When I was forced to say goodbye to my military career earlier this year, it was a shock to my system. I’d “done all the right things” from the Air Force JAG Corps’ perspective to climb the ladder and progress to increasing levels of responsibility. My last position before I was medically retired was as a Staff Judge Advocate (SJA)–the chief attorney for an organization. I was the full time, “go to” attorney for a military installation, answering not just legal questions but also assisting commanders (mostly O-6s, Colonels, but also two general officers, one the commander of the host wing, and one the Numbered Air Force commander who was hosted on our installation) with public relations, answering Congressional and White House inquiries, and generally helping to make sure day-to-day operations ran smoothly.
I’ve been a California-licensed attorney since May 2007. I joined the Air Force as a commissioned officer shortly after receiving my law license–a week later, in fact–and entered active duty 1 month and a few days after being sworn in as an attorney. The Air Force, and law, were what I knew.
Then along came my deployment to Afghanistan, and a crippling disability. There hasn’t been much research into the link between the “mysterious illness(es)” many veterans of the 21st Century US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have and the also mysterious Gulf War Illness or “Gulf War Syndrome” about a third of all Persian Gulf War (1990-91) veterans are estimated to have, but I’m convinced they’re the same thing. The VA may categorize what we have as a combination of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome & Fibromyalgia, but there’s a growing body of research to suggest that Gulf War Illness and ME/CFS, in spite of their numerous symptomatic similarities, are separate diseases, both autoimmune in nature and both devastating to the Central Nervous System. Moreover, when I was diagnosed back in 2016, I was observed by a prominent researcher to better fit with the disease Persian Gulf War veterans have than ME/CFS, even if I meet (the very broad) diagnostic criteria for it.
This isn’t a post about Gulf War Illness or the nature of my disease, however. I’ve already written some about that and will probably write more in the future, but what I really want to blog about today is my career journey and ongoing transition from the military to the next phase in my life.
To say I was adrift and without a purpose after being medically retired from the military due to my disabilities would be an understatement. My career was a huge part of my identity, and I drew an enormous sense of purpose and meaning from it. However, having over a decade of very solid legal and litigation experience, I assumed naively that it would be easy for me to find new employment. However, what I failed to take into account was my disability, and its impact on my ability to work.
I cannot work full time hours. I simply lack the stamina to do so, and have enough chronic pain, fatigue, and flaring of other uncomfortable and unpleasant symptoms to make full time work in an office impossible. Then there’s commuting, adding additional time, stress, and a drain on my already low stamina into the equation (and creating potential safety hazards–both my disease, and the medications I take in an attempt to “manage” it, impair my ability to safely operate a motor vehicle).
No fear, I thought, I’ll just find part-time legal work, maybe doing consulting, or maybe doing paralegal or law clerk type work. It’s fine, adapt and overcome. Well, the thing is, the legal field is very, erm, “traditional,” with 8+ hour work days expected, and telework or remote work an oddity. Don’t believe me? Check out this information from the Department of Labor on the attorney career field. It’s not a lack of knowledge, experience, education, or licensing that’s a problem for me–it’s the nature of the job and the physical presence/work hours expected.
Well, that was frustrating, as were my job search and job applications in the legal field. I felt like my disability was really holding me back by turning me into a “square peg” that would no longer fit into a round hole.
I might have given up, or continued down the same fruitless path, becoming increasingly discouraged the more time that went by, but then an idea came to me: why not transition into a completely unrelated career?
Say what!? After going to law school, passing the Bar Exam, and working as an attorney for over a decade, just turn my back on that? Well, yeah. The thing is, even if I could find an opportunity with an employer willing to accommodate my disability and give me part time hours and generous if not 100% telework, the cultural problem of trying to integrate into part of a team that is very “traditional,” brick and mortar, physically present in an office environment, is a real one, and likely to seriously impact long-term job satisfaction.
Enter Plan B!
Back in 2012, when I was at the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Information Directorate in Rome, New York, I took my first ever Computer Science course because, well, most of the employees at the lab were computer/software engineers and the lab would pay for all employees (including the small contingent of support staff–lawyers, human resources, finance, contracting, etc.) to take Computer Science courses since the “operators” or mission-focused employees we were supporting all worked with computers/Information Technology and sharpening their skills with continuing education in Computer Science was seen as beneficial to the organization.
I didn’t just take an introductory Computer Science class at Syracuse University like most of the “engineers,” however. Oh, no. I missed the application deadline so I couldn’t do that. Instead, I stumbled onto Harvard University’s Extension School, which is part of Harvard, but geared toward non-traditional students, i.e. adults with careers who want to go back to school, usually on a part time basis. What followed was a very rewarding, but very intense, introduction to Computer Science courtesy of CS50 – Intensive Introduction to Computer Science. Intense it was! But I loved it. Then I got deployed to Afghanistan and put it out of my mind, since my military (and legal) career was chugging along.
What’s more, this course of study may be just what the doctor ordered: prospects are good for web developers, with my personal research revealing a plethora of open job postings in this field, even for near entry-level players such as myself. Moreover, unlike law, which is very, well, “traditional,” I found a number of companies hiring web developers that are a lot more “21st Century” in their mindsets. A few even consist entirely of remote employees. So instead of trying to be the square peg (teleworker) fitting into a round hole (traditional office), as a web developer I could be just another member of the team. Instead of requiring special accommodations for my disability, I could work the same way, and be just as connected, as my co-workers. That’s an exciting prospect!
Sure, on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, basic survival comes first–I need to pay the bills. Military retirement, especially for medical reasons, only goes so far, and current law is, well, a slap in the face to disabled military retirees who were forced into early retirement, because our disability compensation from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is deducted from our military pensions. This has income tax advantages, but is a far cry from the deal “normal” military retirees get, which is their full pension and any disability compensation awarded by the VA, provided the retiree is rated at least 50% disabled. (Personally, I’m rated as 100% disabled, but this doesn’t garner me so much as an extra penny, because I was “medically retired” shy of 20 years in the military so I’m subject to the penalty created by an 1800s Civil War pensions law). Let’s just say that “medically retired” individuals like myself suffer a stiff financial penalty for the crime of getting too sick, or too injured, in the line of duty to continue in our military careers, because we get one paycheck, not two like “normal” retirees (most of whom are still healthy enough to work in the traditional sense).
OK, that was a digression! What I was trying to say, before I got sucked into my own political activism with regard to veterans’ rights, is that first and foremost, I need money. I have a family and financial security is important. Thus, any job I can physically perform, having my disability, is highly desirable. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find a job I’m physically capable of performing, because, well, my disability is severe (I was rated as 100% disabled for crying out loud). That having been said, what this path to web development has shown me is that, far from striving to meet only Maslow’s “basic needs” on the pyramid, a career in web development, in which I’m not the odd one out, a remote teleworker in a traditional brick and mortar office environment, but rather, one of many remote workers just like everyone else on the team, by changing career fields I might actually still have a shot at the higher portions of Maslow’s hierarchy–even self-actualization.
That’s exciting! Does it cure my disability? No. Does it take away the chronic pain or the crippling fatigue? No. Does it take away the other nasty symptoms of my disease? No. But does it give me a chance to do interesting and fulfilling work, and feel like I’m an important part of a team and contributing to society? Yes! And that is priceless.
In the meantime, I do carry a wealth of knowledge about the law, especially as it pertains to the US military and federal government, and would happily consult with interested clients on a contract basis. I feel like I could really help them out–I did government procurement for almost 5 years, and the same goes for federal employment law.
At any rate, key takeaway: it’s never too late to reinvent yourself or to change paths, no matter how far down a road you think you’ve traveled, and the search for meaning in one’s life is an important one, and not one that we should give up on, disability or no disability.