Dennis Sayce Jr., a recently retired soldier with one tour in Iraq, is now pursuing a degree in wildlife biology. He sat down with Life Reimagined to talk about what it’s like to start over at 44.
Leaving the military is a big decision. How did you know it was time?
Sayce: I loved the Army, and toyed with the idea of doing the full 30 years. But I surprised myself. As I approached my 20th year, one of my supervisors asked me what my plans were, and I realized I felt done. There was too much more I wanted to do.
Did you feel naked the first day you weren’t in uniform?
Sayce: I was nervous. Excited. Confident. Honestly, the first few weeks, it sort of felt like vacation. I had to drop off some paper work and went back to the armory. Everyone was busy working and in uniform—that felt weird. I knew I didn’t belong there anymore.
What was the scariest part?
Sayce: I was lucky to be able to take advantage of a lot of training, including a week-long Transition Assistance Program, before I retired. There was career coaching, help with resume writing. It was intimidating—maybe even discouraging—to be told that I should expect to make far less than I was making now, that I would probably send out hundreds of resumes without even getting a response. I had no idea how the civilian workforce operates—I had been a soldier since I was 22. They say the Army is tough, but it’s brutal out there.
What was the biggest mind shift?
Sayce: Understanding that I would now need to sell myself. In the Army, they tell you what job you’ll do next, and what you’re good at. So the idea of having to take action—learn interview skills, seek people out for informational interviews, work on my elevator speech—these things were all really brand new to me.
I had lots of valuable experience. In Iraq, I worked in a transportation unit coordinating missions all over the country, in difficult circumstances. I organized a complex training maneuver that involved getting over 120 people, and thousands of tons of equipment, from Maine to Death Valley, on a very tight timeline. Not many people can do that. But it’s hard to translate things like “I know how to send bulldozers by express mail” and “Making sure 120 soldiers know how to put in an IV line and are up-to-date on anthrax shots” into civilian terms, like “project management” or “operations supervisor.”
Even getting dressed was hard at first. In the Army, there are rules about what you should wear, right down to gym gear. You never had to think about what clothes said about you—you always knew.
See also: About Face: A Post-Military Makeover
Sayce: I guess to many people, all military uniforms may look the same. But within the service, there are big differences. Special skill tabs—those cloth and metal arches you see on army uniforms—indicated that I was trained as a Sapper or Airborne, for example. That would say a great deal to people about the kind of work I had done. There’s no equivalent in a necktie.
Emotionally, when did it hit you that you had really left the service?
Sayce: After I finished up, I went to western Montana for a one-month hunting guide school. From there, I explored the West in a 5th-wheel trailer for a few months, thinking about relocating. One hot, sunny July day, I dropped off a couple of resumes with potential employers near Grand Junction, Colorado. That was really when it fully hit me. While the potential employers I spoke to were aware of my military career, it wasn’t what we talked about. My military experience made an impression, but it was in my past now.
You’re back in Maine, enrolling in college for biology. Is it unsettling to change directions?
Sayce: I am comfortable with being flexible, and the goal is still the same—meaningful work that lets me be outside, closer to nature.
How about going back to school?
Sayce: After pursuing the hunting guide plan for a few months—after school in Montana, I also became a Registered Maine Guide—it started sinking in that much as I wanted to hunt and fish, I wanted to learn about wildlife even more. So I decided to pursue a degree in wildlife biology. That was a tough decision: I was not a great student in high school. But I accepted that and asked for help. I have some great resources from the Veteran’s Administration, but I also signed up for remedial study skills classes through local adult ed. My first college class was English 101, and honestly, going in, I didn’t know if I could pass. I wound up with an A, which I’m proud of.
See also: Call to Duty
You’re working as an intern, assisting biologists this summer. What’s that like?
Sayce: It’s all about trusting the advice you get. People told me to schedule informational interviews and I did. All three of the biologists who met with me said that while the degree and school would be essential to getting hired, internships and volunteering were critical too. One told me about this opening, working on Swan Island, owned by the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. It’s heaven on earth, a total dream job for me. I ferry people back and forth, drive people around the island, and help care for the place—whether it means mowing, clearing hiking trails or putting in pond docks so people can get a closer look at turtles.
Did starting at the bottom hurt your pride?
Sayce: A little, but once you get past it, it’s freeing. I feel very lucky to be turning something I’m passionate about into a career.
How do you see yourself approaching college?
Sayce: I’m planning to take two classes in the fall, and possibly three in the winter—120 credits feels a long way away. Pursuing the degree is important. But experience is even more valuable, so I’ll keep open to the possibility of related internships and volunteering. The more I can be around those already working in this field, the better.
How did your friends and family react?
Sayce: You need a lot of support to make a change like this, and sometimes, you won’t get it. Your spouse might be apprehensive. Family may pressure you to make “safe” choices. Other people might encourage you to jump into the next easiest thing—many military people go immediately to very similar civilian roles in the Department of Defense, for example, or with contractors. That’s fine, if it’s what you want. But there isn’t any reason to rush into a very similar job, just because it feels familiar.
What advice do you have for other service members thinking about retirement?
Sayce: Make the decision a year in advance, as I did. Give yourself time to think about it. Where do you see yourself? Don’t get out and say, `Now I’ll look for a job.’ Take advantage of career counseling. Talk to people who retired a year ago, five years ago, 20 years ago.
How about for other people rethinking their lives in midlife?
Sayce: After 20 years in any career, a person deserves to try and find something new, something they like better, maybe even love. I think it’s okay to make less money—and you might make more! It’s okay to look for fun in your next career.
Photographs by Greta Rybus