This post covers a topic I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. It has nothing to do with financial independence or early retirement. Still, it is a topic very personal to me and I’d like to share some of my thoughts.
According to various sources, roughly 200,000-250,000 U.S. service members transition from active duty every year. Many of these veterans have been in the military their entire adult lives and have little to no experience in the civilian workforce. I made this transition myself about 15 months ago after nearly nine years on active duty preceded by 2.5 years of ROTC in college.
Although I felt very prepared to separate from active duty and quickly found employment, there have been some challenges. I’ve had to adjust to a new role and work environment in an industry totally unfamiliar to me. Aside from learning fresh job skills, I’ve had to build a new professional network from the ground up. Who you know and personal relationships seem to be much more important in the civilian sector.
I’ve known numerous people who did well on active duty and once they got out never seemed to find their groove. I definitely underestimated how tough the transition can be and still do not feel comfortable at work. Civilian employers seem to prefer specialists, while military officers are bred to be generalists. For me, this is a huge distinction that cannot be understated. Not to mention, many enlisted positions don’t translate well to civilian careers at all.
The comments below are based on my own experiences written from the perspective of a non-prior enlisted junior officer in a highly technical career field. Bear in mind, everyone’s experiences will be different based on their branch of service, where they were stationed, education level, and occupational specialty, just to name a few.
I’ll begin by discussing the early phase of the transition while still on active duty. Then, I’ll talk about some of the pros and cons post-separation.
- Once you receive your separation orders, you are given an out-processing checklist filled with personnel-related tasks you’ll need to complete. The checklist is fairly similar to one you would complete for a PCS, but with a few additional steps.
- You’ll attend a transition assistance briefing where they’ll go over resume writing techniques, household budgeting, VA benefits, and other fairly basic concepts. I didn’t find this to be terribly helpful since I already had a job lined up and wasn’t claiming any disabilities.
- Have a plan. Understand why you are separating and what you’re going to do once you’re out. Is your enlistment up and you want to move back to your hometown? Are you using the G.I. Bill to go to school? Are you interviewing for jobs? Where will you live? Everyone’s situation is different and there are no right or wrong answers, but you need to at least be asking yourself these types of questions. I was amazed at how the majority of the people in my transition assistance class had no plan for their futures.
- Joining the Reserve or National Guard may be harder than you’d expect. Even with a reserve position already in place, it still took nearly six months to receive all the necessary approvals and to be gained by my new unit (which was coincidentally the same unit I had just left). If you’d like to go this route, my advice is to start EARLY, be proactive throughout the entire process, and stay in touch with your recruiter.
- If your “final out” is anything like mine, it will be very anticlimactic (not that I expected a parade or anything like that). You set up a time to turn in your out-processing package, they check to make sure everything is there, thank you for your service, and then you leave. It is a very odd feeling to know you will not be putting on the uniform anymore. I’m not sure I know the proper words to describe it. Even though I’m a reservist now, it was still a strange feeling.
Advantages of not being on active duty
- Not shaving every day is awesome! I generally rock a short beard between reserve stints and it is great. My skin feels so much healthier and less irritated. Facial hair FTW!
- You gain much more control of your life. You can choose where to live and work. These both sound great, but now you need to actually take the initiative and put yourself on the path you want to be on. In the military everything is taken care of for you, not so much out in the “real world.”
- Although I currently make roughly the same as I did when I left active duty, the income potential seems to be MUCH higher in the corporate world. Senior officers would always tell us you don’t join the military to get rich. While this may be true, you can make enough to live comfortably, especially on the officer side.
Disadvantages of the civilian world (the grass isn’t always greener)
- Few people will have an understanding of what you have experienced or accomplished while in the military, though some may be curious. Over a year later, I still don’t feel like I fit in at my current employer.
- Figuring out what to wear every day sucks! Thankfully, I work in a casual environment and usually sport khakis and a polo. This is my attempt to create a new “work uniform.”
- The camaraderie, or lack thereof, in a typical corporate job does not compare in any way to that which you’ve become accustomed to in the military. This is probably the single thing I miss the most.
- From what I’ve seen, junior officers and NCOs are entrusted with much higher levels of responsibility than those of similar age/experience on the corporate side. Today, I feel like a low level corporate minion.
- My current job is just a job and nothing more. Even though my employer may have a noble mission and frequently lands on “Best Places to Work” lists, my role, like others, is simply to help the company operate more efficiently and sell more products.
I’m sure I could go on and on about this topic. I know it was the right decision for me to get out when I did, but that doesn’t mean every aspect of the transition has been easy. Being in the military is not always fun and sometimes sucks. Overall though, I’ve had a great experience and wouldn’t trade it for anything. When speaking with veterans, I can almost always sense a bit of excitement in their voice while talking about their service. I even sense it in myself. Maybe it’s just nostalgia.
If you’ve previously served, I’d like to hear about your transition to civilian life. What challenges did you face? Did anything surprise you or did it go pretty much as anticipated?