Transitioning out of the military is a big decision. It is fraught with memory. It is emotional, physically, mentally, and spiritually draining to search for a job or experience that fulfills us the way a nighttime helicopter assault used to. Many of our peers struggle to adjust to civilian life. Some find solace in weightlifting or metalworking. Others take a destructive turn to vices: alcohol and drug abuse. Sadly, we lose many of our brothers and sisters to suicide. Transition is not easy but it can be made less difficult. This week, I’ll talk about how service members can help themselves in the transition process.
The bottom line up-front is this: at some point, every single service member will take off the uniform and become a civilian. Many people control their own transition process. Nothing is certain—except death and taxes—so do things now to prepare you for civilian life, even if you plan on becoming the next Chief of Staff of the Army. Involuntary separation and chapter discharges are difficult situations, but these tips can help a bad situation become better. My experience deals mainly with the Fort Bragg Soldier For Life: Transition Assistance Program. Your mileage may vary.
Tip #1: Take control of your eventual exit by seeing what else is out there; it doesn’t hurt to look. Take a day or two of leave for job interviews. Your unit shouldn’t give you any flak, but if they do consider it an indicator of dysfunction. No organization should be unable to function without one single person. If they keep giving you flak about looking into civilian life, you’re in a toxic unit, period the end. Our military service doesn’t just cover our time in uniform, it is about a lifetime of service to the nation and our fellow man. Get an exit strategy going right away. So long as you are the honest broker and don’t use job searching as an excuse to shirk your daily duties, this should not be an issue. Take the high road, communicate early and often, and use the people around you to help talk things out.
Education is another helpful route to explore safely while still on active duty. It is fairly simple to take college courses nowadays online or in person at a local education center. I finished a Master of Arts in Diplomacy at Norwich University College of Graduate and Continuing Studies. The residency week at the beautiful Northfield, Vermont campus really got me thinking seriously about leaving. It was not my own accomplishment motivating me; it was learning what my peers were doing to change the world. Many of them were former military and the story usually went, “I was in the military for 5-10-20 years, got out or retired, and now I run a non-profit, own a business, or work for ‘insert public or private company name here.’” The military was a foundational experience in their life but it was a stepping stone, not the end-all-be-all. Those mealtime and barroom conversations with diplomats, academics, and my peers inspired me to actually listen to my own ambitions. Uncertain as I was about my own career, I decided looking around wasn’t a bad idea.
School was the right choice at the right time; it heightened my critical thinking and writing skills. It also showed me a career in civilian government service was an unlikely possibility. The reasons will fill another article itself but suffice to say I did not have the patience or willingness to transition into civilian federal service. Private sector work or starting my own business was the next avenue. If you’re not a veteran, you have to understand how scary these options are to someone who has been in the military during the nascent stages of adulthood. At the time, the military was all we knew. If you ARE a veteran, you have to understand this does not have to be scary. You have to understand that the skills you DO know are highly coveted outside of the Army. Repeat this affirmation to yourself: You and your skills are highly coveted by others. Good. Moving on.
The process of transition and job searching can be overwhelming. Everyone from the Veterans of Foreign Wars to the local base transition services and private headhunters is willing and able to offer their various services. Tip #2: Do a little research and choose one service. ONE. That is it. One. It is one of those decisions where going with your gut is the right choice. I used Orion International. I got a good vibe from their professional e-mails, their personalized—free—service, and the companies they represented. I also met Lt. Col. David Scott Mann, U.S. Army, Ret., who works with The Next Ridgeline and the Green Beret Foundation. His “three questions” and the “Three R’s” were critical in charting the right post-Army future. That, dear readers, is next week’s article. Moving on…
Tip #3: Do the job interviews, talk to colleges, universities, and trade schools, and ask pointed questions. You’ll learn something (how to write a resume), gain confidence in yourself (I repeat, your skills are highly coveted), and get good rehearsals that will serve you in the military (public speaking). You are in no way obligated to commit to leaving the military. You can always refuse a job offer, or rescind a college application. Many will understand. If they don’t a) you probably wouldn’t like working there and b) you’ll probably never see them again. Take the high road, be the good SOF operator, make friends, and influence people, but ultimately make the right decision for you. Notice I didn’t say for your family. You. Do this process the right way, and those outside avenues will still be open when you do leave the military, because, yes, you will eventually take off the uniform and yes, people do remember those who stand out in a positive way.
So you plan on being a beach bum or couch potato for 3, 6,12 months past your terminal leave date. Great. Incredible in fact. I’m all for it. Go hike the Appalachian Trail, do a pilgrimage through Europe, or literally spend most of your time on the jon boat fishing. Tip #4: if your plan is to do nothing and “figure out what you want to be when you grow up,” be financially prepared to do so. Seriously. Use whatever financial plan you like and save the funds to take time off, whether you have family or not. You have no idea how many people actually dream of taking time away from the office, or how few people actually do it. This is a viable, acceptable, and even prudent option. Time can heal wounds, give space, and allow for a bit of consolidation and reorganization before jumping into the next endeavor. Hell, doing “nothing” could turn into your next endeavor. Winning fishing tournaments can turn into a sponsorship, a couple of weeks in the woods can evolve into a career in the forestry or outdoor tourism industry. It makes sense right? SOF Soldiers can survive in the wild; who better to teach other communities in society and push them to their limits. Find something you’ve always wanted to do and just do it.
Bottom line: Own your transition. If you’re thinking about it, do the leg work now. You might find the military is the right place for you. Win. You might find an incredible once-in-a-lifetime opportunity in the public, private, or small business sector. Win. You may discover you want to take a break from the world and just chill out for a while. As long as you have the coin or financial freedom to do so, it is a win. You will win as long as you take control.
This first appeared in The Havok Journal February 25, 2019.