The Big vs Small Leap from Military to Civilian

A lot of veterans seem to find themselves transitioning out of the military and into… A business or organization that is veteran-run, veteran-oriented, and continues to use military style imagery and language. Many of the people I served with now have great careers in law enforcement, defense contracting, and veteran service and support networks. A quick summary of the many outstanding contributors to the MJN blog are doing the same (e.g. Vet2PM, StreetShares, etc..). A recent article by Dr. Wright of Vets2PM covers aspects of ‘CIVDIV,’ which is a term that I’m very glad he explained because I had no idea what a CIVDIV was. These are examples of relatively small leaps from the military to civilian sector.

This is not a criticism – quite the contrary, actually. It’s logical that veterans are more likely to find opportunity, comfort, and an overall more healthy and effective working environment in a company or sector that is similar to the military. Whether the founders or much of the staff are veterans, the mission is veteran-oriented, or your colleagues and network continue to use military terminology, methodology, or design making processes – this is normal, and in many cases very positive, and it’s not surprising to see so many accomplished veterans continue to develop in a professional environment that has one or many of these military influences. One of my recent posts also highlights the many challenges a veteran will face in a truly non-military environment.

This article is not meant to challenge this norm, but rather to highlight a challenge in transition and veteran-network advice – Many of the people advising and supporting veterans during and through their transition from the military to an advertised non-military career (a big leap); have themselves transitioned from the military to a military-esque career (a small leap). The source is often as important as the message. While I have much love for my fellow veterans who have remained close to the military, this is not the path for everyone, and it wasn’t the path for me. I hope to offer more critical insight for those who are making the big leap.

Since my ETS in 2014, I have lived in Washington DC (an anti-military environment), interned with the UN and academic think tanks (… very anti-military organizations), am currently working for an international development non-profit (an industry that generally regards my military experience as a summer camp), and am simultaneously working for a tech start-up. The tech example is actually very positive, as tech start-ups care about talent, prioritize implementation, and are by definition non-institutionalized so they don’t have an institutional culture (my next article will be on why many institutional cultures are similar to the military yet anti-military due to identity protection). This narrative qualifies as a big leap.

My advice to anyone hoping to make this big leap is to employ arguably the most universal and all-encompassing skill you gained in the military – observe, analyze, and adapt to your operational environment.

Many aspects of the article by Dr. Wright (mentioned and linked in the first paragraph) are an example of this. Keep many of the positive skills and behaviors you gained during your service (like showing up early, being mission driven, and maintaining a professional appearance at all times); But I can’t show up to non-profit meetings or academic conferences and expect to get away with using military jargon or exhibiting the social behaviors that are customary in military environments. To make the big leap, you have to match a passion for your field of interest (in this case, a non-military field), with the willingness and ability to compartmentalize military behaviors and norms.

If you are trying to make the big leap, but don’t know the first thing to do, here is a simple list of do’s and don’ts:

Do:

  1. Find a mentor in your professional or academic field who has zero experience in the military.
  2. Dig up your roots and start ‘fresh’ in a new place (e.g. when you ETS don’t go find an apartment one mile outside of your former duty station…).
  3. Travel. Go do something radically different for a short period of time. This will help catalyze your mental shift to a non-military modality and also provide a unique experience that will add to your resume, personality, or general background.
  4. Begin networking in your professional and academic field with a non-military orientation. If you are starting at a university don’t go to veteran services (except to get GI-Bill approval); if you’re getting involved in meetup groups, facebook or linkedin groups – make them non-military oriented.

Don’t:

  1. Use military jargon; or continue to get a high-and-tight; or buy that camo hat with the velcro US flag patch on the front; or buy a “civilian” blackhawk bag with alice webbing.
  2. Follow every veteran group and network on social media (the military is your past, not your future).
  3. Continually bring up your military background in an office or academic setting (this bothers people the same way all ‘back in my day’ statements bother everyone, the only difference being when you do this through the military lens you will be solidifying other’s perception of you as a veteran, only).

There is no ‘one right answer’ for your next step. Do what you can, want, and love. But if you truly want to make the big leap to a 100% non-military environment, there is a learning curve. If you are able to observe, analyze, and adapt to your operational environment, and follow those do’s and don’ts, you’ll succeed.