Thinking of leaving the military? Already took the exit door and wondering if you had fully thought out your decision? I’m not gonna lie to you and tell you it’s an easy process, but most service members aren’t doing themselves any favors as they navigate this life change. Let’s have a talk about what to be looking for, where to start, and most importantly, how to build realistic expectations.
First, let’s talk about the various toxic caricatures of “veterans” that are promoted by the community itself: You are a high functioning alcoholic, likely sexist and potentially racist, riddled by social anxiety and/or PTSD, incapable of calm interaction, physically broken from so many service related injuries, and likely to be poorly groomed in response to years of “standards.” Read that again and tell me if that’s what you want your future employer and friends to see about you. Is it true? If ANY of it is true, you should be working to fix these things or minimizing them in order to be successful, not wallowing in them.
Second, it seems that a lot of folks can’t stop talking about how their service made them an expert at foreign and domestic policy, social issues, and relationships in general. My grandmother once told me that you should never talk about sex, religion, or politics in polite society. Your opinions are just opinions, made no more or less valid by your experiences. It should be no surprise that you come across as polarizing to people you interact with professionally when you sound like a cross between Wolf Blitzer and Alex Jones. Stop that shit!
Also, here’s the biggest question: “What are you doing for me right now?” As a fellow vet, I know that your service was likely honorable and worthy of respect. It is also in the past. Society doesn’t owe you any thanks or obligation for that “service.” It was service. Take your entitlement mindset, crumple it up, and throw it away. Start asking yourself what YOU are bringing to the table. Start defining new goals for yourself. Work to accomplish those goals.
Vets, for all their complaining about safe spaces, have become institutional snowflakes. Oh, you fought in Korengal and lived to tell about it? Let’s bring that up in every irrelevant conversation... forever. Disagree with someone about a social issue that doesn't really effect you on Facebook? Let's melt down while invoking our veteran status as proof that our opinion is valid and informed. Being a successful adult in the civilian sector is about being confronted with opinions and views that differ from your own and processing them without blowing a gasket, then working shoulder to shoulder with the person whose worldviews are fundamentally different than our own.
Our Veteran community may seem like a melting pot of America, but we were typically heavily internally segregated by race and gender during our service. Even aside from those visible classifications, specific career fields attract and develop similar worldviews through shared suffering and hardship. Having those worldviews challenged by outsiders is difficult, but you HAVE to process dissent differently in the civilian sector. Service Members can take their frustrations out on “The System” and often develop the “us vs. them” mentality. That isn’t an effective coping mechanism in the civilian world. I’m always shocked by how resilient people are to major physical trauma but how quickly they have a meltdown over interpersonal, leadership, and logistical setbacks. When things don’t go your way, you can’t just get angry and drink yourself into your next government funded shift. If you aren’t working to find a solution, you are becoming part of the problem. Be an adult and find a socially acceptable solution that doesn’t involve demanding people listen to you by virtue of your experiences.
It’s worth noting that Esprit De Corps and direct leadership techniques work well in the military, but they develop a single language of communication that doesn’t necessarily translate well into a civilian job search or career. When you are transitioning, start thinking about it as learning a new language. Frame your service as valuable experience in leadership, discipline, and adaptability. Don’t wow your potential employers and peers with your (admittedly impressive) martial skills. Limit discussion of your technical abilities. Instead, discuss your ability to direct teams to mission success, your commitment to achieving your commander’s guidance, and your ability to learn new and complex systems.
The military has many elements of a total institution. Leaving the military is much more like being released from prison than simply choosing to be free at your discretion and move to a civilian career. The desocialization process that was endured in Basic Training doesn’t need to be repeated as a Service Member re-integrates to the civilian sector. Success after departing this system requires planning and active preparation. There are a lot of resources available to those in transition, but they can easily be squandered.
The GI Bill is actually something you ARE owed as a service member who meets the criteria to receive these benefits. But just like signing up for a Special Forces contract and quitting in Airborne School, college isn’t for everyone. Think about the trades… for most military members it’s a language they probably already speak. In the college saturated civilian world there are a plethora of high paying trade jobs that involve technical training and certification that companies are desperate to fill. Hate all those weak-gened college kids and can’t stand the idea of answering to some hippie puke that voted for “Killary”? Maybe you should go to welding school. Glad to finally not have monthly urinalysis and can’t wait to wake and bake? Maybe Information Technology Systems Management work is the right choice for you. Hell, a lot of flight schools have figured out how to get you from street to seat on 100% government funding. The best part is that with so many Global War On Terror Vets leaving the service, those educational/certification opportunities are generally covered by the GI Bill.
Also, have realistic expectations on your salary. You are leaving a job where your healthcare is free, your housing and food are subsidized and tax free, and you are incentivized with a variety of social and monetary perks. Your base salary may FEEL small, but your spending power in the .MIL is pretty large. Unless you are staying in the government sector, you should also realize that you will be starting doing low level work and compensated accordingly. Even if you have a high paying contract gig, because of taxes on 1099 employment, your take home may not be as good as when you were in, even if you are on that six figure gross pay.
Here’s your corner of tough love: stop being an entitled asshole. Employers want what your chain of command wanted: right place, right time, right uniform. In short, you need to be on time and sober. You aren’t being edgy and worldly by trumpeting your failures and trying to advertise them as logical side effects of being a Veteran. Address your fears and insecurities through therapy and self-improvement. Gained weight after you got out because there’s not group PT? Being a self-starter is important in life, but find a community to encourage you if you can’t motivate yourself. Do you feel like you lost a sense of purpose after you left the military? The local bar isn’t going to fill that void; get out and get involved.
No one owes you anything, it’s up to you to prove your worth everyday. Or, you can keep making things harder than they have to be and wondering why the crowning achievement of your life was carrying a machine gun in Afghanistan and shooting at enemies with no idea why you were there in the first place.