How I Made My Military to Civilian Transition: Two Success Stories
Moving from a stint in the military back into civilian life can be a tough transition, but nevertheless it is one that everyone who has served must eventually make. Here are two inspiring stories of success that prove that, despite the changes and challenges, life does go on after service to one's country is completed.
From career soldier to career diplomat
My DD-214, or military discharge certificate and certificate of service, was issued to Maj. Charles Ray, effective Sept. 1, 1982. It marked the end of my 20-year U.S. Army career. I enlisted on July 9, 1962, serving as an enlisted soldier until being commissioned on March 15, 1965, as a second lieutenant. I attended the six-month Officer Candidate School at Fort Sill, Okla., and was given a commission in field artillery.
I served as an artilleryman for all of one year, in Hanau, Germany, before being returned to the United States in preparation for going to Vietnam -- or so I thought. Instead, I found myself one of a handful of artillerymen, or "Red Legs" as we were known, working at the Infantry Officer Candidate School in Fort Benning, Ga., training young second lieutenants to be infantry platoon leaders. I suffered this indignity for six months, and then applied for Special Forces training. I was accepted and spent the next two years getting all kinds of specialized training before being sent to Vietnam in the summer of 1968, just after the Tet Offensive.
During that one-year tour, the Army decided that I was no longer qualified as an artilleryman, so they transferred me to Military Intelligence. I was reassigned to Fort Holabird, Md., for training and a six-month assignment to the U.S. Army Intelligence Command. I then went on to advanced intelligence training, then to Benedictine College in Atchison, Kan., to finish my undergraduate education, and then back to Vietnam in 1972 for a second tour, this time in charge of intelligence collection activities for the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam.
When the cease-fire was signed and U.S. units were withdrawn, I was reassigned to the 7th Psychological Operations Group in Okinawa, Japan. The commander of that unit sent me to Korea to command the 24th PSYOP Detachment. I held that job for over two years, but as the army began pulling special units back to the states, the unit was disbanded, and I was reassigned as the commander of a small logistics base just outside Seoul.
In 1976, I was posted to Fort Bragg, N. C., serving first as an intelligence officer, then as the public affairs officer for a unit for the first year. After a year, I was reassigned to the 18th Airborne Corps and Headquarters, Fort Bragg, as assistant public affairs officer. I served in that post until 1979; that summer I was sent back to Seoul, Korea, as Unconventional Warfare Operations Officer with the ROK-US Combined Forces Command.
I stayed in Korea until July 1981, when I decided that approaching 20 years and eligibility for retirement, I would hang up my uniform in 1982. At age 36, and having been parked in the rank of Major since 1975, I didn't see myself going much higher, and military life had stopped being fun and exciting. I was sent back to the U.S. (which is actually called CONUS, for "continental United States," by the military personnel system) to the Defense Language Institute at Monterey, Calif., as a senior Slavic language advisor.
Finally, after 20 years in the United States Army, I retired and became a civilian employee. But I didn't want just any job -- no, I decided to become a diplomat. Making the transition to the informal environment of civilian work after two decades of military formality and discipline was difficult, but the skills of adaptability I'd learned as a soldier helped me cope. In addition, I had strong family support.
The one thing I did like about military life was the opportunity to travel, so joining the U.S. Foreign Service seemed a natural thing to do. I took the Foreign Service exam in December 1981, and to my surprise, passed it. I passed the oral exam in April 1982, and was told that I could expect to be hired before the end of the year.
In June, I got a call saying that I was high enough on the qualified list that I could join an orientation class of new Foreign Service officers in early August. The personnel office at Monterey said that I could go on terminal leave, and they would mail me my military retirement papers. So I packed the family and drove across country. I began training on August 10, 1982, and a week before my official military retirement date, took the oath of a U.S. Foreign Service officer.
After all those years in the military, often moving every 12 to 18 months, I had an advantage over my fellow foreign service officers. I knew how to move and land on my feet at a new place immediately. I'd also led or commanded troops in both combat and peacetime situations, so I could deal with supervising employees, even under stressful conditions. I did have a problem with the unstructured, informal atmosphere of a civilian job. It took me years, for instance, to get used to people using first names so much, even with supervisors. In an embassy, for instance, only the ambassador is addressed by his title. Everyone else is Bill, Sally or whatever. There was also, at first, a lack of clarity in what my mission was. In the Army, you know with absolute certainty what you're expected to accomplish. As a civilian, it sometimes seemed to be left to individual interpretation. I had to get used to that, and it was frankly unsettling for a long time. But I thrived in the foreign service community and eventually became the U.S. ambassador to Zimbabwe, a post I currently hold.
What I learned from making the transition, though, was that the flexibility and adaptability I'd learned in the Army was a big help. The Army adage of "plan, plan and then do whatever it takes to accomplish the mission," was just as applicable to diplomacy, and I had the edge in that because most of my fellow diplomats were lousy at forward planning.
For military people planning the transition to civilian life, or for anyone contemplating a career change, my advice is to think about it long before you do it. Do the best you can in your current job or assignment, but don't make it the total focus of your identity. Broaden your interests to include self-development. And finally, take care of your family. Remember, they're making the transition too, and if you want to make sure you have a firm foundation of support that will help see you through the difficult times, family is the most important thing.
– Charles Ray
From Army green to corporate gray
My name is Chris and I have been out of the U.S. Army for almost a year. After serving for eight years and deploying to Iraq and Afghanistan for a total of 32 months, the adjustment to civilian life has been a challenge.
My decision to retire after almost eight years of being gone from home (for training and deployments) came when I decided that I wanted more stability in my life. I wanted to be there for my son's birth and wanted to actually be able to celebrate my wedding anniversary in a way other than via a phone call from across the world.
I wanted the freedom to make my own decisions and live by fewer rules. I wanted to choose the path of my career for myself. I thought that the grass was greener on the other side. But since I have left the military, I have found that the grass is the same shade of brownish green.
I was lucky enough to find a job during my transitional phase of getting out of the military, meaning I would not have to worry about looking for a paycheck to support my family. I was hired by Northrop Grumman as a military trainer, teaching a joint program to military service members in the Army, Air Force, Marines and Navy. To me, this was a great transitional job; I was able to still have a connection with the military and feel like I was giving back, but I no longer had the long hours and demanding lifestyle. What I didn't have, though, was responsibility.
I was a staff sergeant in the Army and had spent the last five years of my enlistment in various leadership positions. At Northrop Grumman, I was now at the bottom of the totem pole. Now I was the one being told what to do, and my decision-making authority was pretty much nonexistent. This was difficult to swallow, especially since I felt like I had earned those rights through my actions in the military. Unfortunately, I was wrong. I quickly learned that no one really cares what you accomplished while you were in the military once you are a civilian. Awards and esteem mean nothing to most people outside of the military. This was the hardest part of the adjustment to civilian life for me.
While I was in the military I was able to accomplish a lot. I was promoted fast, awarded the Bronze Star Medal for Valor, met the president of the United States, shook hands with senators, worked in elite units -- you name it, I probably did it. I was a forward observer and I was very good at my job. I was in peak physical condition, I traveled the world on "adventure" after "adventure," but that didn't mean anything when it came to working in an office. Now I was supposed to be well versed in PowerPoint and tact, I was supposed to teach others a skill set in which I was once blazing a trail. This was hard to swallow and it took a toll, not only on my mental state, but also my marriage.
I was unhappy with the lack of adventure in my life, and I took it out on everyone around me. I argued with my wife, I blamed her for "making me get out of the Army," I closed myself off to friends, assuming that they just didn't understand, I drank more than I should have, I was an emotional mess. I looked for outlets like going to the gym, hiking through the mountains and running, but none of it worked. I still felt like I wasn't doing enough, like I was now a wasted talent. It wasn't until a reunion with one of my teams from the Army that I realized what it was that I needed to help me get through the transition.
Just sitting and talking to those guys, the ones I fought side-by-side with in the mountains of Afghanistan, was the answer to my mental anguish. They understood what I was going through, they knew what I did while I was in the Army and this was all without having to say a word. Through talking with them I realized that it doesn't matter who knows what you have done in your past, as long as you know and you are proud of it. You have to take solace in the fact that yesterday is yesterday and today is a day to create a new yesterday, a new memory. Every day is a chance to add to and build your legacy.
They helped me realize that the key to making a successful transition to civilian life is knowing that your military experience is not what will ultimately define who you are. Jobs will come, employers will value your work ethic and you will grow with the right company once you find it. You just have to put forth the same desire and motivation into the civilian world that you did in the military world.
– Christopher Grzecki
Next: Military Families Week
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