Leaving the Military? The 3 Things You Should Know Before You Begin Updating Your Resume


I have a unique perspective on military transition. I did twice. I also did it poorly, twice. The first time I left the military as a junior captain. I put my faith in a junior officer recruiting company to find the best job opportunity. By "best" I meant the option with the most prestigious title and highest paying salary. They did. Unfortunately, it was the wrong job for me, and within a year of my separation, I was miserable. To make matters worse, I was laid off when the tech bubble burst. It was a total disaster. My second transition was my retirement after 21 years of military service. Once again, I ended up in the wrong job. Once again, I was unemployed. Once again, I was miserable.

I should have aced the transition to civilian life. As a captain and again as a lieutenant colonel, I landed a job months before I actually drove out the main gate for the last time. When I retired, I didn't have one but two masters degrees. As a former battalion commander, I had an accomplished record of leadership and executive level responsibility. As a recent MBA graduate, I also had the benefit of career services from multiple universities to help craft my resume, write my cover letters, and teach me the finer art of networking. So, what went wrong? The short answer is that I assumed that a great resume was the first and most important step to a successful transition. I thought the process was about finding the right job. I was wrong.

I was a West Point graduate, valedictorian of my MBA class, and former battalion commander who struggled during my transition to civilian life. Perhaps the word "struggled" isn't strong enough. I was lost and didn't know what the hell I was doing. Civilian life was supposed to be easier than this. Given my experience through multiple transitions from the military, allow me to share some insight so you might have a better perspective as you embark upon a new life beyond the military. Before you update your resume, search company profiles, or consider partnering with a recruiter, invest some time and effort to Know YourselfKnow the Players, and Know the Game of your transition to civilian life.

Know Yourself

If you are like me, you joined the military at a relatively young age. My journey started just two weeks after my high school graduation. I didn't need to know my values. I didn't need to have a purpose. The military provided all the necessary guidance and direction. I internalized the Army Values, and the military culture defined my identity. It was easy all the way up to the point when I couldn't wear a uniform anymore. Once I took that uniform off, I didn't know who I was anymore.

The real you is buried underneath the cover and concealment of the military culture. You may feel somewhat uncomfortable the first time you see your reflection absent the recognizable digital pattern of a military uniform. You may feel a bit guilty when you start waking up after 7 a.m. in the morning. Social conformity is a powerful impulse. Spend some time getting to know the real you - not the soldier, the real YOU. Look inward and uncover the values that shape your unique, personal identity. After all, your values define WHO you are.

I didn't do any of this the first time that I left the military as a junior captain. I thought I knew better, and I was wrong. My "high paying job" was as an engineer. I searched for engineering jobs because they made the most sense at the time. I had a degree in engineering, so what else was I supposed to do? I didn't know my values. I couldn't tell you what my passion or purpose was. It took less than two months before I started to hate waking up in the morning to go to work. I realized quite quickly that I didn't want to be an engineer, but I didn't know how to be anything else. I didn't know WHO I was, so I took a job based on WHAT I could do.

In addition to the WHO, consider your unique follow-on mission for life after military. In other words, discover your WHY. Do you remember your underlying motivation for joining the military? You volunteered for a reason. Patriotism, family tradition, or any number of intrinsic drives inspired you to answer the call. Beneath the education benefits and other incentives is the real reason WHY you chose military service. As you leave, search for the passion and purpose for an empowering life beyond the military. Find your new mission statement - a mission statement for your life. If you struggle to recognize your personal identity and purpose in life beyond the military, your resume won't be worth the paper it's written on.

Know the Players

Let's be clear about something: The military is much more concerned about how you come into the service than they are about your success when you decide to leave. Part of our retention strategy was always to chide soldiers about their plan for leaving the military in an effort to convince them that re-enlistment was the best option for their livelihood and the welfare of their family. Our institutions are at least subconsciously incentivized to make transition a foreboding process because they rely exclusively on volunteers. Given the competing nature of these underlying interests, we shouldn't be surprised by the inadequacy of transition assistance programs offered through the military. It helps maintain our retention numbers.

We have a deliberate process to turn a high school graduate into a warrior, but we lack the commensurate process to transform that warrior back into a civilian

Consider this . . . It took me four years of military education and cultural indoctrination at West Point before I received my commission. It took an additional year of training through officer basic course and flight school before I was ready to join a "real" army unit. My initiation into the military required five years of my life with a price tag that was well over half a million dollars. It took me about five days and maybe a few thousand dollars to complete all the requirements to actually leave military and rejoin society.

Transition assistance programs aren't tailored for your personal success. I know. I went through two such programs nearly fifteen years apart. The names of the programs were different, but the outcomes were the same. These programs exist to process tens of thousands of service members efficiently and effectively from the Department of Defense into the Department of Veterans Affairs (or out into society). They also seek to allay the burden of unemployment compensation for new veterans who fail to secure a job after they leave (unemployment compensation costs the DoD hundreds of millions of dollars annually and peaked near $1 billion in 2011). Keep in mind that the needs of the institution come first. Standard presentations, group briefings, and online surveys lack the necessary personal attention to address the vulnerability, uncertainty, and fear that accompanies the military transition process. Transition is simply not designed to be a service member centric process.

It is also important to consider the equities of other players like recruiting firms. Who are the recruiting companies working for? More to the point, who is paying them? If they require you to sign any documentation that constrains or limits your options, you may want to think twice about whether or not such a partnership serves your best interests. This is why it is so important to stand on firm ground regarding your WHO and WHY before you consider partnering with any recruiter or career search program.

Remember that the workforce you intend to enter more than likely doesn't understand the military experience. Don't hold that against them. They just don't know. Consequently, very few entry level jobs have the level of responsibility and authority that junior officers and NCO's enjoyed through the military. Given the widening civil-military cultural gap, their expectations and social norms of workplace interaction are probably very different from what you experienced as a junior or mid-level leader in the military. If you intend to show up with all the pretense and mannerisms that helped you succeed as a leader in the military, you may be disappointed to discover that those approaches don't work in the civilian world. Culture matters. Nobody will follow a leader who is disconnected, aloof, or socially awkward. Be yourself (assuming you know the WHO and the WHY), but also take some time to understand the culture and how to assimilate your style and skills in a way that doesn't challenge the accepted practices and social norms of the organization.

Know the Game

The phrases "military transition" and "transition assistance" set the wrong premise. You aren't trying to transition from the military. Leaving is easy. If you served more than one duty assignment, you already know how to out-process an installation. What you are really trying to do is achieve a successful reintegration into civilian life. Reintegration is the real objective. That is the real game. The reason why so many veterans don't feel like they "fit" after leaving the military is because our systems aren't calibrated for civilian reintegration. We've reduced the deeply emotional and psychological transformation from warrior to civilian into a physical exam and a job placement program. We don't optimize holistic wellness, nor do we address the social or cultural challenges of re-entering society. We shouldn't be surprised that so many veterans struggle in civilian life. Transition is easy. Civilian reintegration is hard . . . really hard.

You aren't just trying to find a new job. You are trying to discover a new life.

There is no shortage of information about all the things you must do to "get your resume right." At some point, you will need to work on your resume, but I recommend you consider some of these other things first. Remember, you aren't just trying to find a new job. You are trying to discover a new life. Leaving the military is as much a deeply personal, social, and cultural endeavor as it is a professional one. While we focus acutely on the language of the resume, we haven't addressed the WHO or the WHY that serves as the foundation for that resume. My recommendation based on everything I did wrong (and the things I finally did right) is to Know YourselfKnow the Players, and Know the Game. Tend to these things first and then worry about searching for the RIGHT career.

The hardest part about being in the military is leaving. We've gotten so used to seeing ourselves in a uniform that we don't know how to see ourselves without one. The thought of being ordinary can be a scary one. Start off the right way. Discover your values and uncover your unique purpose and passion for an empowering life after the military. Understand the interests of all the stakeholders in the transition process, and focus on what you are truly trying to achieve - a successful reintegration into a healthy, happy, and empowering life for you and your family. Commit to become the hero of your own story.

Now you know. Leaving the military shouldn't be the end of anything. It is the natural progression into something better. Inspire, lead, achieve, and take advantage of the life you and your family earned through your military service.