I decided very early in my Marine Corps career that I would separate and become a full-time civilian after my initial contract was completed. The decision didn’t come from any deep-seeded disgruntlement or dissatisfaction with the Marine Corps, but was merely what I considered the best path for me to meet the goals I set for myself and my family. I wasn’t worried about finding a job after separation. There were and are plenty of opportunities for mechanical engineers, so I wasn’t sweating that part of it.

If you listen to some people in the media you might believe we’re mostly uneducated felons. That certainly wasn’t true during my experience. I worked with numerous enlisted marines that had both undergraduate and graduate degrees. The most prominent example was a sergeant (E-5) in my battalion that had a master’s degree. He was over 30 years old, and had obviously signed up to serve in the face of numerous opportunities, not due to the lack of them.

In late 2006 I started the separation process shortly after I returned from Iraq. Separation is one of the few processes in the Marine Corps that’s difficult to find concrete information about. There’s a small group of administrative Marines at the group/regiment level that handle your separation processing. Nobody else that has seen the process through to completion is still around. There is much hearsay on the subject, but I learned long ago to never trust information that neither I nor the informant could reference in a written order or policy. The issue of separation for officers, which I was, adds yet another layer of friction, because it has a few nuances that make it slightly different than enlisted separations, and it’s easy to get herded through an administrative hurdle that might not apply to you or possibly miss one that does.

One thing I thought about was how my decision to leave the Corps would be viewed by my fellow marines. My unit was 100 percent supportive of my decision to leave. I had heard stories from an Army lieutenant that her senior officers weren’t as accommodating, so I am sure it varies by command climate. However, I can’t imagine the senior officers in my unit advising me to make a decision that I felt was contrary to the best interests of me and my family. Perhaps I am biased, but I think the citizen-soldier concept has just as much merit as the military career concept. Our country’s military is rooted in the idea of temporary military service. I think that is commendable in a totally different way than career military service.

As the date of my E.A.S. (end of active service) drew closer I began to complete more and more items on my checkout sheet. T.A.P., the “Transition Assistance Program,” was one of the largest requirements. It is a very thorough and helpful week-long program for marines transitioning to the civilian workforce. If a young marine is self-motivated he could come into T.A.P. without a clue and leave with a complete resume, an idea of how to market himself to employers, and a solid plan for the future. Some of the marines in my class took advantage of it, but most did not.

I was actually surprised at the number of marines that were getting something other than an honorable discharge. Many were getting booted for disciplinary issues. Drug and alcohol related offenses were the most common reasons to involuntary separate a marine during my experience, but I can really only speculate as to what each might have done to get booted — I didn’t ask. It’s not exactly icebreaking to say ‘So, what chain of monumental screw-ups brings you here?” While at first glance that seems grim, remember that these marines were being kicked out of the Corps. Those who establish a pattern of delinquency are told to leave — plain and simple. The Corps does not tolerate repeated or severe misconduct. Unfortunately, the Marine Corps has to recruit from a society of human beings which are imperfect, so bad apples do make their way in from time to time, but they don’t stay very long.

On the brighter side, there were many marines there who showed a clear desire to succeed in the civilian world and had a plan to do so. Since I was an officer and a college graduate, many of them asked me for advice. After a few quick questions on what they wanted to do and what their goals were, my advice was usually the same: “Pick a state that offers free or reduced tuition to veterans and go to a state college. Draw your G.I. Bill to pay the bills (because hopefully tuition is free). Get a part-time job at Starbucks, because they have great benefits for part-time employees, and make a little spending money. You’ll be eating Ramen noodles and living inside textbooks for four years, but when you’re done you’ll have a college degree and plenty of opportunities when you pair it with your military service.” I gave that advice to one Marine who then replied “But I’m getting an O.T.H.” That’s a general under other than honorable conditions discharge. It meant he was no longer eligible for the G.I. Bill, which you can only use with an honorable discharge. I didn’t have anything helpful to say. Ouch.

While I was completing the checkout process a detachment from my battalion departed for Iraq a second time. It was truly bittersweet to see them off and not be going with them. On one hand I was absolutely thrilled that I would spend the next seven months with my wife, family, and friends, instead of in Al Anbar province. On the other hand I had a wealth of experience from my first deployment that would have added a lot of value to the detachment. However, as a company grade intelligence officer my options for deployed jobs didn’t appeal to me, and they would probably never appeal to me again. This was one of many things that reinforced my decision to leave the Corps. I was very lucky on my first deployment to be assigned a job as a team leader. My team had the privilege of attaching to infantry units and working with the nuts and bolts of ground operations in Iraq. Unfortunately, officers usually aren’t assigned to a unit that small. My gig as a lieutenant team leader was a one-time opportunity that was created to meet a very specific set of requirements, and I don’t foresee it happening again.

The alternative, commanding a detachment of 30 to 40 marines, would be a great job, but not when you’re behind a desk and inside the wire every day. I’d rather just have command of the three other marines in my HMMWV and participate in real operations with the Iraqi populace, including insurgents. That’s a much more fulfilling and rewarding experience.

I arrived early on Saturday morning to see them off before the buses departed. I made my way through the masses of chatty Marines and family members to say goodbye to those I had served with. They would still be in Iraq when it came time for me to depart the Marine Corps, which I did on June 1st, and I would probably never see any of them again. After they left I returned to my car and drove home with a truly strange feeling. It was really happening. They were going back and I wasn’t. Soon the Marine Corps would be a distant memory for me. My life was about to undergo monumental changes. I would soon be uprooting my family and moving across the country to a new house and working at a new job.

Somehow I felt sick and elated at the same time.