How to Leave the Military Like a True Professional

Updated: Dec 3, 2021

When I was a young airman, an NCO told me that on her retirement day she planned to drive off base with her middle finger in the air. She added that she would be using her other hand to smoke a joint. Around the same time I witnessed a respected SNCO retire after 28 years of honorable service openly weeping, partly because he was proud of his service and accomplishments, but mostly because he simply did not want to go. He would’ve stayed in the service his whole life if he could have.

It is hard to explain to those who haven’t yet separated or retired from the military how it feels to depart. Being a service member becomes so ingrained into our identities and routines that the prospect of transitioning out of the service can be a serious upheaval. This can manifest in vastly different ways from veteran to veteran as he/she approaches the fateful day: one may fantasize about rendering a one-fingered salute, one may be broken-hearted, and yet another may be terrified by the uncertainty and change that lies ahead.

If you are about to separate or retire, keep one thing in mind: however you may be feeling about it is all right.

If you are about to separate or retire, keep one thing in mind: however you may be feeling about it is all right. It’s also totally acceptable to feel more than one feeling about it at the same time. The middle-finger plan is not necessarily advisable, but if you are more than ready to hit the road, I don’t begrudge you the daydream. True professionals won’t follow through on that fantasy, however.

Also, keep in mind that you may actually get out and be surprised to realize that there are things you truly miss about the military. Whether you’re tap dancing toward the exit or scared beyond explanation, you should make an effort to split as gracefully and professionally as possible. Here’s why you shouldn’t burn bridges:

You never know when you will see, work with, or work for your current military leaders and colleagues again.

Want to give your duty sergeant or commander a piece of your mind before you head out the door? I would think twice. Nobody will respond to your departing tirade with, “You know what? You’re right! You sure told us!” In fact, your unit, base, and service branch will go right on humming along without you after you go. I’m not saying you weren’t a valuable piece of the puzzle, but the military is built to sustain operations while constantly losing and gaining members.

Besides, that brand of negativity won’t do you any good. Keeping your cool feels a lot better in the long run. If you have genuine concerns or suggestions that are said in the context of wanting to leave things better than you found them, proceed with caution and tact. A good rule of thumb is if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.

It does not feel good to run into someone (in person or online) that you’ve burned a bridge with, no matter how far down the road. And it will happen with more regularity than you expect.

Your future employment may depend on it.

Your first civilian job may require several quality letters of recommendation from former superiors or bosses, and it would be awkward to ask for one after telling your boss to take a flying leap. If you leave on a high note by ensuring continuity with those taking over for you, taking care of loose ends, cleaning your work area and locker, and maintaining a cheerful attitude, you could land an epic letter of recommendation -- one that could even get you a higher-paying gig. There are potentially more than just letters of recommendation on the line, though. In fact, I know a service member that needed a former commander to testify for him in court.

For those of you separating, a shockingly large percentage of you will eventually want to come back to the military in a Guard or Reserve capacity or fulfill a contracted civilian position on a base, even if it is the furthest thing from your mind right now. I have a colleague that left active duty on extremely tenuous terms, then later desperately wanted to join the Guard. He was eventually able to make his way in, but it took over a year of onerous work and almost didn’t happen at all.

Your personal brand could suffer.

I’ll bet most of your leadership is on LinkedIn, and you absolutely should be, too. Accordingly, your network reputation and professional equity do not exist in a bubble. You will never be able to outrun a bad professional reputation.

By leaving others with a sour taste in their mouths, you could damage your network and personal brand worldwide. On the other hand, leaders that are left with a positive feeling will endorse your skills, write recommendations, engage with your posts, and joyfully connect you with other professionals.

Remember, good reputations can spread like wildfire, as can bad ones -- think carefully about what you want people to be saying about you after you leave.

Do you have any experience with this? Have you witnessed others burning bridges after retiring or separating? Have you observed how conducting oneself tactfully instead when exiting the military can be beneficial? Let's chat about it -- connect with me across all platforms.