5 Things I Wish I Did During the First Year After Military Transition
I remember what it felt like to get that last stamp on my clearing papers. After more than two decades of service, the subtlety of that final act seemed somewhat anticlimactic, but I was finished! The day that seemed so elusive for so long had finally arrived. I was overcome with a sense of accomplishment and nostalgia. Like you, I had my fair share of difficult days, but I was grateful for the fond memories and the wonderful people I met through the military. I couldn't contain my smile as I walked proudly out of the personnel processing center for the last time.
As I drove off post, my mind drifted to the memory of the very first time I drove onto a military installation. It was the summer of 1989. I didn't sleep the night before. I just graduated high school two weeks earlier. Just like when you reported for duty the first time, I had no idea what I was getting myself into, but I couldn't wait to start that next chapter of my life. Now, that chapter was written. The ink was still wet, but I was ready to turn the page.
As the front gate got smaller in my rear view mirror, I was overwhelmed with emotions. For the second time, I disconnected from my military family. As a retiree, there was no going back this time. For most of my life, the insulated culture of the military was all I had known since high school. Because of how bad my first transition was in 2000, I took special care to set myself up for success this time. My resume was solid, and I already secured a job with a great title and acceptable salary. My family and I found a place to live in a superb school district. Beyond that, I didn't know what to expect. I wondered how I would fare the second time around.
The thing that struck me the most in the first few days of retirement was the silence. Even on leave, the government issued phone kept me connected to what was happening in the unit. Now, there were no more beeps from incoming email. There were no more phone calls from soldiers or their families. My anxiety started to occupy the uncomfortable silence. My mind would start racing with self-doubt and uneasiness. Did I make the right decision to retire? Did I choose the right job? Did we make the right choice regarding our neighborhood and school? Starting over as a middle-aged man with real responsibilities was - in a word - terrifying.
This is the part where I would love to share my personal success story about what happened next. Unfortunately, I can't. Not because I don't want to, but because I didn't do it well. Even though I had the benefit of two attempts at military transition, I struggled both times. As I look back on my experiences as a junior captain and again as a retiring battalion commander, what I can do is share with you 5 things that I wish I had done during my first year after leaving the military.
Number 1: I wish I would have just . . . slowed . . . down
Both times that I left the military, I had almost three months of accrued leave. Still, I took no time to decompress, reflect on my experience, or just have some fun (ah, fun - remember that?). I wanted to start work immediately. I tried to mask my uneasiness of becoming a civilian by focusing on the next job. The extra money was okay, but the real reason why I rushed to go to work was because I thought I could fast forward my way through the adjustment process. I thought of it like a deployment: The sooner it starts, the sooner it ends.
When I left the military as a junior captain, I had a well-paid job as a manufacturing engineer. I thought I knew everything about leading teams, so I jumped right in and did all the things I used to do as a military leader. I showed up early. I stayed late. I wanted to impress the higher-ups and my new colleagues. Unfortunately, I was only showcasing my own insecurity. My demeanor didn't impress anyone. I actually made people uncomfortable to the point that my colleagues didn't want to be around me. Hell, I didn't want to be around me. I stood out, but not in any of the ways that I had hoped.
When I retired, I also rushed into the next job. I was a bit more mature regarding my personality, but I failed to pay attention to the needs of my family. I neglected the fact that this adjustment was hard for them, too. My wife lost her social network and wanted to return to work after 12 years of managing our household and raising two kids. My kids entered school after the school year began. My focus should have been on my family. What's ironic about that statement is that family was the main reason why I left the military in the first place! When they needed me, I was busy. It was as if I was still in the military. I just wasn't wearing a uniform anymore. I can't get that time back. In hindsight, I should have prioritized my family and should have taken every single day of leave that I earned.
Number 2: I wish I would have been the first person to say "hello" more often
When you spend decades living in and around military communities, you have a lot in common with your neighbors, and I say that as someone who never lived in military housing (three years in Afghanistan being the exception, of course). You could always strike up a conversation about previous duty stations, deployments, prior unit experiences, or the next job assignment. It was easy to find things to talk about. That wasn't the case either time when I left the military.
To put it bluntly, I was afraid to talk to people. I was scared to start conversations out of fear of how others would react to the idea that I was a veteran. I don't know why, but I assumed that people would react in a negative way. The truth is, when I actually spoke to people, my military experience rarely ever came up. People asked where my family and I were from, but most of the time, they didn't ask about the details of my service in the same way people normally did in the military. When the topic of my service came up, every person I met was very respectful and courteous. I missed so many opportunities to climb out of my shell. I should have had the courage to start the conversation more often. I should have just started by saying "hello."
Wish 3: I wish I would have approached my new life with a beginner's mindset
I spent two decades ascending through the ranks to higher positions of authority and responsibility in the army. By the end of my career, I had a real hard time not being the person in charge. As military leaders, we are conditioned to embrace responsibility. We don't shy away from the tough calls. We can be very direct. We have no problem espousing our opinions about the distinctions between right and wrong. Command presence is an important quality in the military. Out in the civilian world, this conduct can be see as self-righteous and arrogant. When I behaved like I knew better, I only succeeded in pushing people away. Its really hard to lead when nobody wants to be around you.
I wish a had a beginner's mindset when I started my new job(s). Although it had been years since I had been the follower, that was precisely what I should have done. One of the first lessons I learned in the army was that you had know how to follow before you could truly lead. I should have listened more. I should have been mindful of the existing social and corporate norms before I asserted myself. I should have tried to understand before I spoke. I could have learned how to best support the team, make meaningful social connections, and then do exactly what I was hired to do - lead.
Wish 4: I wish I had developed a better plan to sustain my personal wellness
The military includes physical fitness as part of the daily routine. With the exception of a noted handful of job opportunities, no such requirement exists in the civilian world. Feel like sleeping in . . . no problem. Don't want to go to the gym . . . nobody cares. You can eat what you want and work out as little as you desire. Provided you don't mind expanding your wardrobe (expanding being the key word) you can get as unhealthy as you want.
I fell off the physical fitness wagon within the first three months. When I committed to get back in shape, it took a lot longer to recover what I had lost. My poor diet and exercise habits made me more susceptible to injury, which only worsened my level of personal wellness. Welcome to the wonder of middle-age! Civilian life has a way of encroaching on personal fitness in a way that the military life does not.
Beyond the physical, I should have tended to my mental, emotional, and spiritual wellness. I should have learned to practice mindfulness and meditation. I had a chance to learn meditation before I retired, but I incorrectly dismissed meditation as something unsuitable for military leaders. Only after I left the military did I realize that fitness isn't just about going to the gym, and I wish I had developed a comprehensive plan optimize and sustain my physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual wellness.
Number 5: I wish I would have used a Coach and a Mentor
If not for the exceptional leaders, coaches, and mentors throughout my military career, I never would have made it past the rank of captain. I never realized how much I relied on these people until they weren't there anymore. When I talk about a coach and a mentor, I mean much more than networking with people for a new career. This is about building the cadre of trusted advocates for continued growth in life beyond the military.
I was so worried about finding a job that I never explored what I really wanted to do with my life. So, I figured it out through trial and error. I was a manufacturing engineer, project engineer, project manager, at-risk young adult counselor, restaurant server, executive director for a national non-profit, visiting professor, and a consultant for non-profit policy and strategy. It took me almost 3 years to answer the question about how I wanted to lead and inspire others in life beyond the military. My resume and qualifications were never the issue. I just never answered the question of what I wanted to do, so I just settled for job security and what I thought I needed to do.
A coach could have helped me figure out my WHO and WHY, and a mentor could have provided valuable guidance once I settled on a new profession. In hindsight, I could have used both. A coach could have helped me dig beneath the two decades of military conditioning to discover my purpose. Perhaps if more transitioning leaders had coaches and mentors, 2 out of every 3 service members wouldn't change jobs in the first two years after leaving the military. Apparently, most of the other transitioning service members figure this out by trial and error like I did. If I had taken the time for introspection, coaching, and guidance on the front end, perhaps I wouldn't have needed 8 jobs in 3 years to figure out the best path for my life beyond the military.
What is Your Plan?
Honestly, I felt like I was playing with house money since I was promoted to the rank of major. My military experience was a significant personal and professional accomplishment. I exceeded my own expectations. When the excitement faded, I was very insecure. I was unsure of my choices. I was afraid that I was going to fail myself and my family. I became anxious instead of hopeful for the promise of the next opportunity, and I settled for what I thought I needed instead of pursuing what I truly wanted.
As I look back, there are 5 things that I wish I had done differently. I should havetaken my time. I should have made an effort to reach out and talk to my neighbors. I should have been a follower to learn how to inspire and lead others in a new culture. I should have had a plan for achieving and sustaining my wellness, and I should have found the right coaches and mentors to help me along the way.
The good news is that I don't have to live with the "should have" anymore. I can write a new story for what happens next. So can you. The unknown doesn't need to be scary, it can be exciting - like that first time I drove onto a military installation nearly three decades ago. Better days await you in life after the military, but it is hard to see the road ahead when you keep staring at the rearview mirror. All leaders in the military were meant for something more in life beyond the military. You best opportunity is in front you, so don't waste another day before you become the leader you were meant to be.