Separating from Active Duty – When is it Time to Leave the Military?

Every military member is faced with at least two major decisions in their career: the decision to join the military, and the decision to leave. Both decisions are life altering. It’s very easy for every military member and veteran to mentally separate their lives into periods such as life before the military, life in the…
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Every military member is faced with at least two major decisions in their career: the decision to join the military, and the decision to leave. Both decisions are life altering. It’s very easy for every military member and veteran to mentally separate their lives into periods such as life before the military, life in the military, and life after the military.

So that brings us to today’s article:

How do you know when it’s time to get out of the military and separate from active duty?

Should I Get Out of the Military?

Sometimes you just know. Other times, it’s forced upon you, through retirement, involuntary separation, high year of tenure, or injuries and physical limitations.

There’s not much we can do about the latter reasons for leaving active duty. So today we’re going to look at voluntary separation and how to know when it’s time to call it quits.

Common Reasons Many People Choose to Leave the Military

There is no one-size-fits-all reason people leave the military. What follows are some common reasons people choose to get out of the military. This is not an all-inclusive list. Nor is it intended to be. It’s only intended to make you think about what is important to you. The decision should be between you and your family.

Family Reasons

The military comes first. At least that’s how it feels much of the time. But your family should always come first in your life. Above everything else, take care of your family.

I had already separated from active duty when my wife and I were married. But she was still on active duty. My wife deployed 2 ½ weeks after our wedding. When she returned, she said never again. She put in her separation paperwork and was out of the military a few months later. Finding the right balance can be difficult. My wife made her decision and I supported her 100%.

Work / Life Balance (or a Lack of it!)

This is one of the most common reasons people separate from the military. Work / Life balance and the item listed in the next section were what convinced me it was time to leave active duty. I served 6 ½ years on active duty. My service included:

  • A one year special duty assignment where I lived out of a suitcase and traveled around the world.
  • 5 deployments,
  • Tech school,
  • 7-level school,
  • Airman Leadership School,
  • and several other TDYs.

I was away from my duty station more than I was there. It was fun, but it was not conducive to starting a family. Nor were the long duty hours, working nights and weekends, and other factors. Work / life balance is important. Find yours, and if you can’t, then certainly consider looking for a different career opportunity.

Stuck in Your Career Field

This was another major factor for me. I traveled so frequently because I was an aircraft mechanic in the post-9/11 days. It was an adventure and I loved the people I worked with. I still have fond memories when I see a C-130 or smell jet fuel. But I wanted a professional change, and that isn’t always easy to do. It becomes more difficult the longer you have been in the military. In some cases, your career field won’t allow anyone to leave unless they separate from the military, earn a commission, or take a special duty assignment.

I knew many people who loved serving, but were stuck in a job they hated. I enjoyed my job for the most part. But I wanted a change, and it wasn’t available to me. Quality of life is important and life is too short to hate your job.

Bad Duty Assignments

We can’t always choose our assignments. And it can be difficult to slug through a terrible assignment when you watch your peers move on to one choice assignment after another. It gets worse when you get stuck in multiple bad duty assignments.

But I’m a big believer in the saying that “an assignment is what you make of it.” I encourage everyone to make the most of their time. Take classes while your still on active duty. Travel. Pick up a hobby. Do anything you can to make this a great assignment.

That said, there may come a time when enough is enough and you have to make that difficult decision. I wouldn’t encourage anyone to get out after one bad assignment. In many cases, it’s worth pushing through another 2-4 years either in the hopes of getting orders, or because you will be eligible for retirement benefits. But it may not be worth it in every situation.

Passed Over for Promotion

Again, this is tough. But unless you are running up on high-year tenure rules, you may not need to leave the military. You may be able to transition into a special duty assignment, cross-train into a new career field, apply for orders, volunteer for a deployment, or otherwise work on improving your odds of promotion in the next cycle.

That said, sometimes this is completely out of your hands. A good friend of mine retired from the Marine Corps after having been passed over for promotion several years running. Unfortunately, his career field didn’t promote anyone during his last few years of service. It’s hard to earn a promotion when there aren’t any to be had!

Grass is Greener Syndrome

This is very common. Sometimes the grass is greener, sometimes it isn’t. Make sure you know for certain before you assume. Also keep in mind that comparing civilian salaries to your military salary may not tell the full story due to how certain non-taxable military benefits that aren’t included in your base pay. Be sure to compare actual compensation after accounting for taxes, cost of living, health care after leaving the military, and other factors.

This goes beyond compensation. Be sure to compare other benefits, your commute, career opportunities, and other factors.

It’s Just Not Fun Anymore

I still remember my first ride on a military aircraft. My squadron went TDY to Las Vegas for a Red Flag exercise. We hitched a ride on a C-5 Galaxy. The C-5 is one of the world’s largest aircraft and it’s massive! I still remember walking up to it, shuffling up the ramp, climbing the stairs to the second level, and settling in for a long flight across the pond.

A few months later I went on my first deployment. Then the September 11th terror attacks occurred and life changed for everyone. By the time my enlistment ended after 6 ½ years of active duty service, I had been on 5 deployments and multiple TDY’s and training courses. And I had been on dozens of military aircraft. The C-5, C-17, C-130, KC-135, KC-10. It was an amazing experience. But I was burned out. I needed a break. And that is common for many people.

Of course, my story is a little different, because I joined the Air National Guard 8 ½ years after leaving active duty. But that’s another story!

Other Reasons

It’s impossible to list everything. Just make sure you are being as objective as possible with your situation, and when possible, solicit advice from mentors, family members, and people you trust. There is no right or wrong answer – only what is right for you.


Should You Get Out of the Military?

I can’t answer this for you. And I don’t think you want me to. If you’re still reading this, it’s because you are asking yourself some deep questions. And those are questions only you can answer. But we’re happy to be a sounding board. Please feel free to leave questions or comments below. We’ll do our best to help.

Note: This is a decision you want to get right the first time. The military is currently reducing their end force, and it can be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to go back on active duty after separating. However, you may be able to join the Guard or Reserves if you wish to continue serving. We will follow this article up later with reasons to remain on active duty instead of getting out.

Have you already separated from the military? If so, what was the primary reason you decided to leave active duty?

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  1. Savannah says

    My father is currently asking for my unit and first sergeants number because he believes the Army has been making my mental health deteriorate for a while now. Im having trouble deciding on staying in even though I’m extremely miserable and it’s been wearing me down immensely. My dad was an NCO in the army and he’s all for finishing contracts but with how my unit has been treating me and I can’t get any mental health help, everything has gotten worse and I don’t know whether to stay in or get out

  2. Roxeanne says

    My husband is an officer in the army. He took BOLC last year and passed but he hasn’t been able to pass his APFT. The last time he passed it he got injured and had to be on profile for four months and he hasn’t been the same since. He’s only been in the military for a year technically but he signed a ten year contract while in ROTC. He wants out. Whenever he was in college he didn’t think that he would start a family until he met me. In some way I feel like this is all my fault. I recently had a baby and he doesn’t want to miss her growing up. But I don’t think they’re going to just let him leave that easily. I just feel lost. I don’t know what he should do.

    • Ryan Guina says

      Hello Roxanne,

      There is no definitive answer here. To start with, don’t blame yourself. Joining the military is a culture shock and requires a lot of time to adjust. The same thing happens when you get married. And have children. And go through other major life events.

      It’s possible that your husband is also feeling lost right now and is trying to adjust to all of these changes at once.

      I recommend that he get a mentor at work and dive into his profession to learn what the Army has to offer and how he can be a contributing factor. As he learns more about the Army and his role, he will learn more about various career options that may be available. This can include different assignments, special duties, and more.

      There may even be a possibility of transferring to the National Guard or Army Reserves. This could an option that would allow him to spend more time in one location, and possibly have more family time. This could be either a part-time role, or full-time, depending on the specific unit and the role.

      It may or may not be possible to transition to the Guard or Reserves at this point – that isn’t information I have at hand. He would need to speak with a career advisor or his human resources office.

      He is also so young in his career, that he hasn’t experienced all the Army has to offer. So his perspective may change after he gains more professional experience.

      All this to say – just hang in there. This is a difficult time for most people who are young in a career, or marriage, or family. It wouldn’t necessarily be easier outside of the military – it would just be different. And different isn’t always better.

      I wish you and your family the best.

  3. Cgoofies says

    I’ve been in great assignments, and have great friends in past units. At this point, my family comes first. And happiness. I’m always in trouble now, and tired of feeling this way. I always do my best and do a good job, which I suppose will be appreciated someplace else.

  4. Charles L Tredway says

    I wanted to get out of the army at my first assignment. They wouldn’t let me out. I was a good soldier. So, I got married to another soldier and we both stayed in for 20 years and retired. Best decision we both made.

  5. Caitlin says

    My husband has 7 years in the Air Force so far, with 5 more to go (pilot). He’s been deployed or TDY for the majority of the last 4 years…missed graduations, family events, holidays, birthdays, and most recently, the birth of his second child. We are stationed at what is widely considered the *worst* base assignment for the AF. We are far from home, and have ailing parents/grandparents. All these things considered we would like to separate in 2023, but our major hold up is the retirement benefits. It feels like it will have been 12 years wasted toward saving for retirement!! No pension and no 401k/TSP. YIKES. So do we “suck it up” for 8 more years to get the pension? Suck it up and both work til we’re 67? Seems like a no win either way.

    • Ashley says

      Oh my goodness, Caitlin! I am in the same exact situation as you. My husband is currently deployed (dentist), hoping he will be home by Christmas. I was doing some research on the topic and found your posting. I’m curious to learn about someone else’s experience who actually made the transition on the 12ish year mark. Standing by, will definitely be checking back for responses.

  6. Kristin says

    Sorry for the late response but thank you for the advice ! I really appreciate it. I will definitely take time to think about my career goals and plans. Thanks!

  7. Kristin says

    Good morning,
    I’m currently in the Air Force and I have served over 6 years active duty. I’m at the point where I’ve been thinking about separating. My parents are my biggest supporters but they also understood my frustrations. I like serving but I don’t like my career field. When I first came in the service, I was not being utilized at all as a Lt. Not just me, majority of Lts in my career field that were stationed at Wright-Patterson. I know so many people who got out because it wasn’t what they expected and were tired of the military life. I’m getting to a point where I’m like hey, this is really getting on my nerves. I work with civilians and nothing against civilians but as a mil person, I am always outnumbered and I haven’t really had an operational experience. I’m on my third assignment and I always come in with a optimistic positive attitude but sometimes I’m like man this is not for me. I thank you for your article as it was very insightful.

    • Ryan Guina says

      Hello Kristin, Thank you for contacting me. These are common frustrations. I recommend finding a mentor you can speak with to help you identify potential career opportunities (if you believe you may wish to stay in the military) or to help you identify when to move on, and which civilian career opportunities may be an option for you.

      You may also consider transitioning into the Guard or Reserves, which have different opportunities and can allow you to continue full time as an AGR, or part-time and grow your civilian career. Be sure to spend time planning your transition before making the leap.

      I wish you the best, and thank you for your service!

  8. Patrick Stein says

    I’ve currently been in the Air force for 3 years and I’ve got 1 more year on my contract. So far, I’ve done a lot for my time in the military. But as I’ve been slowly progressing, the idea of staying in for longer is not looking so good. I have a hard time managing the stress I get from work and making sure I don’t bring that stress home to my wife and two kids. Being there for them is difficult. Not to mention I really do not enjoy my job. The job is awesome, its the people. If you’re not someone’s favorite, than you can say goodbye to enjoying your time in the squadron. My peers, unless I’m drinking with them on the weekends or going to parties with them, dislike me and stick to their cliques. So when it comes to the work day, there’s no help. Its just me, myself, and I. Sure, leadership says they are there for you but they aren’t. I’ve brought this issue forward and was told “there’s a difference between ******** and complaining. What are you choosing to do?” I’ve developed severe anxiety because of these issues and it has affected my personal life with my family. I love my country and I serve the best I can. I come from an extensive military family. Thinking of separating of doing only four years in the military makes me feel pathetic and shameful to even call myself a service member. And so I tell myself I have to stay in longer to earn that right to be called a veteran. But I just don’t feel like I can go much longer doing this job in the military. Am I a coward for wanting to leave the military after only 4 years of serving? I haven’t seen combat but I’ve pulled 12 hour shifts on gate duty with my rifle and patrols as well. Will I not be taken seriously for what I’ve done in the military? Also, what makes it even more difficult is the fact my wife is also military. Joint Spouse is not an easy life. Seeking advise desperately

    • Tom says

      There is absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to get out after four years. You have honored your commitment and served your country. We have a volunteer military for a reason. You are not a coward in the slightest. You should proud of what you have done and feel confident moving on to something new. Don’t stay in the military because of fear or guilt, that is not good for you, your family, or the other military you might work with in the future. If you want to have a change of lifestyle by all means go ahead. The country needs patriotic civilians as much as it does military.

    • Paul says

      You are Not a Coward. You are just the opposite of a Coward because you have a backbone and not willing to lower your standards to fit into the Very, Childish, Cowardice Social Club of your peers. Only the FACTS Matter, NOT the FALSE, HATEFUL, NEGATIVE OPINIONS of YOUR COWARDICE PEERS and your Pathetic, COWARDICE Leadership. They will say you are not a Team Player, a Complainer etc. However, you should take that as a compliment because you don’t play well with Cowardice, Childish people. Unfortunately, most of the military members are Very Cowardice, Hypocritical, Very Childish and Unaccountable.

  9. Michael Contos says

    For me it was several factors that collectively drove my decision to leave. I was 24 years in for retirement (36 for pay), been repeatedly passed over, work environment was degrading/my BS tolerance was diminishing and 2 headhunters reached out to me, with solid offers, at the same time. Talked to my spouse, did the math, took a deep breath and filed my retirement paperwork.
    “What a long strange trip…”
    Time for a new adventure.
    Nothing ventured, nothing gained

    • Jesse Jacques says

      I am at the cross road between getting out or continuing this path. I served 4 years in Active Duty and I didn’t mind it at all. I had some great times and it helped me grow a lot. I transferred to the National Guard while going to college using the GI Bill. I saved about 90% of what I made in those 4 years and it still is a personal problem to try to save everything, though I have improved a lot. I decided to go ROTC, in my sophomore year of college, and became contracted. I am suppose to extend my contract with the Guard, currently ETS this September, in order to stay in ROTC. If I decide to get out I would owe nothing and finish the remainder of my Guard contract until this September 2020. At first the whole decision was made because of the financial security that an Army officer would provide. I am not going to lie, the money had a huge influence in my decision. But during the current and past semester I really am rethinking if I want to continue. I think the biggest issue is the clash between my life and ROTC. I felt like the Army is all I have every known and the security that came with it. Right now I am in a perfect situation getting my bachelors in accounting and thinking of getting my masters if I chose to leave. I basically live with my parents rent free and save almost everything that I make. I don’t want to throw my opportunities away and I am terrible afraid that I am just quitting because of discomfort from ROTC. The fact that I can’t make this decisions indecisive and not leader like.

      • Ryan Guina says

        Hello Jesse,

        Everyone comes to a crossroads. That doesn’t mean you’re not a leader. That means you’re human. 

        There are pros and cons to each decision and no one can tell you what is right or wrong for you. You have chosen a good civilian career – accountants will always be in demand. So basically, you have several great options:

        – Drop out of ROTC and skip going back into the military
        – Finishing your degree through ROTC and gaining your commission and going for a full-time military job
        – The above, but commissioning as a traditional member so you can pursue both the military and the civilian jobs.

        If you are undecided, think back to what made you choose to get your degree so you could commission. Does that still feel real to you? Would you still like to achieve those goals? Can you commission and still pursue a civilian job? If so, you may have the best of both worlds at your fingertips. You may even decide that you enjoy being commissioned and you enjoy the opportunities of serving in the Guard as compared to serving on active duty.

        There are also a ton of great military benefits that you would have access to, such as healthcare, consistent pay, and if you reach retirement, pay and healthcare throughout your retirement years.
        And in consideration of serving in the military, it’s important to consider what the economy will be like over the next few months and years. We don’t have a crystal ball, but things are ugly right now. That doesn’t mean you won’t be able to quickly find a job in the civilian world – far from it. Accountants are almost always in demand, so you should be able to find some form of work, even if it is entry-level o begin with.

        That said, you’re right – you probably don’t need the military. Most people don’t. Most people can have successful and rewarding careers outside of military service. But many people serve for more than just a paycheck. So if you fund yourself yearning to be a part of something bigger than yourself, leading teams, and serving your country, then consider commissioning and using your military service to fill those personal goals.

        But if you’re happy with the time you have already served, no one will fault you for that. You’ve served honorably, and no one can take that away from you or demand more from you.

        You have great options ahead of you. And whatever decision you make doesn’t have to be permanent. You can commission, serve for a few years, and get out again, or you could skip the commission and come back later if you decide you miss serving. Follow your dreams and goals. You’ve earned it.

        Good luck, and thank you for your service!

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