You Can't Quit the Military!


Nobody “quits” the military. There is no walking into the first sergeant’s office and telling him that you are “grateful for the opportunity.”

You can’t text the CO from your car in the parking lot about where to send your last check.

In the military, there is just no grabbing a beer, activating the emergency chute and sliding to freedom while tossing glitter in your wake.

There is no quitting the military--probably because we designed it that way. It would be hard to fight a war if people could quit the military any time they wanted to.

So we don’t use the word quit. Instead, our military friends say they have decided to  “put in their letter."

A guy I work with “ETSed” (Expiration of Time in Service).

The soldiers at brunch last weekend told me that they never said the word “quit.”

“We talk about leaving the Army as “getting out,” like you’ve done your time and you are ending a prison sentence,” one of the guys laughed.

That’s a little weird to me. Not the part about feeling like work is a prison sentence (even a job you love can feel inescapable). The weird part is that military people can’t just say, “I’m quitting.”

We have so many powerful words for getting into the military: Call up. Commission. Conscript. Draft. Enlist. Induct. Join up. Sign up. Recruit. Volunteer. Impress.

We don’t have a sexy vocabulary for quitting: Retire. Transition. Desert. Discharge. These aren’t attractive things, no?

There might be something in this. Recently I was listening to a podcast about the upside of quitting from the guys as Freakonomics radio. They pointed out that when you are in a profession that becomes part of your identity (Navy SEALs were one of their examples) there is often a special language for quitting.

In minor league baseball, for instance, players do quit. They just don’t call it quitting.

Instead they say things like, “You know what? I’m just going to shut it down for a while.”

It is as if by having a quitting vocabulary that doesn’t include the word quit, it is somehow possible to leave that identity behind, like a jacket left in the bleachers. A duffle left unclaimed in the airport.

The soldiers were telling me that it isn’t just that there isn’t a language for quitting, there is also a lot gatekeeping designed to keep people in.

Sometimes there is someone dangling a bonus in front of you. Other times there is pressure from the command. Often it is just other people telling you that your plans after leaving the military are dumb.

So these guys decided to think up some new plans, fake plans, plans so outlandish no one could believe they are true.

“I’m gonna be a whaler! I know I’m starting out on a shrimp boat, but I’m gonna work my way up,” said one.

“Subsistence farming! It is the wave of the future!” said another.

I can’t help but think there is a whole language of quitting in the military, a language of transition. And maybe it is something you don’t learn until you are looking for the words.





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