Forget About Who You Were and Discover Who You Are - Guest Contributor Doug Nordman



Guest post by Doug Nordman -- Guest Writer and Founder of

The title of this post makes a great bumper sticker, but it's also a warning.


The military gives us ready-made identities. The military culture makes it very clear who we are and what we've done.  You can read a shipmate's uniform, insignia, and ribbons just like scanning their résumé.


We don't stop with the uniforms. We wear t-shirts, jackets, and ball caps to show where we were and what we did.  We decorate our vehicles with veteran's license plates and warfare decals. We have "I Love Me" walls of photos, plaques, and citations. We hang service flags on our houses. We even document our service with tattoos. 


We reinforce each other's identities. Especially at the senior ranks, it's easy to enjoy the ego-enhancing deference. We all know certain individuals surrounded by staffs whose goal is keeping the boss happy. Subordinates cater to them and even laugh at their jokes. Of course we were never like that!


Humans are uncomfortable with change, and retirement (or separation) is one of life's biggest changes. If you have a strong military identity, then the transition out of uniform can be very unpleasant. Suddenly you're on your own. No one wants to know your schedule or the Plan of the Day. People carry on without your benevolent leadership. No one even asks your opinion, let alone scurries off to execute your orders. You may feel as if you've lost your identity and purpose.


If you're clinging to your military identity then you should be wary of retirement (or separation). Stay in the service as long as you're having fun, and if you're still enjoying your bridge career then keep working. But when you're ready for a new mission, then retirement is the opportunity of a lifetime. Rather than resisting change and hiding in an old identity, use your retirement to seek out who you want to be and what you want to do. Do it for you-- not for the organization.


My (retired) father joked about creating civilian retiree "Who I Was" vests: a corporate logo across the back with patches for teams and special projects. For a small extra fee, retirees could have their résumé embroidered on the front. Dad thought it was silly-- those retirees needed to get a real life.


Don't hide in a retiree vest. Take a chance:  start with a blank slate and re-invent yourself. Who would you want to be if you hadn't joined the military? What civilian "collateral duties" have you handled over the years? You may already be a spouse and a parent. You have interests and hobbies, and now you can devote more time to them. You've had a military image for years, but now you can take control of your own image. If you've been taking care of people for decades then you don't have to stop now-- find a volunteer activity where you can care for others. Even if you're not ready to leave your military identity behind and re-invent yourself, you can still take small steps. Join a veteran's advocacy group or a military service organization.  Enjoy the camaraderie and then branch out to other activities.


While you're figuring out who you are, don't expect your family to step into the supporting roles of your former staff. Not only may your family push back, but they may worry that you're not handling the transition. They've spent years making their sacrifices while you've made yours, and now you have an opportunity to honor their sacrifices by giving them your time. Don't try to lead them. Let them show you how they want to spend their time with you, and then you can figure out how you want to spend your new retirement time with them.


You may have been in the military for one enlistment, or for over 30 years. You may have retired in your 30s or kept working at bridge careers until your 60s. However you'll probably be retired for decades. You'll always honor and cherish your years of service, but take advantage of the chance to be someone else! No matter what you do during the first few years of retirement, you can always go back to being the retired veteran. 


Your military identity may be a safe place-- but don't make it a cage.

About Doug Nordman:

I retired from the Navy over 12 years ago after 20 years in the submarine force. My spouse spent 17 years in the Navy's Meteorology/Oceanography community and eight more in the Navy Reserve. Both of us are enjoying our beach-bum retirement in Hawaii, where we were first stationed in 1989. Today our daughter is a surface warfare officer on a destroyer.


I wrote "The Military Guide to Financial Independence and Retirement” to share the stories of over 50 other servicemembers and veterans. All royalties are donated to military charities (over $9000 so far), and we're collecting more material for the second edition. Stop by to share your story and learn more about gaining financial independence!


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