I wish all the veterans an amazing day and send them and their family a big thank you for their service to our country!
Like I did at Memorial Day and Independence Day, I’m featuring a post written by Doug Nordman, a FIRE old-timer who retired many years ago from the Navy. (If you missed those posts, see Sea Story: Looking for an Engineer in All the Wrong Places and Sea Story: “You Want HOW Much for that Stamp?!?”).
If you want to learn more about Doug, you can read his short biography and/or check out his posts on Military Financial Independence. Nords served in the U.S. Navy’s submarine force from 1982-2002 and retired with his family to enjoy their financial independence.
Doug has some great wisdom and many hilarious money-related stories from his time serving on submarines. What better time to share one of those than on Veterans Day???
This is another fun story in many way…with the punchline being how oblivious Doug was because he loved his financial independence so much!
With that said, let me turn it over to Doug…
It’s always a good time for a sea story: I was enjoying our lifestyle in financial independence so much that I couldn’t even recognize a job interview — let alone participate in it.
In 2005 (as I started writing a book on military financial independence), an alumni group of our alma mater was having their 55th reunion in Honolulu. My spouse and I live on Oahu, and our local chapter put out the call for volunteers. We showed up at the resort (early on a weekday morning) to staff the hospitality suite, talk story with the attendees, and hand out tickets for the luau.
We anticipated a rare opportunity to see snapshots of the lives of military veterans who’d gone before us. Traveling from the Mainland to our town meant that these alumni would be mentally sharp, at least somewhat mobile, and absolutely wealthy enough to afford the trip. A few of them lived here, and we wanted to know more about spending the rest of our lives in Hawaii. We were eager to chat with these long-term retirees and learn from the experts!
My volunteer gig started badly: when we entered the resort’s hospitality suite on the 20th floor and checked out the view, I immediately knew I’d made a terrible mistake. The room’s windows overlooked Waikiki’s shoreline, and the surf at the Canoes break was pounding away down there at 4-6 feet. Hundreds of surfers were cruising and carving while I was stuck indoors up here without a chance to join them. My volunteer’s remorse threatened to ruin my reunion experience before it even started, and it was all my fault for not paying more attention to the surf forecast.
I eventually got over it, and I’ve learned from my self-inflicted mistake. Even today I try to avoid morning commitments and I keep my time free for a few hours of dawn patrol. It’s an important part of my lifestyle that preserves my own mobility— and my mental health.
A few minutes later the alumni streamed into the hospitality suite. We met vets we’d only read about in history books: heroes of the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and decades of Cold War skirmishes. Some had become admirals and generals. Many had gone on to successful civilian careers, including a few CEOs and chairmen. We also met their spouses and families and heard dozens of fascinating unpublished (sea) stories.
These alumni graduated only a few weeks before the Korean War started, and over the next three decades too many of them were injured or killed. One of them commissioned into the Marines and reported to his infantry platoon on the front lines. (He replaced a second lieutenant who had been killed in combat only a few days before.)
This new Marine survived horrifying battle injuries, earned the Silver Star, and continued his career to lead many more Marines. He commanded a battalion during another combat tour in Vietnam and, as a staff officer, was actually in the White House’s Oval Office for the infamous briefing when President Johnson cursed out the Joint Chiefs of Staff. By the 1980s he rose to the rank of lieutenant general and commanded the Pacific’s Fleet Marine Forces.
Yet we were curious how these veterans were doing now, in their late 70s and presumably enjoying retirement. The Marine general’s historic achievements had happened decades ago. Was this his first trip back to Hawaii in 20 years? What life lessons could he share with us?
We found out as soon as he entered the room and yelled out a greeting. (Marines on liberty are not shy.) He was standing tall, although his barrel chest was now on top of a substantial beer belly. Another ‘50 alum called out “Charlie, you made it! I thought the docs wouldn’t let you leave the hospital!!”
Charlie shot back: “Well, I didn’t want to stay there anymore after they ruined my six-pack abs!” The alumni laughed more with their relief at seeing him than at his sense of humor.
It turned out that Charlie had been hospitalized with life-threatening bladder cancer. The doctors were surprised that he was walking, let alone traveling to Oahu. Yet as far as he was concerned, this was the best alumni reunion that the Class of ‘50 had planned in years. After everything else he’d survived in his life he wasn’t going to let cancer hold him back.
It was wonderful to meet these harbingers of our own aging, and an inspiration for reflecting on our lives.
My spouse and I, in our 40s back then, were asked by several of those alumni how we found the time to volunteer for their gathering. I joked about surfing (still getting over it) but they persisted. Sure, we had both retired from the military, but why weren’t we at work in our bridge careers?
We explained our high savings rate and our financial independence. Our plans were met with the usual skepticism and their admonishments of being too young to stop working. (“Why, you might need more money someday!”)
They followed up with their warnings of feeling unfulfilled and suffering from terminal boredom. What would our children think if we didn’t set a good example by working while they were in school? If we didn’t have jobs or volunteer projects, then how would we serve society and make the world a better place?
Gosh, these alumni looked pretty happy to us, but maybe that was just the reunion. We dropped the subject. This audience was not the right demographic for a discussion about retiring before our 60s.
On a sad note, one spouse of a retired admiral quietly took aside my spouse to ask her how we could afford to stop working in our 40s. My spouse explained our savings and our investments in addition to our military pensions. The woman shook her head sadly and said, “Oh, his pension’s not big enough, and we never had any savings or investments.”
Later I looked up his pension. He had retired in the late 1970s and U.S. military pensions are adjusted for inflation, so in 2005 dollars he was receiving over $100,000 per year plus Social Security and cheap healthcare. Yet their expenses were still too high to retire.
She mentioned that they have a lovely home in a very nice neighborhood, and they probably have a very big mortgage to go with it. He was 76 years old at that reunion and he was still working. As far as we knew, he’d keep working to pay the mortgage for as long as he could.
During the morning, one alumnus stood out even among the other flamboyant and voluble attendees. (There might have been some day drinking in the suite.) He was of modest stature and he seemed reserved— even shy— yet he radiated command presence. He was wearing an aloha shirt but he still had the martial “look of eagles.” His voice had the timbre and echo of professional speech training, and his words were full of measured experience and credibility.
He said he lived on Oahu, and he’d been traveling on the Mainland. The night before he’d flown cross-country on a redeye to join his classmates in Waikiki, even as it took him away from a ceremony back in Annapolis. When pressed by his audience, he admitted that he’d just been honored as one of the Naval Academy’s distinguished graduates. (It’s a very short list.)
His classmates immediately teased him about waiting 55 years for the Commandant’s office to weigh his Navy career against his midshipman demerits to decide whether his conduct had improved enough to trust him with the award.
He seemed familiar— I should have recognized him— but even today I’m embarrassed to admit that his name didn’t trigger our memories. (We certainly weren’t part of his social or professional networks on Oahu.) Later we read much more about his impressive military career as a four-star admiral, and his even more outstanding accomplishments in the corporate and non-profit worlds.
He had accumulated much recognition and many awards. His legacy would be reflected in history books, museums, and monuments. He was certainly financially independent. He thoroughly enjoyed serving on corporate boards and volunteering with non-profit organizations. His introductions and recommendations could open doors across the nation in his military and corporate circles.
Today I realize that meeting him was the job-seeker’s opportunity of a lifetime — he was a fantastic networking contact!
I should have immediately (yet tactfully) shared my business card and a LinkedIn connection request with him. Well, in 2005 I didn’t have a business card or a LinkedIn profile.
While we all chatted with the group, he’d observed my ponytailed surfing enthusiasm and our stories about our family lifestyle. He asked about my submarine service and I mentioned that we’d been on the island for over 15 years.
During a late-morning lull when my spouse and I were alone with him he asked me: “So, Doug, who are you with?”
My reflex response was: “Why, I’m here with my spouse.”
(My spouse thought he wanted to know which alumni had invited us to the reunion. Who had let me in the room?!?)
As my confusion persisted, he clarified “No, no, what company are you with? Where are you working?”
Wait, what?!? No!
I quickly assured him that I was done working. I was delighted with our financial independence lifestyle and I wasn’t seeking employment. I explained that I volunteered (on my own terms) by helping military families use their pay and benefits to reach their own financial independence.
After a few skeptical questions he accepted my explanations without really understanding the concepts. He apparently decided that he’d given me my chance. He changed the subject and we moved on to other topics.
(Ironically he never asked my spouse about her military career or who she was with. We’d like to think that was typical of his male-military generation and not his personal opinion of her.)
Later that afternoon, as my spouse and I read his biography and discussed our conversation with him, it became clear that I’d stumbled into the job interview of my life — and I’d totally blown it. I was absolutely oblivious to the rare opportunity he’d offered and I was blissfully ignorant of its significance.
It was the clearest sign yet of how thoroughly I’m enjoying financial independence.
I’m sorry to share that he passed away last year in his early 90s. I wish I’d had another chance to chat with him.
According to today’s actuarial tables I can expect to live to at least age 67. (Five years to go! I’m trying for triple digits, but that’s another story.) It’s quite possible that someday I’ll find my avocation: service with a non-profit, or ramping up our private philanthropy, or maybe even a real job with a paycheck.
However after 20 years of military retirement I enjoy writing, surfing, martial arts, reading, home improvement, and everything else in my life. I’m too challenged & fulfilled right now to even think about searching for a new avocation. It’s quite possible that financial independence is my avocation.
I hope this sea story helps you achieve your financial independence and lets you feel free to work or retire on your terms. If you decide to work after FI, do it because you find it challenging & fulfilling— not because you’re bored or you’re worried about your finances.