Transitioning from Military to Civilian Life

Featured Media, Blog | 11/28/2016

By Mike Pritts, 2016 Tillman Scholar

My thoughts on transition have evolved a bit since I retired in July of 2015.  Initially, I thought that somehow the Army’s transition assistance program had failed me, and while the program itself is incredibly flawed and should be restructured to maximize the investment, the ultimate responsibility for my transition lied with me.  Whether your transition is successful or challenging also lies with how well you prepare yourself before separation.

Today, I frequently recommend five things when mentoring transitioning service members.

“Fear is good. Like self-doubt, fear is an indicator. Fear tells us what we have to do. Remember one rule of thumb: the more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it.” ~Steven Pressfield

Embrace Fear. The military offers one of the most secure jobs in the market today. You have the comfortable certainty in a steady paycheck with routine annual pay raises, affordable healthcare, and inclusion in an established professional community. There is even something comfortable about not worrying about what you will need to wear to work every day or the associated costs with building a professional wardrobe. All of this changes the day you decide to transition, and you have to embrace that uncertainty. Embrace fear!  Embrace change. All of this is unnatural, but if you take a few steps in the years ahead of transition, all of this is very manageable.

Eliminate debt. The same comfort of a guaranteed paycheck allows many service members to build massive amounts of debt and a comparable amount of anxiety as they approach transition. You want to transition with as little stress as possible, so eliminate as much debt as possible in the years approaching separation with the goal of transitioning debt free. Your installation transition office will help you develop a budget for your first year after separation, but I recommend that you start early and restrict spending to the essentials for at least a year before separation. Once you have eliminated debt, apply your surplus income to building a next egg that will last AT LEAST 6 months after separation.   Building a nest egg will relieve any anxiety you have about making ends meet as you transition, allowing you to focus on the next important decision in your life: Finding your passion.

“The two most important days in your life are the day you were born, and the day you find out why.” ~Mark Twain

Find your passion and then pursue it relentlessly. What do you want to do next in your career? You have an incredible opportunity to pursue your dream job. Don’t make the mistake that so many veterans make by starting a job search based on salary alone. Salary is only one aspect of finding happiness in your post-military career. If money were not an issue, what would you do with your time? What is your passion? What do you dream about? List of the top four or five things you think you would like to do and research the requirements for each. Like anything else in life, you will have to work very hard to acquire the skills necessary to fulfill your goals. Once you know what it is that will motivate you to get out of bed and go to work every day, identify any shortcomings in your education or certifications that you may require and relentlessly pursue them. This is no different from anything else you have done in the military to acquire the knowledge necessary to be successful. Many transitioning veterans I counsel today are looking for a quick route to a high paying position based on military experience alone. Despite a supportive community that is willing to help transitioning veterans, if you lack the skills and certifications for the job you won’t land that position.

“Plans are nothing.  Planning is everything” ~Dwight D. Eisenhower

Conduct Mission Analysis. Transition will become one of the most significant events in your life, similar to getting married, planning a family, and purchasing your first home, all events that require a deliberate decision-making.  Detailed planning is something that service members are taught to do from a very young age.  We conduct planning for the smallest of missions and we attempt to mitigate contingencies along the way.  Unfortunately, many service members fail to apply the same principles to their transition from the military, and as a result, they experience significant challenges adjusting to civilian life and work.  It is every bit as important that you apply the same diligence to planning for transition that you have applied for planning a combat mission.  Stay with what you know, and conduct deliberate planning.

“I don’t know what your destiny will be, but one thing I know: The ones among you who will be really happy are those who have sought and found how to serve.”  ~ Albert Schweitzer

Continue to Serve. A continuation of service was probably the most influential aspect of my transition from Army Special Forces to becoming a high school teacher; a career that is demanding, time-consuming but is allowing me to create relationships with young people who will become our next generation of leaders. Tillman Scholars are selected, among other things, for their deep commitment to creating positive change in a variety of fields.  What better way is there to serve than to be an agent of change in your community? Our communities need your experience and leadership in the public sector. Our children need your patience and leadership in the classroom. If you choose to make service a priority of your transition and second career, I think you will find that the reward far exceeds the salary you will receive.

None of these suggestions are foreign to anyone approaching military transition. In fact, they have all been requirements for your entire length of service. My main point in this blog is to apply the same skills that made you successful in the military to your transition and your next career. When we continue to embrace uncertainty, live within our means, pursue passion through appropriate education, and plan every step in detail while continuing to serve after we take off the uniform, we create our own conditions for success. Will it be easy? No. Will it be worth it? Absolutely. Good luck!

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