One of the hardest things I’ve done was to give the Army my ‘notice’. It’s not like the civilian world where you give them a few weeks, maybe even a month; the process of leaving the military takes more time, so you have to let them know 6-12 months in advance. You do the paperwork, get counseled by your commander, and start the Army Career & Alumni Program (ACAP). As an officer, choosing to leave upon completion of your contract is called a REFRAD, or Release from Active Duty. Enlisted soldiers doing the same are choosing to ETS, Expiration Term of Service. It’s a similar end result, but a different process.
I worked directly for the same Battalion Commander for three years. He presented my first award, promoted me twice, and served as a constant and steadfast mentor for me. We didn’t always agree, but we had a strong mutual trust and great professional relationship. He was there through some major ups and downs in my life, and I felt I owed much of my success to his mentorship.
Like many military leaders, he wanted to help retain the best people for the organization. He spoke to me often about his career path, the great opportunities the Army had afforded him, and why I should stay in for 20+ years. I always listened to him, weighing my pros and cons. When I made the decision to submit my paperwork for REFRAD, he was one of the first people I told. (Well, I had to tell him, or he’d have found out anyways. But it wasn’t a conversation I looked forward to.)
It’s hard to tell someone that while you respect them, you don’t want to follow in their footsteps. I felt like I was saying, “Sorry, I don’t want to be you when I grow up.” I didn’t want any hard feelings, because the decision was entirely mine. It’s not you, it’s me! The Army isn’t for everyone!
Fortunately for me, my boss had seen this coming. I was able to speak frankly and honestly about my decision to REFRAD, and shared my career plan (and backup plans) with him. He supported my decision, but said he would not have let me leave his office without knowing I had a solid plan. My confidence and obvious research/planning helped me show him why it was the best choice for me. He was more worried about me than anything.
I remember him telling me that staying in the Army was the easy decision.
“Your military career is like a highway,” he said, “It’s pretty easy to stay on track, and your career path is a straight line up through the ranks. Throughout your career, there are off-ramps where you could exit. But I always felt those would bring too much uncertainty for me. I felt the people who took those off-ramps were the brave ones.”
(I think that was Army-speak for “you’re taking the road less traveled” or something.)
Overall, sharing my plan with my boss was more positive than negative. It was something I agonized over beforehand, but felt good about afterwards! It was definitely a beneficial conversation, because I later found myself repeating my ‘speech’ to a number of officers trying to convince me to stay. Some of them had better arguments than others, but I stood by my decision. And the more I repeated my plan, the more real and solid it was in my mind, preparing me to take this next big step in my life.
Tips for ‘The Talk’ with Your Boss
1. Speak up. Don’t let them find out when the paperwork crosses their desk. Talk in person, because they deserve that courtesy.
2. Share your plan. Chances are, they want to make sure you’re not making a stupid decision. People choose to leave the military for some pretty ridiculous reasons; make sure to instill confidence in your ability to handle the transition, and everything will go smoother from there.
3. Stay positive. No matter your feelings about your boss or the military, don’t bash the organization or spout off a laundry list of things you hate about it. Say what needs to be said, and keep the rest to yourself.
Oh, and if you’re one of the ones who tries to hide your REFRAD from everyone for as long as possible, so you don’t get stuck in a crappy job for your remaining months in the service? Don’t. I filed my paperwork a year before my REFRAD date, and I was still placed in some of the best positions I’ve held in the Army. I boosted my resume AND planned my career move at the same time! I credit my honesty with my superiors about my plans and my continued hard work. Be up front, don’t let your work performance slide, and you’ll be fine.