Document created: 31 October 03
Air University Review, January-February 1973

Divorce—Military Style

Dr. John J. Marsh 

In terms of trauma and waste of human potential, there is much similarity between divorce and the military retirement system. Some of the rationale behind our present retirement policy is to make room for young and physically vigorous personnel. Some men, in passing through the “dangerous forties,” are prone to cast off their faithful partner of 20-odd years and run off with a younger and more seductive model. One suspects that the Defense Department, like the errant male, may also be interested in new alliances with those who are unaware of weaknesses and don’t know where the mistakes are recorded. Economically, the retiree, like the ex-wife, is “bought off” with monthly payments as compensation for past services. In both eases, divorce and retirement, the implication is that the individual cast off is of no further value to the party doing the “ridding.”

The points that follow are pertinent to any retirement system; they are essential, and failure to implement them is a waste of human resources. What is proposed is a more positive approach by the military establishment towards retirement and the retiree. The Defense Department must cease to view retirement as the end of its personnel program, a means of paying off the faithful and putting them out to pasture. Retirement must be seen as more than a means to insure an orderly flow of personnel out of the personnel system. Rather, it should be used as a means of moving selected persons into a status that allows them to be of continued value to the defense of the country and to the welfare of society.

Two specific failures of the present military retirement program result from the current “expulsion” philosophy. The first is inadequacy of the system in assisting the retiree to make an orderly and productive transition to the “second stage” of his military career. The second is a failure to establish systems and procedures to make use of the retiree’s abilities in direct support of military functions during the retirement or “second military” career. These failures are the inevitable result of the “divorce—military style” attitude. We must see the retiree as a valuable asset and not as a used-up resource.

The following proposals offer potential methods for eliminating these failures, at the same time pointing up their extent. No consideration has been given to the fact that laws would have to be changed and costs would have to be met. These are important points, but consideration of them at this stage would be tantamount to negativism. Further, if these or similar proposals are valid, they are of sufficient value—militarily, socially, and economically—to justify a considerable expenditure of funds and legislative /organizational action.

the base retirement center

The first proposal has to do with the inadequacy of the military efforts in assisting the retiree in his transition to civilian life. Following A. H. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, we should look first to the economic and then to the psychological needs, bearing in mind that these needs are not discrete but overlapping.

The economic need of the retiree is his second career, his employment, his wage-earning future. This is the future to which the military personnel system pays too little attention. The existing military personnel records and evaluation systems are equaled by very few others in either the private or governmental sector. The retiree who can take advantage of such records and evaluations may present an unequaled set of credentials to a prospective employer. The military training programs are collectively the largest and most sophisticated educational and training system in existence. A good portion of this training is readily translatable into salable skills if it can be documented in civilian terms. Many assignments of the senior noncommissioned officer and the officer provide extensive managerial and technological experience. The prob1em of the prospective retiree is threefold with respect to his personnel records, performance evaluations, training, and experience. First, there is misunderstanding and even prejudice on the part of some segments of government and industry regarding the nature of military duty, training systems, and philosophy of operation. Second, the records-keeping system of the military is not designed to allow for postretirement credentials for employment purposes. Finally, there is a paucity of effort by the military to deal with employment problems of the retiree.

An extensive placement service should be established by the military, a chain of interconnected agencies, one per military installation, with uniform procedures, records, etc. This service should be based on the concept that military personnel are professionals whose capabilities in their second career should be made available in a professional manner for employment that is in keeping with their status. This concept leads to the operation of this program separately from but cooperatively with federal and state employment systems. Experience suggests that the motivation of civil service personnel, federal or state, to assist military retirees in employment leaves something to be desired. This is largely because military retirees tend to seek governmental employment and thus are a threat to civil service personnel. Furthermore, the military should take charge of this service, as it will have a very positive effect on morale and consequently on retention and recruitment.

Such a service should include the following aspects. It should be voluntary, and serious consideration should be given to making it self-supporting by financing it from nonappropriated fund sources, fees charged to the retiree, and/or a monthly deduction from pay similar to that for the Old Soldiers Home. It should be standardized Defense-wide with a communications network, forms, regulations, etc. The prospective retiree should come to be interviewed one year before his retirement. An extensive battery of examinations should be administered, such as the Kuder, Strong Vocational Interest Blank, Edwards Personality Preference Schedule, GATB, and other aptitude, interest, personality, and related tests. Vocational guidance should be available with the Veterans Administration, colleges, vocational rehabilitation, and other agencies. The prospective retiree should be furnished data of the Department of Labor on the economic structure of the area he wishes to live in, the occupational outlook for the next ten years in various fields, etc. If he intends to go to school, catalogs, application forms, and advice on admissions should be available. The retirement center should have brochures and employment material from possible employers in the same manner as college and university placement centers.

Standardized forms should be developed for résumés. The retiree’s personnel records of his entire military career should be available for data extraction and reproduction. Past and present pay scales should be included for pay progression history, as well as a description of his military training programs and current and past AFSC’s, MOS’s, etc. The résumé should be prepared by the retiree with the advice of the placement and guidance personnel of the center, who also suggest appropriate places to send it. The center should retain copies of it for use in replying to inquiries seeking personnel with specialized skills and in brochures for distribution at meetings of professional associations.

All the retirement centers should work together cooperatively and not competitively. Every major organization and professional association should be “penetrated.” At every convention a consolidated, service-wide listing of retirees appropriate to that convention should be available. Retirees should be advised of conventions and conferences so that they may personally attend them if they wish. The retirement centers could be linked to a master retirement data center for all services, so that a nationwide search of prospective retirees could be made to satisfy any employer’s needs. About the most sophisticated placement system in existence is that for higher education. That model should be carefully examined in planning the philosophy and operational procedures for carrying out this proposal.

The centers should be staffed with personnel experienced in testing, vocational and academic guidance, employment counseling, and placement services. They should work closely with all agencies in the placement and employment counseling fields. They should be familiar with the full range of military training and activities so as to aid effectively in the interpretation of these programs to the civilian labor market. Retirement center personnel should all be qualified to assist the retiree in making the adjustment to civilian life. They should be skilled counselors and knowledgeable in the psychological, sociological, and economic aspects of the retirement process. Ideally, they would be persons who have, themselves, retired from the service and adjusted to the civilian world for several years.

The largely economic preparation for retirement will have tangential implications in the psychological area, but this coverage is not enough. There must also be briefing, training, and orientation programs for the prospective retiree. He should be made aware of the ways in which he should adjust his thinking. As an example, the use of one’s military title is taboo in many fields. The standardization and systems approach to administration is anathema to many politically oriented governmental agencies at the local level.

Preparation of the retiree must include the wife in briefings, testings, and evaluations. Many wives of career military are as prone to misunderstand and misjudge nonmilitary life as are the service members themselves. The wife should participate in any decisions; an inestimable value will accrue in the morale area.

The military is an essentially authoritarian system whose purpose is the development of the unit or the accomplishment of the mission. Individuals are developed as a means to that end. While the development and growth of the individual for his own benefit is not opposed, it is not viewed as a major goal except to the degree that it contributes to the unit mission. On the other hand, many elements of civilian life see individual growth as second to nothing. Retraining is necessary for many military personnel so they can adjust to the civilian world without becoming alienated and seeking refuge in extreme reactionism. An integrated program of lectures, briefings, films, and even structured classes should be made available to prospective retirees. Outside resource personnel should be used, such as faculty of a business department in a nearby university, directors of local employment service offices, personnel managers of large companies, labor union officers, etc.

The preceding set of proposals is designed to prepare the retiree for his second career and to “market” an invaluable human resource effectively to the civilian community. They are not all-inclusive, and certainly alternatives should be proposed. Any proposal must do what has not been done before. To date, we have failed to be aggressive, humanistic, and nonmilitary in our approach.

reconciliation: recycling the retiree

The second set of proposals has to do with the failure of the military establishment to make use of the retiree. He is just a number on a retired roll. We have no system for using him to augment the military establishment, to play a role in civil defense, or to participate in the disaster recovery process. We do not even know what skills or talents he may have acquired after retirement, where he is employed, or what professional status he may possess that could benefit the Defense Department or other federal or state agencies.

Effective use of retirees as an aid to the Defense establishment must be based on a data-gathering system that would encompass the updating of active duty personnel records to show certain selected postretirement information. Education, certain kinds of employment, foreign-language experience, governmental activities, etc., are some of the things that are pertinent. Such a system would allow for the implementation, in whole or in part, of the following proposal.

This proposal is based on the idea that the nation and the individual military retiree are both being deprived of an association that would be mutually beneficial. This assertion requires an analysis of certain factors and an acceptance of certain conclusions to be drawn therefrom. These factors encompass a psychological, sociological, military, economic, and legislative consideration of the military retiree.

Only in the past two decades has any serious study been given to military retirees as a group. Not until the mobilization of World War II and the “commuphobia” that followed has there been a large professional military force and a peacetime draft. These have resulted in a large outpouring of retiring personnel, which started in the early 1960s and will continue for the foreseeable future. It will taper off somewhat but will still be a significant feature of our socioeconomic structure. To put concreteness to this point, one official source has projected that 800,000 military personnel will be on the retired rolls by 1975, 90 percent of them in grades E-7 to 0-5, under age 55, and with little or no disability.

All the studies and proposals made to date consider how to ease the adjustment to civilian life. All are predicated upon the concept that service to the nation as a member of the armed forces is finished. The divorce is final, and there are only occasional visitation rights and alimony but no right of cohabitation. This concept must be changed. It hurts the military member, the armed forces, and the nation.

An interrelationship of the retiree and the armed forces should exist, to involve active duty on a voluntary basis with certain emoluments to the individual and benefits to the Defense Department and the civilian community. Before discussing this in detail, let us consider the retiree from the psychological standpoint.

It is rarely admitted by the individual career serviceman that he is in uniform for altruistic reasons. The potential danger from combat and the frequent disruption of normal family life are so great that a price can’t be put on them. Whether altruism is the primary motivation is debatable; what cannot be denied is that it is a major reason for the overwhelming majority of the military, even though some may be unaware of it. From this, a number of conclusions follow. The first is that retirement is a traumatic experience, and one who maintains a healthy state of mind during and after it is a benefit to society. The person who does not is a danger. In the extreme, the individual who is resentful of the change may become a political extremist, a reactionary, an alcoholic, etc. Second, from the idea of “love of service, “we can be reasonably certain that a number of retired military desire to continue some association with the armed forces if the associations are flexible in the requirements on the individual and productive rather than “made work” or merely training and indoctrination. Third, since the military member served for altruistic reasons in the first place, he may serve after retirement for something other than a paycheck. He does not want to be put to any significant out-of-pocket expense, but he may not demand special pay. Fourth, we should recognize the “love of service” motive of the individual and respond to it, nurturing it rather than letting it turn to bitterness. From this, there will often be an involvement of the retired military member in the social needs of his community. Youth work, community improvement, and civil defense are all areas that need the peculiar talents of the military. Finally, we should not overlook the impact upon the man in the service from the contacts and relationships that will result when the retiree “rejoins” the military. The young man in uniform will gain knowledge from the retiree with respect to a service career and retirement for himself.

The second basic premise is that a specific benefit, militarily, will be gained from the periodic use of the retiree in an active duty status. The possibilities are infinite, but let us consider a few of the more obvious. The retiree can serve with a military unit of the civilian components. He can lend his experience, technical knowledge, and guidance to the local Reserve, National Guard, Civil Air Patrol, and ROTC units. He can even do this if they are not of his own service. Imagine the value of a training program for an Army Special Forces Reserve unit conducted by a retired TAC fighter pilot who had served in Vietnam! Consider the indoctrination of a Marine Corps Reserve unit by a retired Navy officer with extensive sea duty in amphibious operations. What of the value rendered to an Air Force Reserve Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron by a retired flight nurse or an Army doctor who had field hospital experience? A retired Coast Guard pilot can brief CAP personnel on sea search techniques. A benefit for recruiting can be realized when a retired service member actively participates in recruiting activities. Small units such as radar stations and recruiting detachments could benefit from the specialized skills of retired personnel in their area to supplement their own resources. The former sanitation specialist, for instance, could help the local radar unit when they have a problem with their sewage disposal system. Or the former squadron commander could help the local recruiting detachment by performing as a summary court for a deceased recruiter. The retiree does not have to be near a military unit to be of assistance. A company many miles from a base might bid on a contract, and the facilities capability determination could be done by a retired member in that community who is knowledgeable of that segment of industry. The services might wish to rent or lease a piece of property in a certain area for some purpose; a retired member could serve as a contact in making appointments for negotiators, advising them of pertinent industrial facilities, water and power supplies, etc. Of course, the man who is near a military installation can be used in a number of ways. The experience and background of the retired member can be used to fill a temporary gap in assigned manning, handle a special project, render technical advice in a problem area, handle a temporary excess workload, or perform a disinterested management engineering analysis.

A major benefit is the maintenance or upgrading of military skills on the part of the retiree. While the mobilization of retirees may be a remote possibility in the missile age, the military threat has a way of coming full circle. Three times since the end of World War II we have brought obsolete aircraft back from the scrap heap because they were required for military operations. Retired personnel are a valuable asset that must not be allowed to rust away because their skills are thought to be obsolete. They should be kept current for the day when they may comprise the cadre of skills and experience needed for a conventional war. Also we must remember that military personnel, retired and reserve, may be the key to a continuation of civil order after a massive nuclear disaster. Military personnel are especially suited to the creation and operation of the impromptu and authoritative government structure with the command, control, logistical, and communications systems essential for survival after a disaster, man-made or natural. The maintenance of skills of retired military personnel will better enable them to perform this task.

The third basic premise has to do with the individual and what he will obtain from this proposal. We have already spoken of the maintenance of his skills and his familiarization with changing concepts and organizational patterns. We must not overlook the necessity for some material rewards to the individual. These rewards are divided into two groups. In the first are those that can be put into effect either without legislation or without any legislative difficulty. In the second group are those that would undoubtedly cause considerable debate; most of this group have a price tag on them. At this point, let it be clear that the value of the basic concept is so important that it should be put into effect, even if the emoluments listed here cannot be made available.

First, the retiree should be put on voluntary active duty in a nonpay status except for such death or similar benefits as would accrue to him under existing law. The authority to call him to active duty would rest with the commander of any military installation, unit, detachment, office, etc., located off a military installation. These orders could be written or verbal and later confirmed in writing. Some type of performance rating system should exist. Points for the duty performed should be awarded, possibly similar to the present system for the reservist. The points earned plus performance reports would be used for “retirement” promotion consideration. The criteria here could be very similar to that for reserve promotions. This “retirement” promotion would be an official promotion in all respects except for the retirement pay. The title is used and the insignia is worn. It would be similar to the Navy Tombstone promotions of a few years ago. If the resistance the Navy had to the elimination of that system is any indication, this “retirement” promotion should be a strong motivating factor.

The areas that could be added but would be controversial concern travel pay and per diem, clothing allowance for enlisted personnel, and rations and quarters. Could the retiree travel in a TPA status? In some cases it might be necessary. A clothing allowance might be beneficial for the airman, or else a ruling from IRS that the uniform maintenance costs would be deductible. Rations and quarters, in kind, should be available for extended periods of duty and per diem for TDY. An area requiring considerable study would be the legal status of these persons with respect to military law, command authority, etc.

In the event of recall to active duty in the true sense of the term, i.e., state of war, mobilization, etc., these persons must be recalled in the grade they may have earned under the “retirement” promotion system. If they then were “re-retired,” it would be in higher grades.

An essential to this program is some system of management. First, it must be 100 percent voluntary. It must be flexible, because personal desires must play a part in it. Some could only participate in the summer, others only on evenings, some no more than one or two days at a time. A good number may have so flexible a civilian life that they could serve for several weeks at a time, travel overseas, etc. The individual must not only be free to accept or reject the program but also to withdraw or rejoin as his situation changes. Conversely, the government must be free to reject the individual if his services are unacceptable or if he is too difficult with his “likes and dislikes.” A form would be necessary which the retiree would submit to the base, unit, or activity he wishes to assist. He would indicate his background, experience, availability, etc. Some system of verification would have to exist; also some degree of interview and acceptance at the unit or base. Also, there should be a sharing of the retiree where there are several installations and/or units in one area.

While the personnel management for this program would have some difficulties, this should not close the door to any serious consideration of this proposal. We stand to gain the services of thousands of skilled people for today’s military needs, train them for a requirement of tomorrow, benefit the civil government, and improve relations between the military and civilian communities. This has the potential of being measured in hundreds of millions of dollars in value to the nation.

What is proposed is a fresh new look at the concept of retirement, a look at what it means to the individual, the armed forces, and to society. From automobiles to admirals, from shoes to sergeants, our society has, for too long, worked on a “use it up and throw it out” philosophy. Our national policies with respect to material goods as well as those dealing with human resources have reflected little consideration for the patina of age in things or in people. The strident demand of our society is to value and use effectively both our physical and our psychological worlds. These proposals regarding military retirement will accomplish two things. We must do as much to help the retiree go into his second career as we do to woo and train him twenty or so years earlier. Also, we must consider him as an asset to the military establishment and find ways to use him in that capacity after he retires.

Many are the benefits to be realized from such approaches. Retention should improve, the economic health of the retiree should be improved, the morale of personnel should be improved by the demonstration of sincere personal concern, and the effectiveness of the military establishment should be raised. The image of the military should be enhanced by the retiree’s greater ability to integrate into the civilian community. Hopefully, such concepts as these may lead to changes in the personnel retirement system of the Defense Department.

Santa Fe, New Mexico


Dr. John J. Marsh (Ph.D., University of Northern Colorado) is a faculty member at Eastern New Mexico University and Associate Director of Project NewGate, an educational program at New Mexico State Penitentiary. He served in the Air Force from 1944 to 1965 in personnel and administrative assignments. A graduate of Squadron Officer School, he has published previous articles in Air University Review and educational journals.


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

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