A Letter to Myself: How to Have a More Successful Military to Civilian Transition
By Chad Storlie
Right now, you are sitting in your house in Colorado Springs a few weeks after returning from a Joint Readiness Training Center (JRTC) rotation and after returning from a rotation to Bosnia Herzegovina a few months before that. In a few months, you will be officially discharged from the Active Duty military after more than twelve years of service. Right now, you are tired, a little bit scared, and ready to meet the new challenges ahead. I know that you are anxious to get going, but there is more that you can do to prepare yourself for a successful transition. Civilian life, like the military, requires constant engagement, planning, communication, and learning in order to be successful.
Transition is a bigger deal than you are giving it credit for. Here are a few tips to be more successful.
1. Save More Money.
After being deployed the majority of the time over the past few years, you do not have an accurate concept of what it costs to live. The best way to prepare for the transition is to save more money, as much as you can. Money in the bank that is not in retirement accounts or otherwise tied up in investment accounts is the best "transition insurance" to have. You will get a part-time job to help meet expenses while you are in school, but it will pay a lot less than you expect. Pay yourself now and put as much as you can into a savings account.
2. Talk About Transition Concerns with Your Wife.
Transition is a big move for you, but it is also a big move for your wife. You are leaving a secure job, a consistent paycheck, and a known future. This sudden clouding of your future prospects brings the potential of great success but it will be scary at times. This is not the military, where you cannot express fear to those that you lead. Sit down with your wife nightly to make sure both you and she talk about the joys and challenges of transition.
3. Transition Takes Longer Than You Think - About Two Years.
Transition is more than just taking off the uniform. Transition is about becoming comfortable with a new you, a new community, a new career, and a new way of life. This takes a lot longer to get used to than you think right now. As a rule of thumb, for every five years of military service, it takes about a year to become truly comfortable and confident in your new civilian role. Do not be distressed if it takes longer to get the military out of your system. You performed in an exciting, demanding, and rewarding military career for a long time. It will take some time to grow comfortable in a new role. The good news is that you really like where you are now.
4. Purpose is the Most Important Aspect of Your Life.
Right now, you believe that finding a job, a new place to live, and starting a family are the most important concerns. Those are important concerns, but the most important concern that you have to pay attention to is how you will find and structure a new sense of purpose in your life. When you boil down your military service to its absolute essentials, a strong sense of purpose and a strong sense of mission are what the made the military so rewarding to you. As you discover new careers, new friends, and new community activities, make sure that creating a building a strong sense of purpose is and remains the central part of your life. Making a lot of money is great, but if the financial return does not create purpose, then ultimately the value will be lost. Volunteer in the community, help out at your local school (you have three young children now, so take a nap after you read this - you will need the rest), and find ways to teach others how to be great people - these are the experiences in the military that helped create a strong sense of purpose.
5. Support Your Spouse's Wildest Career Ambitions.
Your wife has an amazing amount of skill, creativity, leadership, and desire. As a military spouse, she could not always match her career ambitions, desire for education, and make that fit into a military lifestyle. Now, as a civilian, the two of you can much more easily match your career ambitions and potential. Listen very closely to everything your wife wants to do and do your utmost to make it happen.
6. Seek Out Professionals and Military Friends When You Need Support.
When you returned from a deployment, you had a panic attack as you drove down the highway when you could not locate your M4 Carbine and M9 Pistol and realized that you were not wearing your body armor. Later, at home, you felt foolish because you should have realized that there is no reason to have a combat rifle and pistol next to you when you are not deployed. First, give yourself a break and realize that the combat training and combat conditioning that you endured kept you safe and others around you safe when you were deployed. Second, you have literally years of deployments when your M4 and M9 were within arm’s reach day and night, all day, and every day. It takes time, distance, and discussing these thoughts, feelings, and actions with others and other military veterans. When you need to talk, and then talk - do not dismiss your feelings.
Your decision to transition now is a good one. You have a wife that loves you, three children that adore you, a good career, and a great place to live. Military transitions and career transitions have their bumps along the way. Planning, saving money, talking with your family about what is working and what is not working, and making sure you discover and embrace a strong sense of purpose are all ways to have a great military transition.
Today is one of your final parachute jumps. Appreciate the feel of the static line, the wind on your face as you exit the aircraft, and take a few extra moments on the drop zone to look around - you will miss it and that is ok.