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Experience Magazine

Saying Farewell to the Military

Mark Eugene Sullivan


  • Two military lawyers provide insight how they transitioned from the military to civilian legal careers.
  • They share their experiences, challenges, and advice for others facing retirement from the armed forces, including the need to translate military skills and experiences into terms that are understandable and relevant in the civilian legal world.
  • It also emphasizes the need for open-mindedness and adaptability when considering new career paths and opportunities.
Saying Farewell to the Military Tuta

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Practicing law in the military is similar to, and then again altogether different from, practicing law in the civilian world. I know that’s true because I was a U.S. Army Reserve judge advocate general, or JAG, officer myself. Recently, I connected with two friends who were also military lawyers to ask them about their practice in the military, why they left, and what other lawyers can learn from their experiences.

First, meet Steve Lynch, a legal assistance attorney for the Ninth Coast Guard District in Cleveland.

Sullivan: Let’s start with your enlistment back in 1976. What did you do after that?

Lynch: I went on to study Russian at the Defense Language Institute, and then I was selected for Officer Training School. Soon I was headed for law school, and my travels began. I served at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, and my work there took me to legal offices in Belgium, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, and Turkey.

Sullivan: That’s a lot of official travel. Did you take leave and travel also?

Lynch: Yes. My family and I traveled throughout Europe, including train trips to Paris, Rome, Venice, and Vienna. We also took a road trip to Ireland. Sometimes, we hitched a ride on space-available flights on military aircraft home to Maryland and to Athens.

Sullivan: Where else did your assignments take you during your Air Force career?

Lynch: In more than 20 years in the Air Force, I was stationed in California, Maine, Maryland, New Mexico, and Ohio.

Sullivan: What was your most exciting experience?

Lynch: That would be the one I can’t talk about. It occurred while I was assigned to the National Security Agency’s Office of General Counsel. I worked regularly with the U.S. Department of Justice, the Defense Department, and the CIA, as well as National Security Agency specialists. We were involved in the prosecution of a high-profile espionage case.

Sullivan: Any other experiences you can talk about?

Lynch: I once handled an urgent call from a retired four-star general who had inadvertently locked himself in a sensitive compartmented information facility out of fear that a military lawyer was about to serve him with a subpoena. The general was well-known from his role in the first Iraq War and, fortunately, I was able to give him his freedom.

I had an exciting and humbling experience prosecuting my first general court-martial. After all the evidence was in, the defendant was convicted and received a sentence of 14 years at the U.S. Penitentiary, Leavenworth.

Sullivan: What did you do that you believe had an impact on the Air Force or our country?

Lynch: The most impact I had was probably through projects I did in my spare time. I wrote an article for the Air Force Law Review that led to a rewrite of the Air Force claims policy. While stationed at Ramstein, I wrote and published a book on how to make the most of an assignment in Germany. A Survival Guide to Germany was sold in Stars and Stripes bookstores throughout Germany, and I was interviewed on American Forces Network and German TV. While stationed at Fort Meade, I helped gain passage of legislation that reduced the state income tax for Marylanders in the military serving overseas.

Sullivan: What will you tell your grandchildren about your Air Force career?

Lynch: I’ll tell them that I was proud to serve, did my duty, and helped as best I could. I’ll also let them know that the Air Force provided me with great opportunities and experiences for travel, for meeting people, and for helping others.

Sullivan: Why did you decide to retire from the Air Force?

Lynch: I retired because of the toll continued service would have had on my wife and three school-age children. The frequent moves didn’t seem worth the stress they would impose on my family. After my wife found a job in Cleveland, I put in my papers for retirement.

Sullivan: You must have been concerned about a move to a city where no one knew you.

Lynch: That was one of many concerns I had. As with many military retirees, I felt nervous about leaving the military cocoon. I’d spent most of my adult life living and working in a military environment. I would have preferred to retire to a location close to a major military installation, but instead we settled in a small suburb of Cleveland with no military presence whatsoever.

Sullivan: Was that a major transition?

Lynch: Yes, it was. I’d initially planned to be a stay-at-home dad, doing volunteer work, coaching my children’s sports teams, getting involved in my son’s Boy Scout troops, and helping out at our church. That plan lasted all of eight months.

Sullivan: Did you look for second-career options?

Lynch: I explored several job offers, including a position with a local office of a national law firm, but they wanted 2,400 billable hours annually. That seemed contrary to the main intent of my retirement, which was to have more time with my family.

When my wife lost her dream job in 1998, I had to make a choice. With the help of an Air Force friend, I found a position with a small business in the Washington, D.C., area that provided training and consulting services to government agencies and businesses around the globe. The pay was great, but the travel—to Brazil, Canada, Germany, Japan, Sweden, and the United Kingdom—again took its toll. I was jetting around even more than when I’d been in the Air Force.

In early 2001, another Air Force friend alerted me to a job opening for the U.S. Coast Guard in Cleveland. It was for the first full-time legal assistance attorney for Coast Guard units located around the Great Lakes, and I was one of 150 applicants. I loved doing legal assistance while on active duty. But was concerned because the job entailed a significant pay cut, and I knew very little about the Coast Guard.

I was offered the job Sept. 7, 2001. I pondered it over the weekend and accepted it on Sept. 10, 2001, wondering if I’d made the right decision, and 9/11 happened the next day. I think I made the right decision because I’ve been here ever since. I’ve turned down higher-paying jobs (including a GS-15) to stay here. It’s a great fit.

Sullivan: How would you describe your job?

Lynch: I love what I do, and I love the level of support, trust, and autonomy I receive from the Coast Guard. It’s an amazing organization that embraces the concept of service before self, and it excels at doing more with less. I provide legal support to Coast Guard members and their families. My legal experience as an Air Force JAG prepared me well for my current position.

Sullivan: What would you suggest to those facing retirement from the armed forces?

Lynch: I have six tips for prospective retirees. First, use whatever transition assistance is offered by your branch of service. All services have programs to assist those transitioning into civilian life, whether it’s a discharge at the end of a term of service or a retirement at the end of a career.

Second, pay attention to your resumé. Ask a civilian lawyer to look it over to help you translate your military skills, accomplishments, and specialties into “civilian-ese.”

Third, look around your office for reservists who can give you some help. Seek their counsel on how to go about finding a civilian job that involves practicing law “in the real world.”

Next, find military networks—Reserve, National Guard, veterans, and retirees—in the community where you plan to settle and the field you plan to pursue.

Finally, remember to stay humble and expect that most civilians won’t have a clue about military life or the significance of the concepts of duty and service before self in a military setting.

Sullivan: What do you mean?

Lynch: I once volunteered to serve in a nonpaying board position for my homeowner’s association. One of the other board members expressed surprise at my volunteering since I still worked full-time. When I told him I did it because I thought it was my duty as a member of the community, his surprise morphed into puzzlement. After getting to know him a little better, I concluded that he was puzzled because he just didn’t get the concept of duty.

I also remember what a retiring two-star general client of mine said after returning from a job interview. “Steve, civilians don’t know the difference between a major-general and a major, but they do know old.” Try not to take it personally.

My final tip is this: If you can’t find a good job fit, consider using your GI Bill benefits to broaden your horizons and boost your resume. Striking out in a new direction—which is what I did—may be the key to your success after military retirement.

Next, meet John Camp of Warner Robins, Ga.

Sullivan: What was your last job in the Air Force?

Camp: My last duty assignment was to headquarters, Air Force Reserves at Robins Air Force Base. I don’t consider it the highest point or best assignment in my military career. It was a requested assignment to aid me into transitioning from active military service as a JAG into civilian law practice back in Georgia. When I made the transition from “uniform to tie” at age 46, I felt I was way too young to retire.

I was retired all of two weeks after leaving the Air Force and was hired as an associate at a medium-sized general practice firm in Macon, Ga., in 1995 by Carl Westmoreland, cousin of Gen. William Westmoreland. I’ve been here since then, still going strong at 71 on my quest for 50 years of law practice.

I consider my last “real” assignment my four-year tour of duty as deputy staff judge advocate at U.S. Central Command from 1988–1992. From the moment I walked through the door, the place exploded. My time there covered the ill-fated USS Vincennes shooting down Iran Air Flight 655 and killing all 290 souls on board. We next had the shooting down of Pakistani President Zia-ul-Haq’s Hercules C-130 plane, which also killed the American ambassador to Pakistan, Arnold Raphel, and Brig. Gen. Herbert M. Wassom.

We also lost a U.S. Congressman and his staff flying around Africa and had to do a search and rescue operation for U.S. Rep. Mickey Leland’s plane when it crashed in Ethiopia. We saw countless hijackings by Somali pirates of merchantmen in the Indian Ocean and Gulf of Aden, not to mention near-constant Iranian Republican Guard fast boats harassing oil tankers in the Persian Gulf and when transiting the Strait of Hormuz.

When you walk through the USCENTCOM door, the hair rises on your neck because you have no idea what or who is going to confront you that day. Military commanders must make life-and-death decisions almost every minute when the United States is at war.

Sullivan: What were the most exciting or memorable things you did during your time in the USAF?

Camp: They involved my work at the National Security Agency’s Office of General Counsel in supporting courts-martial that involved highly sensitive intelligence sources and methods, the John Walker family espionage cases, appearing before foreign intelligence surveillance courts, and working on the White House briefings for the Korean Air Lines Flight 007 incident.

As a military lawyer, I never felt more committed to protecting the national security interests of our country than when supporting the prosecution’s efforts in these cases.

They also include writing Desert Shield Desert Storm General Order No. 1 at USCENTCOM. On Aug. 29, 1990, I was approached by Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, Gen. Colin Powell, and the Saudi ambassador to the United Nations, who told me that American troops were to be sent the next day to Saudi Arabia. They needed an order governing the behavior of U.S. troops to ensure troops showed respect for the laws of Saudi Arabia. Gen. Schwarzkopf changed one phrase and signed the order.

That order is still in place today. It has been challenged at every appellate level in the armed forces and in the U.S. Supreme Court. Each time, it has been upheld. It was my individual and greatest contribution to our winning that war.

Finally, it was the repatriation of displaced civilians and combatants at end of Desert Shield and Desert Storm. When the war ended in March 1991, we had nearly 100,000 persons still interned at four locations in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Many couldn’t return home for fear of death. The rest had no home to which to return.

Twice, I served as legal advisor for the Delegation from the Coalition Countries to Geneva to negotiate with the Iraqi government on repatriation. We brokered arrangements with our Arab coalition partners to accept resettlement of some of the interned Iraqi prisoners who refused to return home. We emptied the internment camps and closed them all down before that summer. It was a herculean task to accomplish, but it made me feel very good to have helped so many in such awful conditions.

Sullivan: What did you do that had the most impact on the Air Force or on our country?

Camp: I believe my service as a trial and defense counsel, chief of military justice, and general court martial chief of military justice helped to maintain good order and discipline among the Air Force members. But there’s that one case you never forget, when you defend a fighter pilot who lost his plane, and now the Air Force is trying to strip him of his wings. When you defend that pilot and save his aeronautical rating, you really do have a Tom Cruise “A Few Good Men” moment.

Sullivan: When did you decide to retire from the Air Force and why?

Camp: In 1992, the Air Force offered me assignments that took me further away from family and still further away from Georgia, where I thought I’d retire. My son, Cory, was just about to start his senior year in high school, and we had picked up two other military brats (Heather and Jennifer) to live with us while they also finished high school. If I uprooted them with another assignment, it would deny them their final year of high school with all their friends.

I got an offer to go to Robins AFB in Warner Robins, Ga., and that would put me past my 20 years of service for retirement. Deciding I was young enough to start a second career as a civilian attorney, I determined it was time to see if I could “practice real law.”

Sullivan: Did you have any concerns, fears, or apprehensions about retiring?

Camp: What, me afraid? Hell, yes, I was afraid. I’m reminded of a Gen. Schwartzkopf quote: “True courage is being afraid and going ahead and doing your job anyhow. That’s what courage is.”

Sullivan: How did you decide what to do after retirement?

Camp: I was going to be a lawyer, but I didn’t know what flavor of lawyer. I started looking for a new position six months before I was due to retire. At 46 and with 22 years of law practice, I was considered overqualified and, by some, a high risk for many law firms.

What was my risk, I’d ask. Well, I hadn’t done anything they knew a thing about. Most managing lawyers were absolutely clueless about what a JAG did. Thirty-one seconds into trying to give them some idea of what a JAG does only brought fear on their face, and I’d lost them.

So I just resorted to saying, “I did a lot of criminal work and handled a bunch of crazy things that came up on the battlefield.”

Sullivan: Were there any problems in the transition to your present job?

Camp: There’s a mindset you develop in the military. Your identity is known, and how you conduct yourself is a given. You wear the same clothes as everyone else you work with, and your lifestyle is very similar to that of your contemporaries. That’s no longer the case.

I also had difficulty changing my lingo from military to civilian. I “Yes, ma’am’d” a female judge one day in court and got my butt chewed out for calling her ma’am. She said, “You call me your honor.” I shot right back, “Yes ma’am, your honor.” Boy, she got mad at me, said I was being cute and threatened to hold me in contempt.

Sullivan: How is your present job different from the Air Force JAG job?

Camp: I’ve enjoyed my civilian law practice, but not as much as my days as a JAG. The money is a whole lot better, and I still work 40-60 hours a week when I want to—and none if that suits me. I like handling military divorces and all kinds of other federal retirement divorce cases. But I do miss the camaraderie of the military community.

Sullivan: Do you have any advice for others in uniform who are facing retirement?

Camp: My advice is to not fear the transition from uniform to suit. Inventory your strengths and drop the military lingo. It’s OK to experiment with new jobs, but your lawyer tool set will be just fine with what you learned in the military.

Remember as well that even though your family members didn’t wear uniforms, they were military just like you. They’ll also go through an adjustment. It’s odd that marriages that held up well in the military may find rough seas in the civilian community. Your family has adjustments to make right along with you.

And finding a post-military job isn’t an event; it’s a process. Don’t be afraid of trying new things and moving on to something different if your first try doesn’t work out. Success is something you experience in your mind, but your mind must first be open to the new experience.