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Road to a high-flying retirement

By Jennie L. Phipps · Bankrate.com
Thursday, December 9, 2010
Posted: 4 pm ET

Ward Carroll, editor of Military.com, graduated from the United States Naval Academy and spent the better part of 20 years in the back seat of a Naval jet (picture Goose in "Top Gun") before leaving the Navy in 1998 to take a job as a GS-13.

It was a real letdown for a guy used to lots more excitement and prestige than a government desk job ever offers. "I wondered -- is my life over?" Carroll says.

If you think someone who retires as a Naval commander can afford to put his feet up, Carroll will set you straight. Between base pay, flight pay and hazardous duty pay -- much of which wasn't taxable -- Carroll was used to earning more than $115,000 per year. His retirement pay was about 25 percent of that. "It's like a little annuity; it doesn't mean you don't have to work," he says.

Ward Carroll in Afghanistan

Instead of sleeping at his desk for the next 20 years, Carroll crafted a retirement world that he could love. He found new challenges and new successes, and along the way learned a lot of lessons that soon-to-be retirees -- military or otherwise -- might find instructive as they do their own retirement planning.

One of his most satisfying new jobs is author. He's published five novels about military life -- "Militia Kill" is the fifth -- and he's just about finished with his sixth. After the publication of his first novel, he met a fan, another former Naval officer. He had read Carroll's first book, "Punk's War," and wanted to offer him a job editing his entrepreneurial startup, Military.com. Carroll briefly wondered whether leaving his government desk job was the right thing -- "I could have retired with another pension" -- but decided to go for it. "My desk job was boring."

Being out in the competitive world was a 180-degree switch.  "My MBA was the first year on the payroll here. I had no idea what it was going to be like  -- and it wasn't always fun," Carroll says.

But today, he thinks he made the right choices, and he offers these pieces of advice to anyone who is retiring and leaving one life in search of another:

  • You're never too old to learn new skills. Carroll spent his last tour of duty at the Naval Academy, where he was able to polish his writing and editing skills and get expert help with writing his first novel. That training has served him well.
  • Don't be afraid to try something totally new. Just because you haven't done it before doesn't mean you won't be good at it.
  • Just because you can't move to a new locale, doesn't mean they won't hire you. Carroll had a wife, two kids and five dogs, all of whom were unwilling to move to California where Military.com was based. But Carroll's new boss wanted him badly enough to allow him to telecommute most of the time.
  • Having ego about who you are and what you do is good, but don't let it get in your way. Carroll said that the experience of starting all over again persuaded him of the continuing wisdom of something he learned early in his military experience: "It's better to be lucky than good."

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