- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.
By yet another departing Marine officer
Best Defense guest columnist
I have been following the Junior Officer Exodus entries with great interest, because I, too, am a Marine Corps company grade officer who will be leaving active duty this summer after five years of active service. I share many of the frustrations of my fellow lieutenants and captains, and even had a number of friends email me to ask if I was the Marine who wrote about being disappointed that the Marines are not the elite force I was expecting. Apparently I have a history with vitriolic rants. Though while my frustrations run deep, I am sure that I would run into similar issues if I worked at the State Department, Goldman Sachs, or GE.
Yet more than any of the frustrations I have with my job, my senior officers, or what I perceive to be my future in this organization, the single driving factor for me leaving active duty is that I never wanted the military as a career. I joined the Marines a few years after graduating from college. Throughout my undergraduate years, I kept pretending that Iraq was a passing event that would be over shortly. I graduated from college to take a corporate job, and after 18 months I couldn’t shake the itch that if my country was at war, I should be a part of it. I attended OCS, and the rest is history.
I have thoroughly enjoyed my time in the Marine Corps. I believe I had the best job a 24-to-29 year old can have. I joined because I wanted to go to war and lead Marines in the pursuit of an enemy. Now that we are in the full midst of the drawdown of forces in Afghanistan, there is only a slim chance that I will deploy again. I got what I wanted from the military (experience, adventure, the chance to shoot things, maturity, discipline, leadership, new approaches to problem-solving), and the military certainly got their money’s worth out of me. It is simply time to move on to a new phase of my life.
The problem I am facing now is that most of my senior officers simply don’t understand why I would ever want to leave active duty. With few exceptions, all field grade officers joined the military prior to 9/11. I am not questioning their motivation or patriotism, but those of us who joined after 9/11 did so basically to go to war. I see many older Marines (both officer and enlisted) enjoying the relatively low stress of garrison military life. Fine, but that’s not for me. In my late 20s, I am eager to try other things (teaching, graduate school, business), and am willing to take the risk that I will take a pay cut. The majors and lieutenant colonels that I count as mentors have cautioned me against leaving a steady paycheck and a possibility for a pension. I worry that this risk-averse nature it also emblematic of the cover-your-ass trends in the military, but that is an entirely separate discussion.
My caution to others in similar positions is that you should be prepared to be looked at with suspicion and disdain from senior officers as you prepare to leave active duty.