From Military to Civilian
The retirement process is rarely simple, but retirement from the military comes with a unique set of challenges. Lt. Col. Derek Fletcher, USAF Retired, knew retirement was on the horizon, but the decision came faster than he expected when, in 2015, he was reassigned to the Pentagon for a second time. The decision to accept the assignment or retire wasn’t an easy one—either option would change both his life and the lives of his family irrevocably—and he only had seven days to make it.
“It wasn’t as hard as it could have been,” Lt. Col. Fletcher stated. “I’d already made up my mind that there were assignments I would and wouldn’t take. If one of those assignments came up, I was going to retire.”
As the Pentagon was on his list, the Lieutenant Colonel and his wife settled on retirement. The process was immediate and overwhelming, and according to Mrs. Kimberly Fletcher, there was a lot to do in a relatively short amount of time. Mrs. Fletcher recalled needing to attend several meetings and sign documents at a moment’s notice.
“[The Air Force] could have prepared us more overtime,” Mrs. Fletcher said. “The ten-year mark is a big indicator that someone in the military will hit twenty years and retire. It would have helped if someone started talking to us about our options back then.”
Ironically, Lt. Col. Fletcher seemed to have less trouble adapting than his wife. He reported that his boss was very accommodating to his position and gave him time off as needed to complete all of his required paperwork and meetings. He was also fortunate to have a large amount of leave stored up, which let him take off the last few months of his tenure to spend with his family and search for a job. According to Lt. Col. Fletcher, not everyone is that lucky, especially when it comes to those who leave before retirement.
However, Jordan Fletcher, who spent four years as an Airman, said his experience wasn’t that different. If anything, it was easier. Airman Fletcher was able to complete all the separation requirements at his own discretion because, as he said, “That’s their job.” And after years and years of doing the same job, Airman Fletcher said the process has become very streamlined.
“I always felt like I knew what was expected of me, and when it came to benefits, I got more than I expected. Everything was very fair.”
The largest difference between retirement and voluntary separation seems to be the transition from military life back to civilian life. For Airman Fletcher, this transition was easy. “I spent my entire commitment at the same base in the same job, so it wasn’t that different from what I did before other than it was a really good job.”
For Lt. Col. Fletcher and his wife, however, the transition was more than just a return to the old. After 27 years of service, the pair had spent more time in military life than they did as civilians. “It shapes you,” Mrs. Fletcher said. “It becomes part of who you are, and even when it’s done, you can’t forget it.”
This is certainly true for Lt. Col. Fletcher, who even after three years at his new job, still feels more military than civilian. The biggest thing to get used to? The relaxed social structure. “Everyone calls each other by their first names, whether they’re the janitor or the president of the company; it makes it hard to judge the importance of a conversation.”
Lt. Col. Fletcher also mentioned the lax command structure, which has caused him some confusion. “I’ll have people coming to ask me what I want done, but I’m just a project manager. Shouldn’t they be asking their boss those things?”
He’s also not used to being asked to do things instead of told. And while the freedom to decline an assignment may be music to one man, to Lt. Col. Fletcher, it’s just noise. “If that’s what you want me to do, tell me to do it. If it’s not something you want done, why bring it up?”
Still, when asked if he regretted retiring when he did, Lt. Col. Fletcher said he didn’t. He and his wife considered all the options and retirement was the best option for his family, and he’s no stranger to making decisions for the greater good of his wife and children. After a significant career in Combat Camera, Lt. Col. Fletcher shifted to a quieter, less demanding position when he took an assignment at Arnold AFB in Tennessee. While it wasn’t good for his career, it was good for his family, and because of that, Lt. Col. Fletcher stated he “wouldn’t change a thing” about his time in the military.
Mrs. Fletcher shared her husband’s views. “Life in the military changed me. It made me stronger, more confident, more capable. I’m able to do things now that I never would have done without the military.”
When asked what advice she had for young men and women considering the military life, Mrs. Fletcher’s answer was a shocking “Don’t.”
“There is a reason to join the military and there are reasons not to,” Mrs. Fletcher amended. “If you’re just in it for the benefits, you won’t make it four months, never mind twenty years. People going into the military need to understand that it’s not about free school or healthcare or even the chance to see the world. People join the military to serve their country, and that is the most important thing; to be ready and willing to put your life on the line.”
While both Lt. Col. Fletcher and Airman Fletcher ended their tenure with the Air Force on their own terms, not everyone is as lucky. Like his wife, Lt. Col. Fletcher said it is important to consider all the options when looking at a future in the military. Not only toward retirement but also the possibility of not making it to retirement. “Like any job, there are risks involved, and you need to make sure you’re willing to accept that.”
For the Fletchers, the benefits far outweighed the risks and led to a life neither will forget. And while their new civilian life may last longer than their time in the service, it will likely never overshadow those 27 years. As Mrs. Fletcher said, “Being part of the military, whether you serve as a soldier or as support, is something you’ll carry to the end of your days.”