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Columns : In My Sights

Emotional Survival for Retirement

Plan now to find something you can devote yourself to after leaving law enforcement.

January 24, 2011  |  by Dave Smith - Also by this author

The voice on the phone was pleasant enough but you could tell she was a little preoccupied and probably multitasking as I asked to be put through to my old commander. I had taken retirement a couple of months earlier and was working for the Law Enforcement Television Network in Dallas. I had just filmed a segment that I thought my good friend would get a kick out of.

"This is Lt. Smith. Put me through to Maj. Reutter, please," I asked pleasantly.

"We don't have a Lt. Smith," she answered less pleasantly.

"I was Lt. Smith!" I retorted, perturbed.

"We DON'T have a Lt. Smith," she stated emphatically.

"This is 2394. Put me through to 621!" I almost shouted.

"We don't have a 2394," she coldly snapped.

"I was 2394," I said sadly, but I knew I wasn't anymore. I was not part of her world, not in her family, not in the "Club" that was the Arizona Department of Public Safety.

My friends there are still my friends to this day, but the fraternal part, the team part, was gone. It was in this bizarre exchange that I realized how sad I was to lose that feeling of belonging to a specific group of folks who would sit and complain bitterly about people and things in our agency but defend it vehemently against any comments by "outsiders."

One of the great challenges of turning civilians into crime fighters is developing their sense of being initiated into a unique group of people who will share high-risk adventures and protect not only each other physically, but morally as well, preserving that collective honor we each hold so dear.

The final rite of passage, the FTO weeks, bring the young rookie into the "Club," the "Tribe," the "Team," the "Fraternity," the "whatever you want to call it." It is special and once you're onboard it is an unconscious part of your being. It becomes so much a part of us that when it is yanked away we are stunned to find it had existed at all, since it was so taken for granted it was invisible. This is something I think we need to prepare ourselves for.

I know, I know, you can tell me the exact hour you will walk out the door of your department forever and start receiving that retirement check. But I will tell you, you cannot predict the day that sense of losing a part of yourself will hit you, and that is why we need to start teaching the kids in the academy how to get ready to retire. An academy shouldn't just be training you to be a law enforcement officer, but a healthy and happy retiree as well.

This doesn't mean more than half the class won't get divorced, or that rookies will be able to avoid all the maladies of our profession, but it does mean that by planning your retirement you will keep focused on your future and maybe maintain a balanced life.

I have never stopped working in the law enforcement training field and will probably die on stage explaining Cooper's Color Code (just not right away, I hope). I retired right into a second job which many of you will do and should do. It was the right choice for me.

Find out what you love to do and start planning to do it now. I have a good friend who retired from law enforcement and became a flight attendant, another who became a professor, and one unique fellow who found happiness just being a grandpa full time.

I think the key is in remembering your life is a mission and that the goal of that mission changes as we age. Nothing completely takes away the pain of realizing you're not on the team anymore, but remembering your friends will still be your friends if you keep reaching out, and finding new goals in your life will make the transition less painful.

Finally, just a thought about those among us who don't get to choose to retire but are forced out by illness or injury. They have been plucked from the team. Think a moment about their pain, their loss of that sense of belonging. Please remember, it is our obligation to reach out to them, to ease their transition. After all, we are family.

Dave Smith is the creator of "Buck Savage" and a retired law enforcement officer from Arizona. Currently, he is the lead instructor for Calibre Press' Street Survival seminar.

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