The current spate of articles regarding retention, most authored by those who have left the service and characterized as “all the good guys are getting out”, recall earlier periods of similar difficulties. They create a sense of deja vu in veterans who know that these are issues more often present than absent over the time span of a career. Probably few years exist in which similar discussions have not appeared in the Naval Institute Proceedings and other military-related publications. Almost invariably these essays beg the real issues associated with mature individuals who chose to terminate their service before the service ends its need for them.
The whining for more training, faster spare parts, more honesty from leaders and so forth are neither original nor unique. Readers of Air Force and Anny 11mes will find similar whimpers associated with those services. The armies of the Hittites and Assyrians probably had like complaints. However, insights from earlier days still obtain. First and foremost of these lessons is that contrary to the claims of the authors of these essays not all the good guys get out regardless of the worst vicissitudes of the service.
Contrasting with this encouraging news, experience indicates there are sound reasons officers leave the service that even the most articulate detailer or eloquent career counselor cannot answer or overcome. When presented with one of these, captains and career counselors should yield gracefully and not waste energy in further attempts to encourage continued service. In their absence, the real motivation of the departing sailor or marine remains unclear-perhaps to the person leaving as well.
The first of these descriptive statements is “I hate this *expletive* outfit”. Not everyone comes to the service with an expectation that they will enjoy their work. Even many of those who do enjoy service life find some conditions intolerable. The separation from family, the lack of regular hours, the routine sleep deprivation at sea, the endless demands for perfection, the exercise of authority by people seen as immature, irresponsible or stupid are irritants that for many overwhelm any enthusiasm or enjoyment of Navy life. Those who cannot or will not adjust are perfectly correct in seeking other vocations.
Associated but separate from the first is the recognition that ” … my wife says it’s her or the Navy.” If the difficulties of the service outlined above weigh heavily on some, these and associated additional burdens lay even more heavily on the spouses and children left ashore. Six-month deployments are hard on individuals and relationships. Not every family can sustain itself in these circumstances. While in many cases the relationship between a couple has problems much deeper than those which can be solved by ending naval service, those in this bight have to take whatever step might ameliorate the danger to their marriage.
“I want to make a lot of money” is the third unanswerable argument. Money is not the coin of the realm in the Navy. For those individuals whose life goals include more than modest and steady economic gains, or who view the conditions of a career as genteel poverty and unacceptable, separation is necessary to pursue richer economic goals than is possible in the service. Opportunities to amass fortunes, large or small, in the Navy are possible only through marriage or inheritance. Because money grubbing is not entirely acceptable in the service culture, only those who possess great candor usually admit this motive.
A subset of the get rich motivation is “I have a unique opportunity which will not come again”. This is not as ironclad as the other reasons and ought to be plumbed in order to determine how valid is the opportunity. The opportunity is not always economic. Sailors leave to serve as missionaries, to return to higher education interrupted for economic necessity or lack of interest, or to take over the family farm even though that may mean a hardscrabble existence.
Finally is the person who reports his reason for departure is that ” .. .I am from Philadelphia.” It may be another place though the author has never found one as regularly cited as the City of Brotherly Love. This report is short hand for a need to return to the home of one’s ancestors, where the new residence will be around the comer from the parent’s home, in the same parish as the uncles and grandparents, and where children will attend the same school as the three generations before them. No amount of cajoling or praise of the life of travel, service or adventure will lure this person out of Philadelphia, i.e. from the bosom of his family. He may have been educated out of town, traveled widely, adopted cosmopolitan airs, but he has not disentangled himself from the very strong bonds of love and fealty which bind him to a locale and a familial group.
Presented with any of these reasons, the best course of action for even the most energetic Captain dedicated to shipping over everyone in his command is to wish the young person well, thank him or her for their service and rum one’s resources to re-enlisting or retaining more likely candidates. This not only makes the departure from ship’s company more comfortable for all but properly indicates the country’s appreciation for the person’s efforts-particularly if the person has served exceptionally ably-and leaves a good feeling in the individual.
If none of these reasons fit, the motivation for departing may be unclear or unsure or immature or all three. Those leaving the service for reasons other than these four would do well to examine their motivation. If one of these shoes doesn’t fit, any other probably won’t either.
Jerry Holland enjoyed even his Plebe Year, has a patient wife who on occasion wondered if it wasn’t time for him to go to sea, was too old to get responsibility pay or a nuclear bonus, and was raised in Iowa.
(Editor’s Note: Jerry Holland is a submarine officer who served in several attack submarines, Commanded one and was Commodore of an SSN squadron. He retired as a Rear Admiral.)