Service and Sacrifice – The Military Leader

No matter the service branch, specialty, or duty location, one question is common to every servicemember: “When should I leave the military?” This question pops up during deployments, following the release of promotion lists, and on nearly every date night.

Pursuing an answer often devolves into a winding conversational journey of assessing the present, voicing struggles, affirming individual and family priorities, anticipating future career opportunities, and evaluating one’s potential to reach those opportunities. Sometimes a family crisis or significant event crystalizes the road ahead, but often the decision to continuing serving or leave remains an ill-formed collection of feelings, variables, and uncertainties.

A Soldier assigned to the Connecticut National Guard’s 1-102nd Infantry Regiment prepares to hug his son after returning home from a nearly year long deployment at the Army Aviation Support Facility in Windsor Locks, Connecticut Jan. 22, 2022. The 1-102nd was deployed to the Horn of Africa in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. DoD photo.

A Model of Your Service

It may be helpful, however, to view this evolving conversation as the tension between the notions of service and sacrifice, and that the decision to leave the military lies at the intersection of the two. Visualize it in this graph, with time in service plotted against some relative value that represents service and sacrifice.


Service starts high. You’ve embarked on a long sought-after career that began with patriotic, tempered idealism. You’re in uniform and finally getting to do the things you saw in recruiting videos. Your motivation is fueled by a strong sense of duty, personal ambition, and curiosity about the opportunities and challenges that await you.

Inevitably, though, the romanticism wanes as the profession morphs into a series of daily tasks and taxing interactions. Despite periods of inspiration like command opportunities, duty may start to feel like a job. The “why” you started with is no longer sufficient and the service line declines.

The sacrifice line, however, starts low. You will bear almost any burden for the opportunity to realize your potential and chase the goals that lay ahead. At some point, sacrifice becomes evident when the reality of the profession doesn’t match expectations – the experience doesn’t match the recruiting videos. Typical culprits include late nights spent building slides, multiple deployments, weekend time spent responding to serious incidents, and the incessant churn of bureaucracy.

Sacrifice takes new form when family comes into the picture, for the military profession has a worthy challenger when it’s forced to compete with the magical moments that children bring. Miss too many of those moments and the feeling of sacrifice builds momentum.

At some point the lines cross. When this happens, when sacrifice exceeds your concept of service, it’s time to recalibrate why you serve so that you can continue in uniform…or make a career change.

Here are some thoughts to consider.

Choose a model.

Even if the above model doesn’t fit your perspective or experience, the worse outcome is to have no model at all. That is, to let the sacrifices accumulate without evaluation or objective appraisal. Professional demands have a way of holding primacy over home life and family. Left unchecked, those demands can erode relationships and cause lasting harm and regret. You need a way for you and your family to assess the impact.

Redefine service.

It will be worthwhile to redefine your notion of service at regular intervals and at major career and family milestones. As personal and professional situations evolve, evaluate how these changes interact and compete with one another to affect your attention, energy, time, motivation, goals, etc. You must continually answer, “Why do I do this?” Simply serving your country might have been sufficient in years past but may no longer justify successive deployments or a two-year geo-bachelor tour.

What will?

I’ve heard leaders say, “The world is becoming more complex and volatile, I am staying in to help build the best military possible”…and, “I’m doing this so that my children will have a better Army to serve in if they choose to”…and, “It’s not about my career, it’s about the Soldier on the line and putting them in the best position to win the next fight.” A more recent catalyst for service might be, “Russia started a war in Ukraine and there is no telling what will come next. It’s no time to leave, no matter what the sacrifices are.”

Know what your answer is. Know why you serve.

Unconditional service.

Don’t tie your concept of service to your promotion potential or relative success. Service must not require validation. Eventually, there is nothing left to provide that validation…no more titles, no more accolades, no more promotions or paychecks. You must be content in sacrificing for a worthy cause apart from what it gets you. Ultimately, that cause may be the people you have impacted along the way, which is a worthy cause indeed.

The lines continue.

As you consider career decisions, it’s helpful to know what sacrifice is still to come. If all goes “according to plan,” what will future jobs demand from you and your family? What are the opportunity costs of continuing on the current path? Similarly, what type of dedication and commitment…fueled by a renewed concept of service…will that path demand? Can you live with that?

Augment your perspective.

You may feel that you can’t have this conversation in public or with your bosses. Nevertheless, you need to have this conversation with an experienced leader or mentor who can ask though-provoking questions, challenge your assumptions, help you assess your potential, and describe both the service and the sacrifice that may await you in years to come. Good mentors know that every servicemember experiences this tension and will empathetically guide your understanding.

Finally, it is common to feel like you owe the Service for the opportunities and experiences you’ve had (i.e., “I was given this command, so I should stay in a few more years.”) Be careful, this guilt can blindly commit you to continued service long after surpassing an acceptable level of sacrifice. What you owe is your remaining service obligation and your dedication to do your full duty. Nothing more.

Questions for Leaders

  • Do you relate to the service and sacrifice model? If not, what does your model look like?
  • Does work hold primacy over your home life? If so, how does that manifest in those you care about?
  • In what ways does your perception of sacrifice differ from your family’s?

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