Why I Wrote This Article
I recently read an article written by a former commanding officer of mine. He aspired to (and eventually reached) the highest ranks the military has to offer. When I worked for him, he was just a captain and I was just a lowly ensign running the ship’s store.
Even then, everyone on the ship knew our commanding officer was destined for flag rank. He had taken our ship into harm’s way after 9/11. Our aircraft were the first ones flying missions into Afghanistan as we opened Operation Enduring Freedom. Not just during this tour, but for his entire career, his resume sparkled.
When our ship returned from deployment, his change of command occurred during our shipyard period. Our CO was off to a great job in Washington, D.C. where he would wait to put on his first star as an Admiral. During that change of command, his two boys were so little. One of them was just a toddler. I remember watching his family during that change of command. I wondered how much of a toll the Navy life would take on his family. After all, we all know the military life takes its toll on the working class. But what if you become an admiral or a general? If you get to be in charge of enough things, enough people, enough stuff…then it has to be worth it, right?
I thought about my CO’s career to this point. After a successful career as an aviator, he became accepted as a future carrier commanding officer. This involves going through the Navy’s nuclear power program, which is a grueling and highly demanding training program. After that, officers are expected to commit to three consecutive sea tours: first as the executive officer (XO) of a carrier, then as the commanding officer (CO) of a deep draft amphibious ship, then a final sea tour as the commanding officer of an aircraft carrier. No down time. Six or seven years of straight sea duty. My CO did that with grace and poise, and even asked for more.
I followed my old CO over the years as he put on his first, second, third, and yes, his fourth star. He indeed achieved great things. After a long and great career, he retired, having achieved what most could only dream of.
Tragically, a couple of years after he retired, after a long struggle with dependency, one of his sons died of a heroin overdose. For our military members, this a defining moment in our country’s struggle with an opioid crisis.
But reading this tragic story made me wonder: “Would this story have been different had my CO decided to retire sooner?” Whether separating or retiring, I truly believe that each military family has to come to that decision on their own. It’s not my place to judge any person on their career choices.
But seeing what happened to my CO made me realize that if this could happen to one of the most decorated senior military officers, it could happen to anyone. And it made me think a little more about whether work-life balance had anything to do with what happened.
What is Work-Life Balance?
Work-life balance is simply the ability to maintain a proper balance between your work life and your personal life. In the military, we hear our leaders talk about making sure our troops spend quality of time with their families. Then, because of the nature of our work, we have to commit to a lot of things that result in time away from families.
In essence, we pay lip-service to the concept of work-life balance. Sometimes, it’s because we have to deploy, or get ready to deploy to defend our country. But sometimes, it’s because we’re so used to paying lip-service that this becomes an excuse for staying at the office and doing things that clearly have nothing to do with troops on the battlefield.
I’ve seen it. And truth be told, virtually every career officer and most senior enlisted have seen it at some point in their career -- those career paths where your job becomes less attached to the mission at hand; a pilot getting stuck behind a desk doing administrative work in order to make rank when he or she really wants to be flying.
There’s a story that I heard while I was on active duty. In DC, an admiral on the Navy staff was tasked with delivering a presentation on work-life balance. So he went to one of his officers on Friday afternoon and said, “Work-life balance. I want a paper on it first thing Monday morning. I don’t care if you have to work on it all weekend.” Oh, the irony.
It sounds like that anecdote must have been a joke, but I could honestly envision about 10-15 officers that I’ve worked with, or for, who said that with a straight face. You know, the officers who used to brag to me as a young lieutenant about how much leave they gave up. Then they’d challenge me: “So, Forrest, how much leave are you going to lose this year?”
Why I Retired When I Did
I gave up a great Navy career. I’m not boasting, I’m just being honest. I started off as an E-1,and ended up as an O-5 24 years later. And, I’m pretty sure that had I stayed in long enough, O-6 was a relatively sure thing. All I had to do is put up with a couple of more tours. Just one more job to tide me over to that sea duty assignment. Then that sea duty assignment. Then that next job, just until I made O-6. Then that last tour to get to my ‘High Three” as an O-6. OK, about 10 more years. But, after what I’d already done to get here, it wasn’t hard to imagine.
My resume, like my CO’s, looked pretty good. Very good. It had nothing to do with me as a person. I wasn’t much different than many of my peers, who toiled in obscurity, doing great work in jobs that didn’t matter within our small community.
However, I was fortunate as an O-4 to find myself on the fast track, getting picked up for jobs that weren’t very available. Being in the right place at the right time, a little hard work, great mentors, and a lot of luck: those were the keys to my successful resume.
And I was able to get myself into another career-enhancing, demanding job, which would set me up nicely for O-6 (and hopefully beyond). All I had to do is submit my record for an administrative board, called a sea duty screening. This board determined who would be selected for a promising sea duty assignment. In our community, going to sea as an O-5 virtually meant that you would get selected for O-6. Throughout my career, I could count on one hand the number of O-5s who went to sea and failed to select for O-6. And each of those officers screwed up something major.
The only thing that stood in my way was that I just couldn’t put in for it. I knew that if I got selected, I would get placed in harder and more demanding assignments. Work-life balance.
And I’m not even talking about sea duty, which is demanding in itself. I mean those soul-sucking, staff assignment jobs, where important work gets done, but no one likes doing it (i.e. my umpteenth trip at CENTCOM to Jordan to train foreign officers to do something they really weren't interested in).
Or even worse, those assignments where you work for a jerk who has zero respect for his subordinates. You know, the person who expects everyone to give up weekends and holidays, just to sit around and wait for him to come up with a brilliant idea that seemed to have waited for 200+ years, but can’t possibly wait until Monday. Or, the guy who brags about how much leave he lost that year and expects you to beat him. Yeah, I’d done a pretty good job of avoiding that guy, but the longer I stayed in, the more likely it was that I would run into that guy. And more likely have to be the one that had to give up my nights, weekends, and holidays to carry out those brilliant ideas. No work-life balance there.
Most importantly, what could I say to my kids? When I was deployed, their mother would pump them full of those stories about how Daddy was ‘off fighting the bad guys,’ or ‘defending the country.’ Believe it or not, children have an incredible understanding and tolerance for separation in the name of service.
But staff jobs? 80 hour weeks of filing reports that no one would see, or creating briefs that were instantly obsolete? Or building operation plans that we hoped that we, as a nation, would never have to use? How could I explain to my elementary school kids:
I’m sorry I haven’t been around much for the past two years. I can’t tell you what I did, because it’s classified. But I worked really hard on something that’s very important. And hopefully, if everything goes right, we’ll never have to actually use this plan. But if we do have to ‘break glass,’ I’m pretty sure that I did a good job on my little part of it. Let’s go throw a football.
I’m sorry I haven’t been able to see you at all this past year. I’ve been busy putting together a budget for a very important program. Of course, the program got cut because a congressman was pretty upset we weren’t putting enough work into HIS district, but we still did some important work. While it doesn’t make up for the fact that you struggled through math this year and fell behind all your friends, I want you to know that this was important, great stuff that Daddy was working on.
That doesn’t sound nearly as cool as, “Daddy’s off fighting the bad guys.” Seriously, I can’t even believe the words that are appearing on my keyboard as I write them. They sound that ridiculous. But those are the types of jobs I was looking at. Talk about work-life balance.
That is not to demean all the hard work that gets done. Some of our nation’s toughest wars have been, and will continue to be, fought in the trenches of bureaucracy. All of those budgets, and plans, and minute details -- they eventually translate into ships, weapons, supplies, and everything else we need to fight.
And sea duty—that’s the reason I joined the Navy! Having the opportunity to go back to sea and lead Sailors; if there was anything that could have kept me in, that would have been it. Being stationed on an aircraft carrier again would have been pretty awesome. Cool, even.
But not, “Daddy’s home” cool. Not, “I love you, Dad,” cool. In the end, even the thrill of sea duty wasn’t worth it to me.
So I took my name out of the running. Most of my peers were pretty surprised. A lot of my mentors couldn’t believe it.
And a couple of senior officers did what every junior officer kind of fears: they turned their back on me because the Navy was no longer my number one priority. But not as many as I would have thought. And no one who I respected.
But for the most part, everyone told me how much they respected my decision. Because everyone respects work-life balance, when it’s someone else sacrificing their career for that goal.
Why I Was Nervous About Retiring When I Did
I had no reservations about retirement. I knew exactly what I was leaving behind and what the tradeoffs were. I had done all of the analysis, built a solid plan, and knew that it would succeed. But there was one thing holding me back.
There were two people whom I felt I was betraying. Two mentors of mine. What was holding me back was knowing that I would eventually have to have a conversation with each of them. While this wasn’t enough to change what I did, I was very apprehensive.
These weren’t just mentors. They were my two greatest mentors. Without the leadership of these two mentors, I would never have been on that inside track. But I knew that the reason they put me on that inside track was trust. They trusted me with responsibilities that they didn’t give to other folks. They trusted me with those tough assignments, the ones that would make a resume look good.
And when I performed well, they trusted me with great fitness reports. This latter part not only told future promotion boards not how good they thought I was, but that they were proud of having their name associated with me on paper. By giving me their written ‘stamp of approval,’ they lent me some of their hard-earned credibility.
This last point is especially important. When a senior officer assigns grades to his junior officers, it’s a matter of record. And when they can place their highest performance grades, there’s a certain trust conveyed. There’s an expectation that the officer who just got an admiral’s highest marks isn’t going to go out and do something stupid or create embarrassment for the Navy. They’re going to go out and keep performing at a high level, and live up to those expectations. And it’s implied that you’re probably going to stick around. And I had been the beneficiary of that trust.
So I was dreading my eventual conversations with both admirals.
My first conversation happened just a week after my sea duty screening. And I knew it was coming. After all, the board was stacked with people who knew me. A majority of the O-6 officers on that board knew me. To top it off, Admiral A (then a captain) was the senior officer on that board. Nothing’s a sure thing, but my name getting picked was pretty close.
So, Admiral A called me up a few weeks later, and said,
"I noticed your name wasn’t in the running for that board. Why not?”
At a complete loss for words, and fearing the worst, I simply said, “Tania and I have decided to retire. It’s about time for our family.”
And this man, who has (and continues to) intimidate many of my peers said,
And the conversation went in a completely different direction. I didn’t have to maintain a pretense about my next assignment, or where I wanted to go. The stress was lifted. Instead, Admiral A and I talked about family and what I had planned to do after retirement. He even told me that he wanted to eventually hire me as his financial planner. But I felt great that Admiral A was all right with my decision. He understood my work-life balance. And even though he had held jobs where it was a challenge, maintaining a work-life balance was very important to him, even during those times when he was pulling 80-90 hour work weeks.
So I thought about my other mentor, Admiral B. This guy, he was nails tough. When he was a captain, the admirals used to have him do their dirty work. If someone needed to be counseled or set straight, this guy was the one who sent the message. And he was so hard, that other captains dreaded getting a phone call from him. They knew that a call from him was the same as a phone call from the top. And no one wanted to get his calls. Face to face, it was even worse. He could break you down just by staring a hole through the back of your head. If you were unprepared for a meeting, he’d send you packing without even saying a word. Needless to say, work-life balance existed only as a myth to Admiral B.
But in a previous tour, I did some good work for Admiral B (and Admiral A, who was my immediate boss in that job). As a result, they had treated me pretty well. When it was time for me to depart the command, Admiral B gave me the top mark out of all of my peers. And coming from this particular command, that top mark set the tone for me to make O-6 by itself.
Which made my conversation with Admiral B even tougher to face. After all, it was his top mark that he gave to me. And it was his name that he chose to associate with me, with the trust that I would go out and do him proud. And I was going to pay him back by quitting.
But I knew that I had to tell him personally. Even though he would find out through channels (or probably already knew), I felt it was my responsibility. So I hand-wrote a letter explaining my reason. And a week later, I got a voicemail: “Hey Forrest, it’s Steve (not his real name). Give me a call when you get a chance.” I dutifully called him up, and he said, “Forrest, I got your letter, and I want you to know that you’re doing all the right things for the right reasons. I know what your plans are, and I know that you’re going to succeed. There is no higher purpose than your family, and I want you to know that you’ve got my blessing.”
I know, it sounds corny. Who needs another person’s ‘blessing?’ But Admiral B’s blessing meant the world to me. Once I knew that my mentors were onboard, I didn’t lose a moment’s sleep over my decision to retire.
Why I Still Worry
But with regards to our children, we’re not out of the woods yet. We’re in the thick of it. With our oldest in middle school and our twins in elementary school, some people would say that we’ve just begun. Even when your kids grow up, move out of the house, and have kids of their own, most parents will say that you’re never really out of the woods. My mother-in-law still worries from time to time.
So retiring from the Navy doesn’t mean that I avoided all these challenges. And it doesn’t mean that we’ve achieved the perfect work-life balance. As I write this article, we’re busting our butts to make sure that our financial planning firm succeeds.
But we do know what we’re working towards. And part of my schedule is set aside to do some of the little things, like ride my bike with the twins to the elementary school on most days, help shuffle the children to and from swim practice, or to help my oldest with his math. And there are days when I can’t do any of those things because of appointments. But we work hard to keep those days to a minimum, and for me to make up quality time every chance I get.
In no way, does this guarantee success. After all, the worst things often happen to families who feel like they’re doing all the right things. Even those families who feel like they have the perfect work-life balance. Perhaps one day, I’ll get that dreaded phone call, anyway. And if that’s the case, I’ll feel guilty, like every parent always does. And I’ll always second guess where things went wrong, or how I could have spent more time with my child. But perhaps, just perhaps, we might avoid having that phone call in the first place. And that thought means everything to me.
What do you think? Do you have work-life balance? How do you achieve it? E-mail us and let us know what works for you.