Season 4 Episode 156: Dealing with the Grief of Leaving the Military with Mary Polanco - Part 1

After serving 23 years in the US Air Force, Mary Polanco retired from the Air Force. She is the founder and CEO of Live and Lead Well and the author of Your Final Debrief, which she describes as a must-read guide to learning how to break free from the military mindset and craft the post service life you truly desire. During Season 3, episode 128, we talked with Mary about her transition. This episode focuses on content from her newly published book.


Mary retired earlier than planned, at the peak of her military career. To those on the outside, it came as a shock. However, Mary had prepared for her transition and done the hard work of self-discovery before submitting her retirement papers. Her hope is Your Final Debrief will resonate with transitioning service members and validate the complex emotions that often accompany military separation or retirement.


The first chapter is titled Thank You for Your Service. If you’ve served in the military, you know that this sentiment can often be uncomfortable. Mary believes it’s important for service members to acknowledge their service and the sacrifices they made while wearing the uniform. One of the sacrifices that Mary focuses on is the idea that military service may hinder a person’s identity.


Have you ever heard someone refer to someone else as ROAD? It stands for retired on active duty. It’s a term used to describe someone that is choosing to focus on themself rather than working 24/7 until their last day for the military. This term has a negative connotation in the military. Mary addresses this and why it’s so important to take time for yourself before separating or retiring from the military. For those serving in leadership roles, the military has convinced you that the mission will fail without you, right? The truth is the military will go on without you. You are replaceable. It can feel wrong to put yourself before the needs of others, especially if you have a servitude attitude. Know that you will never be able to convince those still in uniform the magnitude of transitioning. It’s not your job – your job is to prepare yourself for the next chapter of your life. If you are struggling to allow yourself the time and space to prepare for your next chapter, have an honest conversation with your supervisor. Let them know that you want to be smart about your transition. Ask what your parameters are and let them know how they can assist you.


In Mary’s book, she compares her service to a marriage and her retirement to a divorce. She experienced the 5 stages of grief during her transition. Mary believes the first enlistment is the courtship phase. During this time, you are questioning whether to leave or stay for the long haul. For those that choose to reenlist, a commitment is made and there are expectations of your service. The 5 stages of grief are Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance. Grief occurs over a loss – whether it’s a person, pet or job.  Mary experienced all of these as she grappled with the idea of retirement. For many service members, they also experience these in a variety of orders. Know that you are not alone. There are people and services that can help you navigate these complicated feelings.


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