Passed Over, But Not Out: Thriving as a Career Major
I worked hard, volunteered for extra duty, performed numerous deployments in harm’s way, stayed ahead of my personal and professional education requirements, and kept my nose clean. I did everything to demonstrate my worth to the Air Force. However, I became one of the roughly 30 percent of majors whose commander will call them into his or her office, shut the door, and say, “Hey Major, you’ve been passed over for lieutenant colonel.”
I was shocked. But just because I was passed over, that doesn’t mean I was out. So, now what? This article provides answers to this question to those who will find themselves in my shoes.
What’s an Air Force major to do once they’re passed over for promotion? There isn’t any “what’s next for my career” type of training, even if you’re allowed to stay in the military until you’re retirement eligible. You can keep looking backwards or keep moving forward. Acceptance of your new career and life presents you with choices. The choice is yours. If you’re lucky, you’ll know a passed-over major who will mentor you and give you sound advice. I had three. Here’s what they told me.
Once you’re passed over, the chances are extremely low you will ever be promoted. There are three courses your life could take: You can be forced out, join the Air National Guard or Air Force Reserve, or stay on active duty as a career major. Either way, expect to grieve the old life you had.
Promotion Isn’t Happening and Here’s Why
Air Force majors are generally considered for promotion in three stages: “below the promotion zone” before 14 years of service, “in the promotion zone” at 14 years of service, and “above the promotion zone” after 14 years of service. For the last 31 lieutenant colonel boards (1989 through 2017), the rate of promotion for majors meeting the board “below the promotion zone” averaged 2 percent. The rate of promotion for majors meeting the board while in the zone averaged 69 percent. This drops to 2.8 percent for majors meeting the board above the zone over the same period. If you weren’t promoted at 14 years, the chances of being promoted after are bleak. So if you’re part of the annual 31 percent who are not promoted in the zone, your chances at promotion only get worse. It’s time to accept this fact.
The Grieving Process
Grieving after being passed over is normal. You’re not alone. Others have gone through it before you. Jim Kane describes his experience as a passed-over Army officer in “How To Deal With Being Passed Over for Promotion.” You may go through grieving quicker than others but you will go through it.
The Kubler-Ross model posits five stages of grieving: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. You will grieve because dreams attached to any higher rank are gone. It doesn’t matter if these were plans you made in the last year or dreams you’ve had since you were a child. Your career path and your life have changed. All the work, late nights, deployments and less than desirable jobs you did will not get you promoted further.
The denial probably came quickly after your commander informed you that you had been passed over. And then it was followed swiftly by anger. That’s why leadership will usually try to give you time off. They know you’ll need time to process the news before moving forward. It’s ok to be angry. It’s normal. Find an older passed-over major you respect and talk with them. They’ve been there. They know what it’s like and what you’re going through. Let your anger out. It does you no good to keep it in. Have a beer (but not too many) with a friend. Go to the gym. Take a hike. Just don’t take your anger out on the people around you, especially your family. Remember, they’re processing this news too.
Bargaining comes next. It’s easy to get drawn into the idea you’ll still get promoted if you volunteer for a deployment or job no one wants. Working even harder and putting in even more hours away from your family will not get you a “Definitely Promote” rating. Look at the statistics again. You have a 2.8 percent chance of being promoted above the zone. Your goal should be getting to acceptance of your new life and moving forward.
Depression brings you a step closer to acceptance. Being “just a major” can feel like a failure. You worked many years. You expected to be given more responsibility and promotions. Now you’re not even sure now if you’ll be able to make it to retirement. It’s important to have a good support network in this stage. Talk to other passed-over majors who have made it to the acceptance stage. Go talk to the chaplain. Visit the mental health clinic — you’d see the medical doctor if you were sick, wouldn’t you? Remember this: You’re not a failure. Hundreds of millions of people in our country didn’t volunteer to serve in the military. You did. Be proud of it. You’re a “one percenter.”
It’s easy to get stuck in any of the first four stages for the rest of your career. Let the grief process run its course. If you find you’ve become the grumpy major in the squadron, go talk to someone so you can reach the acceptance stage.
Acceptance is where you want to end up. Your career has plateaued and a new one is in front of you. How you approach this new life is up to you. Once you’ve accepted being passed over what are you faced with? In the immediate future, here are the options you need to consider.
Forced Out, Guard or Reserve, or Staying Active Duty
After being passed over you’ll be faced with either being forced out, joining the Guard or Reserve, or staying on active duty as a career major.
The first possibility is involuntary discharge based on U.S. Code Title 10 at your first “above the promotion zone” board. Just don’t sit down and quit, and don’t be the drag on your squadron. It’s still your squadron and you still need to meet the board one more time with a good record. If you’re forced out, what are your job options? Being ready in case the worst happens will go a long way to giving peace of mind until after the board.
Another is to pursue an option of continuing your service in the Guard or Reserve. Make contacts in these units. Be honest with them why you’re looking at their units. They deserve to know why. Be open. Share what your strengths and weaknesses are. They’ll want an honest assessment of why you want to join their unit and you’ll need to have a straightforward answer. Guard and Reserve units hire for the long term and they often value different things than active-duty units. Their personnel often serve in the unit until retirement eligibility at age 60 and there are many stories of active-duty officers who have been passed over and gone on to fruitful careers in the Guard or Reserve.
The final option is to be offered and accept selective continuation. Selective continuation permits selected majors to serve in the current rank to either 20 or 24 years of service, based on the needs of the Air Force at the time. This option is different, it is the one I know best, and there are some things about this new career path you need to know.
An honest self-assessment will enable you to pursue jobs and careers which play into your strengths. How have these strengths helped you over your career and how will they affect your future? What jobs did you find most enjoyable and can you see yourself doing them for a decade or more? Be honest with your weaknesses too. If you’re not a great pilot then maybe staying in a flying squadron isn’t the right path. On the other hand, you could enjoy teaching. Maybe in your self-assessment you see continued service isn’t what you really want to do for the next six or more years.
If you should decide to accept continuation and stay on active duty, what you do will depend on your honest assessment of your strengths and weaknesses as much as it depends on your Air Force Specialty Code. What you become if you decide to stay is more important.You’re off the leadership track. What does this mean? Since you have little chance of being promoted in your career, some commanders might be reluctant to consider you for leadership positions in the squadron roster. This isn’t a reflection on what they think you can do, but rather on how our personnel system works. To get promoted, officers need to show growth on their Officer Performance Reports. Since other officers still have the possibility of being promoted they need those positions to show growth. You don’t. Don’t despair. As a career major there are other things you can do and still have impact. You may never again be a commander, but you’re still a leader, mentor, and the mature expertise in your squadron.
What to do next is really up to you. Depending on the needs of the Air Force, you may have the opportunity to settle into a base of your choosing. Do you want to stay in your current job or go do something else? It will be up to you to inform your chain of command. Want to deploy? Find the opportunity and go for it. Your key takeaway is it’s up to you to find ways of developing your career. Don’t expect your leadership to do it.
Know it will hurt seeing others promoted. It hurts because it’s a reminder of being passed over. I wish I could say it hurts less as time goes by but it really doesn’t. However, when I watch my young lieutenants being promoted over me, I’m proud they are mine. I got to mentor, encourage them, and then watch them grow into wonderful officers. They have become my peers and my supervisors. That’s just the way it is as a career major. Knowing this makes any pain easier to bear and prevents self-pity. So go to their ceremonies, celebrate their successes, congratulate them, drink their beer, and enjoy being their mentor. They’ll probably still come to you for advice.
Become a better officer than you already are and keep moving forward. Keep up on your job. What does it take to do it better than before? Study ways to become a better officer. While professional military education is currently tied to eligibility for promotion, this might change. Online education is opening up new frontiers in professional military education. Until then, there isn’t anything preventing you from studying Clausewitz, Joint Force Quarterly, War on the Rocks, or emerging concepts of war and leadership. See what you can find at your local library. Check into the Air Force Media program to get access to an online library including current and past Air Force reading lists. It could even be a great time to learn a new language. The options are limited only to what you can think of. Then sit down and ask questions about why the military does or does not do things a certain way. Are these ways still viable and what are some possible solutions? Keep growing, keep leading, keep learning, and keep moving forward.
In the end, whatever you become, whether a career major or civilian, the choice is ultimately yours.
Maj. Daniel “Lt Dan” Corindia is a course director for Joint Air Warfare Studies at the United States Air Force’s eSchool of Graduate Professional Military Education, Air University, Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama. He is a C-130 Senior Navigator with 626 combat sorties and was passed over for lieutenant colonel in 2015.