were just plain miserable.  I did my best at work, but I wasn’t all there most of the time.  I emerged from all that beaten and defeated.

I was a hot mess.

I retired on November 1st, 2007 and within a few months, took a government contracting job supporting an Army agency.  It took me awhile to make that transition from colonel to contractor, but I did it.   I only answered the phone as “Colonel Wolfe” once.

Time passed.  I grew apart from the Army in many ways.  I still subscribed to the Department of Defense news service to keep track of my friends and former colleagues who got promoted to general officer ranks.  I continued to receive and read the Army’s daily feature “Stand To!”   And I still sorta felt like a part of it.

After about four years of the contracting job, nearly two years of unemployment and near financial ruin, I got hired about two months ago to work as a government employee at another Federal agency.  A couple weeks ago, I turned off all the military themed news feeds and email blasts because I’m not reading them and when I do, the people, terms and acronyms are generally unfamiliar to me now.

I wore a uniform of some sort since I was high school.  By the time I entered the Army in 1979, I was well aware that I was a part of something that was way bigger than me.  Of course, as I navigated my very odd and by Army standards very unconventional career, I came to appreciate being a part of it and knowing that even when I was sitting in a TV production truck among my entertainment industry colleagues, I was still a part of the Army.  Still belonging.  Still immersed in a system of doing business that I understood and in which I was comfortable and successful.

There are still quite a few uniforms hanging in a closet upstairs.  Not like I even notice them, or take them out or anything quite like that.  But they’re there, just down the hall just like the military school uniforms I’ve carried all over the world since I graduated back in 1976.  More and more, I need the closet space, so that stuff is going to be out of there one of these days when I get the urge to reorganize.  But since they’re all stored in an out-of-the-way closet, it’ll probably be there for a while unless I make a honest effort.  The likelihood of that actually occurring is questionable.

Most of the time, I don’t give it much thought.  I don’t actively sit around wringing my hands lamenting that my Army career is done.  But I gotta tell you, there are days.  Usually when I’m out on post for some reason, all of the positive feelings about being a part of the Army come to the forefront of my consciousness.  I drive past old haunts on post, much as I do when I’m in my home town in Ohio.  Mom says I like to drive around and make sure that everything’s where I left it and I think she’s right.  And I think I do that for the familiar Army haunts as well.

You can say what you want about the Army and trust me, Soldiers do.  I know I did.  For me, the Army was my life long companion.  And like all long-term companions, our relationship had its ups and downs.  The Army provided me with more than a job and income and a title.  I carry with me so much experience and so many positive lessons that I learned in 29 years.  It’s a welcome part of me.

But there are days when I long to be back in uniform.  It’s not every day, and it’s not even most days.  Frankly, memories of the last two horrendous years of my career keep me from really savoring the success of the other 27.  I don’t like thinking about that.  But when I go on post even just to the commissary I find myself standing a little taller and walking a little more smartly. I find myself exchanging more smiles and everyday courtesies with everyone I encounter.  It’s such a strong, positive, shared professional and cultural experience.  I realize how much I miss it when I’m back on post and immersed in it like that again.

I miss it.  There, I said it.  Out loud and everything.