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.





About the Author

Jacey Eckhart
Jacey Eckhart is the former Director of Spouse and Family Programs for Since 1996, Eckhart’s take on military families has been featured in her syndicated column, her book The Homefront Club, and her award winning CDs These Boots and I Married a Spartan?? Most recently she has been featured as a military family subject matter expert on NBC Dateline, CBS morning news, CNN, NPR and the New York Times. Eckhart is an Air Force brat, a Navy wife and an Army mom. Find her at
  • mona

    Your right we can’t say quit….. oh we can make up stuff to get out….. but you don’t just quit….. when your enlistment is up then you can get out….. IF THE GOVERNMENT WANTS YOU TO…… if they don’t you wont….. example. War time….. if they want to keep you they can by denying your discharge. I’ve seen it happen…. they will stop retirements also….. its called a STOP LOSS. nope once your in its up to the DOD to let you out….

  • retiredusnnavywife

    Have you ever heard this expression from a military spouse? I heard it several ties in the 70s or 80s.
    “The ….(insert service here) has been good to us but I want to see what my husband (never heard it apply to wife) can do.”
    What does that mean? At first I resented it. Made us lifers sound like a bunch of losers. Now I wonder if it was just a way to say that the military was just not for them. Which begs the question. Why didn’t they just say the military was not a good fit?
    Usually I hear, “getting out.”

    • guest

      Now days, you might actually just want to see what your spouse can do. Many spouses can make more money than the service member. Many military marriages include deals: I’ll follow you for X years, you follow me after. It’s not a judgment on people who stay in. It’s simply a statement that different marriages operate differently and there is little room to have an equal footing career for your spouse and be in the military long term.

      And in answer to your question, people don’t say the military wasn’t a good fit because there is a stigma against those who leave. It’s an all in or all out organization. There is no room for having any deep thoughts about fit or culture. People who leave are seen as quitters, and failures. You have to keep being committed until you walk out the door because otherwise you are shunned and that’s hard to take. I have several friends whose spouses retired this year tell me they feel adrift because once the ride was over, the community turned it’s back on them. They were no longer in the club. The language is simply reflective of this with us or against us ethic.

      • retiredusnnavywife

        Thank you for your great answers! You are correct; my salary as a civilian is higher than when I was on active duty but minus the allowances, not so much. I did look forward to finding how I would do in a civilian culture – fine and much better hours! I do have to work harder to meet and keep friends in civilian life but one thing I learned during all those active duty years was how to walk into a group of strangers. Email and Facebook help me keep in touch with old military buddies.
        However I don’t remember resenting anyone who chose to leave. Their reasons were always carefully thought out and their lives were enriched for having served.

  • Scared Spouse

    What stinks nowadays though is that we can’t quit the Army but the Army sure can quit on us. With the draw down there are A LOT of Soldiers that don’t want to get out, expected to serve as a “lifer”, get that retirement that 3+ deployments have earned. But now the Army has decided to pass over that CPT for promotion and all the massive enlisted cuts because quite frankly “we don’t need you anymore” and it’s a hell of a lot cheaper to let you go at 14 years then let you get to that magic retirement number and pay you for life. IT’S JUST PLAIN WRONG!

  • retiredusnnavywife

    The officer up or out policy is a tough one especially for the affected spouses; I remember it was used in the Marine Corps as the country wound down from Viet Nam. I am so sorry for you. If at all possible encourage your husband to apply his active duty years as a drilling reservist.

  • jay walls

    I WAS ASKED, What am I going to do when I leave the Military??? None of your B-I-M BEES WAXERS!!!!!!