After Service: Four Things I Learned About Military Transition
Chef’s Table is a new section on Ramen IR that provides readers insight into various professions related to international affairs and foreign policy. Authors share their experiences, offering an inside perspective of their respective fields. Ultimately, the mission of Chef’s Table is to better equip young professionals and students to break into the field of international affairs through lessons learned, career testimonies, and advice from experienced practitioners.
Three years after signing my DD214 (discharge papers), it’s hard to remember that life once existed in an adrenaline-filled, high-stress, “you do more before 0900 then most people do the entire day” vacuum. For eight exhilarating, exhausting and altogether frustrating years, the parameters for each day were etched in a training calendar (barring of course short-notice deployments, higher Command guidance and that rascal Murphy).
Exiting this incredibly micromanaged world to a big unknown introduced weeks of sleepless nights. How would I eat? Pay the mortgage on my Fayetteville condo? And beyond financial matters, whom would I hang out with? Could I, a veteran who looked quite different from the archetypal soldier, make genuine connections and friends in the “real world”? These questions, and countless corollaries to these questions, dogged me as I marshalled my End-of-Term-Service (ETS) separation packet up my chain of command.
Speaking with soldiers that separated in the same season that I did, I knew that their stress level was on par with, if not MORE than, my own. Three years after separating I can’t say that I have it completely figured it out (that’s Lesson number one: transition doesn’t end once you’ve driven off Post like a bat out of Hell your last time), but I did wish someone had told me the following few bits of advice I’ve learned along the way. Accordingly, this is for all the other military service members stressing out while in transition, or thinking about transition.
1. Save a lot of money. Almost a year’s worth of your salary if you can. Remember how those back-to-back deployments were a boon for your bank accounts? Right. Now, reserve a portion of those savings for long-term investment, and ensure that you have a good amount of liquid capital that you can easily draw from in the months ahead. This advice is especially for the Military Officers who never learned how to properly budget (yours truly among them). The salary for a single O-3 without dependents and including Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH) provides a lifestyle cushier than your generational peers and is a difficult lifestyle to acquiesce once the DFAS (Defense Finance and Accounting Services) money train stops.
2. Nosce te ipsum. “Know thyself”. Welcome to freedom. Now who are you? The military is a world where service members identified themselves by rank, by Military Occupational Specialty (MOS), by position. It is a convenient way of figuring out how everyone fits in the uniformed bureaucracy. Unfortunately these categories rarely hold viability outside the military microcosm, particularly when attempting to make friends. Rather than spending time trying to de-jargonize your super specific functional area, commit some time to introspection. If you’re preparing for an interview, deduce how you as an individual (not just a veteran!) bring value to an organization. More and more, companies are looking for people who possess the social skills to fit in, and can work in teams with fluid hierarchies. Yes, we all know that you led squads/platoons/companies, but can you work well with others when rank is not a factor? What unique character strengths do you bring to the table? Hiring managers want to hear stories of who you are, and what you did, not position descriptions.
3. Be bold in shining your own light. A surprising obstacle I had as a newly minted civilian was making “I” statements. Day one of Army ROTC pounded a “we” mentality and when discussing my own accomplishments post-Army, I found it hard to shake “we” from my vocabulary. The Department of Veterans Affairs also recognizes this attitude shift as a common challenge for veterans adjusting to civilian life. Beyond changing my lexicon, I found it difficult to be bold in proposing initiatives without knowing that Soldiers depended on me to be brave. Leadership, in this sense, was a peculiar crux. Changing my paradigm from a “There is no I in team” to “I have to toot my own horn because no one else will do it for me” is a strangely hard shift to make, but a necessary one not only for transitioning to your civilian job, but also for overall career advancement.
4. Lastly, hone your networking skills. Networking may seem like a foreign skill if you’re still in the service, but it’s quite likely that you’ve been doing this already. Forbes Magazine describes networking as “people enjoying other people”. By far and large, this is the military experience in a nutshell – building relationships with those in your unit for the simple purpose of mission success. Leveraging this skill in the civilian world shouldn’t be difficult, but since leaving the service, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been to a networking event or luncheon to see veterans self-segregating, removing themselves from the rich experience of connecting with people from all walks of life. My advice? In the same way someone from an upper-middle-class household in the Northeast can connect with someone from the Deep South who joined the military because college was prohibitively expensive – and vice versa – a veteran should be able to forge relationships with civilians who have never served. You never know where your next job is hiding, but people are much more likely to refer a friend than a stranger with a stellar resume.
In short, transition is a pain. It is a process that forces you to drop identities and mindsets that you once held dear and is exorbitantly expensive. But, if it helps, everyone that has had the honor of wearing the uniform moves on, whether in death or in transition. My hope is that you will be in the latter category. Fortunately, veterans have and will continue to contribute to society in hugely substantive ways: in Congress, through non-profits like Team Rubicon, in entrepreneurship, and beyond. America wants and needs to welcome its Soldiers, Marines, Sailors, Airmen, and Coast Guard back to the civilian fold and looks forward to sharing your next chapter with you. The greater question is: How will you play a part?
Audrey Hsieh separated from the Army as a PSYOP Officer in summer 2012. After graduating from Georgetown University’s Master of Arts in Security Studies Program, she is now starting her second career of public service as a Presidential Management Fellow in the State Department. For information on how veterans are helping other veterans find job opportunities in the federal sector, contact her here. Her views are solely her own and do not necessarily represent the views of the US military, the US State Department, Ramen IR, other authors, or any of their organizations or affiliations.