How to Conquer the Fear of Military Transition

Remember, you are the example for the people that matter most in your life.

Remember, you are the example for the people that matter most in your life.

Do you remember the first time you saw yourself as a leader? Maybe it was through sports or a similar activity from high school. Maybe you assumed a leadership role in your family or community. Perhaps it happened before you were even a teenager. You hardly noticed it because it didn’t really require you to do much of anything. You were just being yourself. Others were drawn to your energy. People were inclined to follow you. Through your leadership, you discovered a genuine passion to serve others. You believed that you could make a difference, so you did.

You continued your leadership journey through the military. It was a path of personal and professional growth. You nurtured your core leadership qualities and made an impact on the lives of others, and then it was time for you to leave the military. So, now what? We face the prospect of transition or retirement with an impending sense of doom. Our vision doesn't extend beyond the horizon of our separation date. Fear fills the space where there was once a feeling of passion and purpose. The transition process feeds that fear until it metastasizes into a palpable entity that paralyzes our ability to discover an empowering life beyond the military.

We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when men and women are afraid of the light - Plato

Most combat veterans fear transition from the military more than they fear the possibility of another combat deployment. Think about that for a moment. Service members are more comfortable enduring life threatening situations in foreign lands than they are returning to the normalcy of the very society they committed to defend. How the hell does this happen? A deeper examination of the transition process reveals many of the reasons for this phenomenon, but transition can be an opportunity for personal growth if we become the example for the people who matter the most in our lives.

How We Feed the Fear

Let's recognize that the entire transition process resonates in fear-based energy. From the perspective of the military institution, the fear of transition is one of the most effective tools for meeting retention and reenlistment objectives. An exceptional program of transition services might encourage more service members to leave the military. Perhaps that explains why the army sends field grade officers to a year-long program to prepare leaders for the second half of their military career, but when it comes to preparing these same leaders for the second half of their lives, that effort is reduced to just one week.

The society we hope to join offers its own brand of fear. Many employers fear the lack of a quantifiable return on their investment (ROI) for new veteran hires. When 2 out of every 3 veterans leave their first job within two years of military transition, who can blame them? It costs a lot of money to recruit and hire even junior level managers from the military. Employers also fear that new veterans - particularly mid to senior level leaders - are too set in their ways and unwilling to assimilate into the social norms and culture of their organization. That fear grows with each passing year of military service. They hedge this fear through the types of positions and the initial salaries they are willing to offer these former military leaders.

The cycle of fear accelerates as we enlist support to land one of those jobs. Because we fear that our resumes won’t resonate with a civilian employer, we expend time and effort acquiring accreditation and certifications for our experience. The training and experience our nation thought good enough to dominate the world in matters of defense and international policy is not good enough for corporate employment. We become anxious from the urgency for all the things we “need” to do regarding our preparation and the related expectations for the next career after military service. For some of you, it might be the reason why you decided to read this article! We can’t seem to find enough articles, job fairs, workshops, and webinars to satisfy the fear of not being enough.

As transitioning service members, we endure this fear on a visceral level. We fear that we won’t be able to pay the mortgage. We fear that we won’t be able to afford college. We fear that the quality of life for our family will suffer after we leave the military. We fear that we will disappoint those who matter the most to us. We feel it, but every stakeholder adds to the slop in the trough that feeds the fear. It doesn't take long for that glutton to become ravenous. In a desperate effort to calm that beast, we sacrifice our potential. We surrender our dreams. We give up on our happiness.

Different Results Require a Different Approach 

Fear can be a powerful adversary during the transition process, but the solution for conquering this fear is quite simple: Stop feeding the fear. Reframe your approach to the transition process, and remember that you have been through transition before. You transitioned when you graduated from high school. You did it again when you finished college. You transitioned when you started basic training in the military. You transitioned when you started a family. You may have forgotten just how difficult and frightening these transitions were because you weren't focused on the fear. You were focused on the positive opportunities for the future. What’s keeping you from approaching your transition from the military in the same way?

           Military service is a description of something you did. Leadership is a description of who you are.

Growth has been the consistent outcome of each of the transitions in your life. The idea of making an even greater impact in life as a civilian is a daunting proposition. Following your heart or chasing your dreams seems more risky given your responsibility to provide for your family. Before you dump your hopes and dreams into the trough, consider how you are best suited to excel through this challenge given everything you have experienced leading up to this particular transition. Don't think of military transition as the end point, but rather think of it as part of the evolution to make an even greater impact as a veteran leader in society.

You can start by uncovering the inspiration that drove you to become that leader so many years ago. Rediscover your personal identity and passion as a leader. Trust your instincts. Look deeper for the right opportunity. If you can’t find it, then have the courage to create it. Dare greatly and embrace the possibility that your most impactful leadership challenge is yet to come.

Conquer the Fear Through Your Example

Before you succumb to the fear and comply with all the things you “need” to do at the expense of what you “want” to do, consider this scenario. Let’s assume that providing for your family is the main reason why you settle for the lower paying job that you don’t enjoy. Now imagine that it’s not you but your son or daughter going through a similar transition process. They approach you for your advice about what to do after they transition from the military.

While you are talking, they share their ideal scenario for life after the military. They describe an amazing dream where they have the potential to make an even greater impact as a veteran. You get excited because you know that this is the perfect job for them. As with all good things, that dream comes with a certain level of risk. When they start talking about the risk, their excitement fades. Like you, they worry about the implications that this risk might pose to the rest of their family. Like you, they want to settle for the steady paycheck. Like you, fear tempts them to give up on their dream.

In that situation, what advice would you offer your son or daughter? Would you tell them to settle, or would you encourage them to figure out a way to do both - pursue the dream and provide for their family? Is “settle” something you would recommend for a member of your own family? Probably not. You believe in them enough to know that they can figure out a way to do both, so what's keeping you from having that same belief in yourself? Why can't you be their inspiration through your example? Remember, you were a leader long before you put on the uniform, and you will be a leader long after you hang it up. Being a leader is who you are. So, do what you do best for the people who matter the most: Be the example and lead. Show them how to conquer the fear and have it all.