4 Hard Truths Waiting for You After the Military
I used to think I was one of only a few vets who struggled when they got out. It took me over eight years to finally complete my transition. It started in April 2005 when I first got out, continued through college and two deployments as a reservist, and finally finished after a year of VA Center therapy in December 2013.
I often asked myself: “Why was I having a hard time adjusting when I had all these (supposedly valuable) military skills and experiences?” And, of course, the deeper question underneath that was actually “What’s wrong with me?”
Nothing, it turns out. A lot of us have a hard time when we get out. Re-establishing balance is tough as a veteran. And the confidence I developed in my first transition program didn’t help. I underestimated the challenges, and overestimated my abilities.
For a long time, I didn’t have a good way to understand my challenges during transition. Then I stumbled on “Lost in Translation,” a recent report by the Center for New American Security. The data there helped me make sense of my six years in “transition wilderness.” Hopefully, these four hard truths can help you avoid the mistakes I made.
Hard Truth #1, You will struggle during transition, and it will take longer than you think.
At least, 44% of us will. That’s a lot higher than the 25% of veterans who reported having difficulty transitioning from the period before 9/11. And consider how many more services exist to help us now.
It doesn’t make any sense that almost twice as many people would be struggling. But almost 5 out of 10 of us are. Don’t be surprised if you do, too. It doesn’t mean anything. You will still come out of it okay. I did.
Hard Truth #2, You lack two basic skills that are required to get started professionally.
I won’t keep you in suspense. The skills are: applying for jobs, and interviewing for jobs. These are foundational skills. They are required for you to get anywhere as a professional. And unfortunately, most of us never get to practice either skill during our military service. Our personnel system is set up to treat us like interchangeable pieces.
I have never met a veteran who developed confidence after transitioning without getting at least one good job. There is something about knowing that you’re valued by companies. It feels great to be validated like that. And feelings matter when it comes to rebuilding your confidence.
Hard Truth #3, You were paid very, very well in the military.
This data blew me away. Compared to peers in the private sector, officers are paid at the 83rd percentile, and enlisted personnel are paid at the 90th percentile! This doesn’t count many of the other perks we enjoy, such as free/subsidized services: health care, housing, food, clothing, and so on. And, of course, many of us get great tax reductions. That means we make a lot of money compared to our peers, and we also get to keep a higher percentage of that paycheck.
Expect a pretty substantial pay cut when you get out. This is part of adjusting to life as a civilian. You will be able to move up quickly in almost any organization if you apply the same work ethic and mission-driven mentality that characterizes the best of our military service.
Hard Truth #4, You will be mismatched for your first few jobs.
The word “underemployment” kept coming up in the report. Civilian bosses will struggle to understand your military experience. And–most likely–you will suck at explaining it, at least in the beginning. Put these things together and you get underemployment. That means you won’t be fulfilled, challenged, or paid well (see #3). And this is especially true for small businesses.
This dynamic is less of a problem with two factors: big businesses; and businesses operating near large military installations. Big businesses usually have a variety of support programs that help you push past an awkward start. Veterans report a lot of benefit from mentor networks and advocacy groups. And, of course, businesses at or near military bases have enough familiarity to make an educated guess about the best place to start you.
These four hard truths don’t have to impact you. Who knows? You may get lucky. At least now you can consider the data and plan better. Good luck!