Are we done yet with the season of resolutions? Our lists of what we should do, change, improve, learn, stop, start? Can we now focus on our actual identity and how we want to BE rather than just do?
Guest columnist and military veteran, CW4 (Ret.) Shaun Collins explores how to be – when you find yourself on the civilian side of life. How to be – just a stone’s throw from your quarter century of service, carrying a rucksack full of memories and making your way through the transition zone.
- Part 1 – Asking: Who am I now?
- And, how did I get here?
- Part 2 – Answering to: What do you do?”
“If You Are What You Do – When You Don’t – You Aren’t”
by: Shaun Collins
A few years ago, as I was retiring from the U.S. Army, I was asked by the Military Success Network’s leadership team to write about my preparation for the impending life change. Although the preparation I engaged in was meaningful, I wish I had known about some of the emotional impact my retirement would have, especially on my identity. I could perhaps have better prepared for the mental and psychological perspectives – both expected and not.
As a family, we worked to set ourselves up for success. In looking back at some of the practical elements of transition, like the financial piece, I still think we did pretty well. However, if there were people out there trying to get my attention about that emotional toll I was destined to pay, I sure missed the cues.
Over time, I discovered that I had failed to prepare in some extremely critical ways. These “oversights” related to how my “loss of status” would manifest itself and I simply didn’t have the tools in my rucksack to pull out and put to work. I had never even contemplated that such issues would apply to me – despite having seen others struggle.
I was excited to retire. I felt I had served my nation with honor.
When all was said and done, I would not miss my days in uniform so to speak. Well, to a great degree that was true. My aching knees, my busted up back and all of my other little physical ailments I wouldn’t miss the stress associated with serving in the military. However, it took me a couple of years to fully realize that my behavior was now different from what it had been in the past.
It was during that attempt to figure out why, that I came fully to the stunning realization that ‘I was once again a civilian’. I didn’t have the “status” or “authority” that was conferred on me by virtue of my military roles. At the time that I retired I felt pretty accomplished and had no regrets about my service. I thought I had given all I had to give and so stepped aside to allow the next generation to take the reins.
Together with my wife, who is also a retired veteran, I thought I had adapted to a new and acceptable routine. There was the work of the small farm we owned. We both continued as educators in our field of expertise. We aspired to be writers and took public steps towards that goal. I focused on the freedom I now had to tackle my new hobbies, but I had in fact, neglected to address some key issues.
Up to this time, we were able to dodge the multiple efforts from various entities including law enforcement agencies, to draw us back into the workforce full time. On several occasions we received requests to assist the Army in doctrine development or training opportunities. In those cases, our specific expertise was deemed to enhance the mission at hand and we did accept several of these part-time offers. Some as volunteers and others for pay.
A different kind of service
As these early projects wound down, my wife, Pamela and I found ourselves volunteering more and more of our time to efforts that met community needs. Soon, these over took our plans for our farm.
We answered the call to serve because of external circumstances like floods in our area and need that had to be met to help our neighbors. Together, we also felt a desire to assist veterans or veteran assistance groups. This combined with my feeling that there was a large void that existed for veterans and that needed to be filled.
Projects continued to unfold and those who knew me best continued to observe my interactions with others. I found myself being questioned by my wife (and a couple other friends, like Jamey Gadoury, for whom I am grateful). They loved me enough to tell me that I was off azimuth.
Trust me as I pass along the sentiments of Gus Lee, when I say, ‘we all need people in our lives who love us enough to tell us the truth.’ In general their message came across with this question:
“Do you realize how much you are talking about yourself?”
I was, for the most part, quite oblivious and not even sure why they would think I was talking about myself more than I used to. Perhaps I had lost my bearings and stood precariously off azimuth.
Added to these newly observed changes in my behavior, came the memory of an earlier understanding with a new twist. It was that when anyone decides to serve in the Armed Forces, they essentially authorize a marker – an unlimited note that can be cashed in by our nation at anytime for any reason while we serve.
Pride and honor come with writing that check. And in earning the right to help maintain a free nation; but most of us never really read the fine print in the memo section. It basically states, in part… “You will have to live with the things that you have to do and experience including the loss of comrades in arms. One day you will no longer possess the status of a service member – merely the burden of waking up to the memories and imagined faces of long dead friends, enemies or other people we encountered throughout our service who were harmed or killed. No matter what experiences you may survive from your term of service – regardless of how long your term of service may have been – you will have to live with it forever.”
After that first seed had been planted in my mind about perhaps monitoring myself, I came to the next shocking revelation.
At the slightest sign of interest shown by anyone I talked to about my background, I felt compelled to summarize my entire career, resume and significant accomplishments. Yes, I had become “that guy.” The one who blurts out their unsolicited life story, no matter what the listener’s actual interest was originally.
Set on solutions
So, I developed a course of action that would help me to find the joy in who I am today and not live so much in that dimming light of how I once defined myself.
Back to the future – fixing today’s challenge of identity by finding its root in past learning
In the last stage of my military career I had the honor of being an instructor at our service school. There, I was able to teach leadership, among other topics, to predominately subordinate leaders.
Early in my career I learned the value of war stories and the “facilitated discussion” technique of instruction rather than the “lecture” type to convey important lessons. I also discovered that an instructor who pats himself on the back incessantly quickly loses the attention and the respect of his students. Consequently, I very deliberately shared stories that presented other leaders in the process of doing wonderful things. Even if it was something I had done, I intentionally put someone else’s name on it to prevent appearing as self-serving.
Additionally, I realized that instructors who were willing to share their own failures kept the attention of students in a far more positive way than when they only spoke about the failures of other leaders. So it was my general practice to share “war stories” (within an appropriate lesson) to start various discussions.
I would, as noted, attribute the positive leadership stories to other leaders and relay more of the failures as my own, even if they had happened to someone else. The only exception to this pattern was if I knew there was a person in the class who was familiar with the details of a particular situation, or if the incident had gained some notoriety in our rather small command. At times, this approach I had adopted backfired, but for the most part I found it to be an extremely effective practice.
Now comes the elephant in the room that had moved into my present situation:
“If I could divert recognition for my actual successes and agree to accept judgment for the mistakes of others all those years, how was it that I could not have a social conversation now without seeking validation?”
I continued to notice my interactions with new people and tried to identify what triggered this new and unflattering behavior. The more I paid attention, the less linkage I was able to establish.
The lack of an external stimulus was glaringly apparent. It was the same case whether I engaged with veterans, law enforcement officers or school colleagues. I was at a loss. I couldn’t figure out what these people were doing to force me to brag about myself!!!
At wit’s end, when I was sufficiently frustrated with this cycle and my inability to root out the problem, my wife lovingly and gently offered that maybe I needed to just look in the mirror. Well that was just silly – it couldn’t be me, could it?
Granted, I’ve always had a pretty large ego, but in the past I had been confident enough in myself to introduce myself simply as a “trash collector” just to avoid in-depth conversations about military experiences.
Or I’d say that I was the ‘dependent spouse’ and so avoid topics like what it was like to work undercover, or to investigate rape, robbery, and homicide. I eliminated the inevitable questions on whether NCIS or similar TV shows were realistic or if the horror stories about Warrant Officer School were true.
In full disclosure these discussion dropping responses were to actually protect me from the drudgery of having to listen to “that guy,” the one we all avoided, but for the fact that apparently, I was now that guy.
But of course, my wife, Pamela, was onto something.
There is no doubt that she knew what was going on the entire time. She also knew me well enough to allow me to gradually discover the dynamics in play and to allow my own analysis to guide me to the conclusion:
I was holding onto my former status with a death grip with no plans to let it go.
WOW – that one hit me right between the eyes. My ego could no longer feed itself, so I was “leveling”– I was engaging in all of the behaviors that I had found so annoying for my entire career and I was doing it A LOT.
Figure out, fix and move forward
It was time to figure out why my loss of status and the experiences I had endured were eating at me relentlessly. They fought so hard to be expressed. And now, it was not enough to simply discontinue the behavior. I needed to mend the broken bits within me, including the ones that cried out for excessive validation.
Bits that got stuffed down
It had long bothered me that retired senior NCOs and Officers acted as though they somehow still outranked everyone who was still serving. My impression was that they looked down their noses at those who had not yet attained their equal rank (or because they held the rank first).
I noticed how I felt when former subordinates called me by my first name rather than by my previous rank or title. I found that it generally bothered me if they assumed it was acceptable to talk to me like their brother rather than their uncle.
Consequently, I made it a new habit to respond to anyone who addressed me by my former rank with, “Please, I’m just Shaun. I retired that title the day I peeled off that uniform; I would appreciate it if you would just use my name.”
My intent in getting others to talk to me like a civilian was that I would more rapidly start to feel like one and it actually began to work. I was feeling less insulted and less entitled to their respect just because I used to have a title. Step one was working – but I had (and no doubt still have) a long way to go.
My next step was to change how I responded to the question “What do you do?”
…..cont’d with Part 2 ….check back later in the week or SIMPLY SUBSCRIBE and be the first to get notified when it is posted.
Read more about the early transition progress and plans for both Shaun Collins and life partner and retired veteran Pamela Collins who served in the Armed Forces for a combined 52 years
Here for Shaun’s story
And catch their advice column carried on this site since winter 2013 and appearing originally as He Said She Said out of Ft. Leonard Wood for the “Guidon”.