Confronting the F-Word in Military Transition

The most dangerous enemy along the military journey is the one we face as we walk out the door.

The most dangerous enemy along the military journey is the one we face as we walk out the door.

The military has its own version of the F-word. Like the other word you might be thinking of, this F-word is considered an obscenity in our culture. It represents something that is not to be tolerated. If you used this F-word to describe a fellow service member, he or she would definitely be offended. It represents what lurks underneath our persona and warrior ethic. We don't like to talk about it, but trust me, we all know it's there.

During military transition, this F-word is the source of your anxiety. It keeps you up at night thinking about who you will be, where you might go, and what you might do when you can't be the soldier anymore. It's what you experience in the days following the career conference when nobody calls you for an interview. It's what you sense as your separation date looms near without any job offers. It's what you feel when you can't answer the question from family and friends about what you might do after you hang up the uniform. It warns you of what might happen if you don't play it safe. It shackles you in the status quo of mediocrity. It's the voice inside your head that tells you to stop listening to your heart.

The last enemy you confront in your military journey is the one you face when you drive out the main gate for the last time. The F-word that haunts you during military transition is FEAR.

The Nature of the F-word

On a physiological level, fear is an emotion tied to our survival instinct. It operates on a subconscious level. No soldier wants to admit when they’re afraid, but the body knows when we are scared before the mind does. The amygdala is the structure in the brain beneath the prefrontal cortex that screens incoming stimuli for potential threats. This includes new and unfamiliar circumstances - like almost everything you experience when leaving the military. When presented with a potential threat, the amygdala sends signals to release hormones that mobilize your sympathetic nervous system well before you analyze the nature or severity of the potential threat.

You recognize this heightened state of arousal as stress. A certain level of stress can raise your cognitive appraisal to motivate higher levels of performance. If we assess that we have the capability and capacity to overcome the threat, then we move past the initial, subconscious reaction into deliberate, conscious action. In many cases, we excel as we overcome the challenge. When circumstances have a level of novelty, uncertainty, or ambiguity, it becomes more difficult to assess our capability and capacity to handle the situation. We begin to worry. As a precaution, we maintain that heightened state of arousal. We take inventory of our vulnerabilities. In other words, we feel anxious and become afraid.

When the decisions you make are based on what you NEED instead of what you WANT, you are allowing fear to shape your life beyond the military

Fear invokes scarcity. It forces us to play defense. When we become anxious, our perspective narrows. We focus on the minimum necessary for survival at the expense of everything else. We lose our connection to creativity, vision, inspiration, and even happiness. Fear focuses all of our intention on the need for survival. Consequently, you settle in a job well beneath your potential. You don't launch that business idea. You don't write that book. You take what you can get instead of reaching for what you want in life. You are never your best when you are afraid, but unfortunately, military transition is overflowing with fear-based energy.

Where the F-Word Lurks in the Transition Process

From the perspective of the military institution, the fear of transition is one of the most effective tools to meet retention objectives. We stir the uncertainty and self-doubt that comes from the thought of securing a well-paying job with commensurate benefits in the civilian world. You could argue that the reason why existing transition protocols are so inadequate is because the military fears that they won’t be able to retain their best talent if service members had access to a transition program that discovered an even better opportunity outside the military. Because you are a volunteer, you are free to leave, so the military relies implicitly - and sometimes explicitly - on the fear of separation to entice you to stay.

The society we hope to join offers its own brand of fear. The widening civil-military cultural gap contributes to the misunderstanding that feeds this fear. Because the veteran’s resume doesn’t fit into the human resources template for talent management, hiring managers fear a lack of ROI for new veteran hires. Employers don’t want to take the risk and empower veterans at a level commensurate to level of authority and responsibility they once enjoyed in the military. Some may even be intimidated by the leadership experience of transitioning service members. Recruiters tell transitioning service members to manage expectations. Senior leaders are advised to take a step back. The fear of losing a return on investment against the backdrop of the hiring costs, lack of understanding about the military experience, and the cost of turnover causes many civilian employers to proceed with extreme caution in their veteran hiring strategies.

From the service member’s perspective, we fear the loss of income, status, and connection. Because we fear the loss of compensation and benefits, we too often settle for the minimum in a job so we can pay the bills. We scavenge for entitlements to fill the gaps. Because we lose the rank and title, we fear the loss of status. Because we lose the camaraderie and trusted relationships, we fear disconnection, but we hesitate to make new connections with non-veterans for fear of rejection. From the service member's perspective, the greatest fear in the transition process is the fear of failure.

The closer you get to your separation or retirement date, the cycle of fear takes on a dynamism of its own. It erodes our confidence. It detracts from our sense of personal value. It frames our approach to life beyond the military into a fight for survival. We bank and sacrifice our leave time so that we can maintain an income while searching for the next job. We scramble for accreditations and certifications to validate our experience. We can’t seem to attend enough job fairs for fear that we might miss something. You've seen these people out there, so would you consider their actions 'ambitious,' 'resourceful,' or 'desperate?'

You know what fear looks like because you've seen it play out as desperation.

The Other F-Word

The military conditions us to consider all the options and analyze the outcomes. We continuously identify and manage risk throughout every aspect of our lives. Sometimes, we get so focused on the tactics of transition that we lose sight of the bigger picture. Not having a job might scare you, but never accepting the risk to be the person and leader you were meant to be should terrify you all the more. If we don’t take risks, we may never be disappointed or disillusioned, but when we look back upon our lives (and at some point, everyone looks back), we realize only too late that we have wasted our gifts. At the moment when we can appreciate the joy and magic of life, the opportunity has passed us by. When you think of it that way, it all comes down to what scares you more.

Believe that you can have both. You can have a job with meaning. Believe in yourself. You can make an even greater impact in life beyond the military. You just may not find that opportunity by looking in the usual places. Here's a hint: Start by looking in instead of looking outKnowing your values, your purpose, and your desired end state for life beyond the military will keep you focused. Understand your desired state of being before you establish your state of doing when you leave the military.

Along the way, fear will tempt you to deviate from your chosen path, but there is another F-word out there. It is the one that shows up when you pursue your heart's true passion. It is the one that shows up when you believe in yourself. It's required to start that business. You'll need it to write that book. You will rely upon it when you turn down the job offers you have because you haven't found the one you want. When you arrive at the moment of reckoning, fear makes you hesitate, but this word inspires you to take the leap.

Faith is the other F-word and your other option. So, which one is going to shape your transition from the military?