Distinguishing MILITARY Transition from CAREER Transition
No. Military transition and career transition are not the same thing. It may sound obvious, but you wouldn't know it from the protocols used to execute what passes for military transition today. To prove my point, ask yourself this question: How do most service members define a successful transition? I would submit that it has something - if not everything - to do with landing a job. Unfortunately, military transition isn't about employment. It is about uncovering your identity from under the uniform so you can step confidently into the next chapter of your life. One of the greatest mistakes we make is assuming that employment is the center of gravity to a successful military transition . . . and that is why we fail.
I made the assumption that transition was all about finding a job - twice, and I was wrong - twice. Most of the articles and advice I see under the banner of military transition centers on finding a new job, but how does that address the unique challenge of military transition? Let's examine how we got to this point, explore what's involved with a 'military' transition, and address some hard truths moving forward. Existing transition programs focus on securing employment at the expense of addressing the deeper identity challenge that prevents veterans from connecting with civilian society and finding purpose and meaning in life beyond the military.
Employment doesn't define success in the transition process. Connection does. Connection leads to meaningful opportunities. After all, social connection and the feeling of belonging is why we are here.
How We Got Here
Warriors have been reintegrating back into society since the dawn of warfare, but the modern incarnation of what we call 'transition assistance' was born in 1991. The program was conceived from the involuntary force reductions that occurred after the Cold War. Since that time, a veteran's ability to secure post-service employment remains the primary focus of the program. When unemployment compensation for veterans increased from $232 million in 2002 to $730 million in 2011, Congress passed the Veterans Opportunity to Work (VOW) to Hire Heroes Act. This law mandated pre-separation counseling and provided monetary incentives to employers to hire veterans. The reason why we assume that military transition is the same as career transition is because our federal institutions and public programs have defined it that way.
Consequently, the cadre of transition advisors, counselors, and assistants have expertise career related services and navigating the job market. With the exception of veteran services and benefits, most of the mandatory activities for transition are not unique to the military population. Think about it: If you never served in the military, what would it take to find a job? You might spend a day or so exploring your values. You'd have to create a resume based on your skills and build a LinkedIn profile. You'd have to prepare for interviews, create your brand, practice an elevator pitch, and network. You'd talk to a mentor or someone you trust. Perhaps you might even expand your education or obtain an accreditation. Most of what qualifies for military transition are the same activities that any ordinary civilian would have to accomplish when changing careers.
If the uniform is more than just a job, then why are transition assistance programs structured around finding a job?
Understanding Military Transition
Military transition is about the identity transformation from the warrior archetype into something more purposeful in the continued service to society. Long before the existence of public programs and federal bureaucracies, primitive tribes recognized the deep psychological, emotional, and spiritual burdens associated with warrior reintegration. They used the symbolism from the practice of ceremonies and rituals to address these burdens and welcome warriors back into society. Upon reintegration, warriors became the wise elders, chieftains, and leaders of the social order. They repurposed the wisdom and experience from the military journey to becomes something more. How do the existing transition protocols achieve similar objectives and outcomes?
When it comes to how we reintegrate our warriors, we don't have to rely on rituals and ceremonies. We can rely on our modern understanding of psychology. For example, we recognize that an individual personality is formed by the time a person reaches their mid-thirties, and change requires the 5 percent of conscious intention to overcome the 95 percent of formed habits. The longer you serve, the harder the transformation - so why are transition programs largely the same for retirees and one term soldiers? We recognize the physiological implications of neural plasticity, Hebbian learning, and the neurological challenges of overcoming years of mental and psychological conditioning. We know from scientific research that it takes an average of 66 days to form new habits. Science tells us what we need in order to break the habit of being a soldier, so how does a weeklong program with a few extra workshops achieve successful reintegration?
They don't. That's the problem. Unfortunately, this becomes your problem when you leave the military.
Because we don't do 'military' transition, the challenge of civilian reintegration falls on the veteran, and society suffers the consequences of failing to prepare men and women for life beyond the military
The Hard Truth
Given what we know about the science, a weeklong workshop or group presentations (now with mandatory checklists) are insufficient to address the identity crisis that accompanies military transition. What is necessary is a personalized approach of Identity Analysis using an integrative program of transition that addresses factors related to personal identity, purpose, intrinsic strengths, beliefs, and intentions that go beyond career related goals to include aspects of holistic wellness, socialization, cultural assimilation, and family adjustment. It takes six weeks to turn a high school graduate into a warrior, and given the level of conditioning and associated experiences in the military, it takes a personalized program of consistent engagement over a period of weeks (if not months) to transform the warrior back into a civilian.
It's true that many service members can find a new job without ever truly transitioning from the military. After all, that's how we do it now. Veterans are employed, but just because you successfully landed a job doesn't mean you successfully transitioned from the military. You'll validate your preparation about six months after you drive out the gate for the last time. Trust me. You'll know whether or not you successfully assimilated back into civilian society because you'll feel it. When we do the forensics on this period of history for the veteran population, we will uncover the hard truth that many of the health, social, cultural, and economic challenges that plague our community have more to do with inadequacy of transition than they do from the more convenient and expedient diagnosis of PTSD.
Any changes to the entrenched protocols for transition will come slowly, so what can you do now? Well, you can be the example. Before you start asking questions about what you want to do, start with who you want to be when you can't be the soldier anymore. Spend some time unpacking your authentic identity story to write a better chapter for what happens next. Nobody said leadership was easy. Military transition is about seeing yourself as more than just the uniform. That's the difference between military transition and career transition - the acknowledgement that YOU are what makes the uniform great. What you offer to society is much more than the uniform. When you are ready to accept responsibility for how you pursue passion and fulfillment in continued service to society, you are ready to connect. You are ready to reintegrate back into society . . . and this is how you succeed.