Finding your life after finishing your service

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I realize that the adage “no one cares how much you know until they know how much you care” is especially important in our modern world, where we are inundated with information every second of every day.

It is a mantra I used daily while I trained and worked with my fellow service members. You see, I am a veteran, so these words I write come from personal experience and research. I am not here to bore you with mindless facts.

A challenge for veterans is that the word veteran itself brings to mind a specific mental image for most people in the United States — usually someone over the age of 60 who wears his sacrifice and pride on his sleeve. Veterans today have many faces, can come from any background or culture, and they may have served two years or 20. They may be 20 or 50 years old. But one common concern every veteran shares when they shed their uniform is, “What’s next?”

There are more than 19 million individuals who consider themselves veterans in the United States today, according to, “The Military to Civilian Transition 2018,” a report on trends published by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. That number is a little shocking, even to me. At any given moment, there are probably thousands of former service members trying to gauge their next step. Should I go back to school? Should I choose a new career? Should I just find some work for now to pay the bills? Should I relax and take some time off?

Inevitably, more questions creep in … How do I even do this? I haven’t been to a job interview in years (or ever). What are my skills, really? My yearly evaluations don’t seem so impressive now. I’ve applied for 300 jobs, why haven’t I found one yet? And the question based on fear itself: what if I can’t find a job?

Unemployment is a very real concern for our nation’s veterans. The U.S. Department of Labor reports that the unemployment rate for veterans was at a low of 2.3 percent in April 2019. Statistically, that sounds great, but for those of us in the weeds of finding a job it doesn’t always feel that way. When you add to the equation that many service members leaving the military have endured some sort of injury — physical or mental — job prospects become even more narrowed.

Using the tools available to you is amazingly beneficial, but how do you even know where to start?

In the year 2019, it is easy to become inundated with the myriad of choices for veterans’ services. While this isn’t necessarily a problem, it can present a challenge to those unfamiliar with the different entities. Every branch of the military offers a transition assistance program, but let’s be real … were you really paying enough attention during that briefing? Do you know the benefits offered to you by each agency? Luckily, you can go back and review — the Army’s Soldier For Life—Transition Assistance Program can be accessed at www.sfl-tap.army.mil.

I am going to unpack and discuss just a few of the options for those veterans seeking employment after their service:

Step one has to be a complete and honest self-assessment. Did you like your job in the military? Do you want to stay in the same career field? Did you hold a rank and/or position that makes it possible for you to walk on to a civilian job? When you answer these questions for yourself, you may find some very different possibilities. Another question that should be evaluated here is: Where do you want to live? Choosing both a job and a location that you truly want to be in will make your life after the uniform much more fulfilling. But, be realistic! (Do not, for instance, get your heart set on being a marine biologist in Arizona … I don’t think there’s a high demand for that career field.)

This is where the road diverges:

Path one: I loved my job in the military; I am going to stay in the same career field.
If this is the case, you really want to pay attention to the transition classes regarding the use of USAjobs.gov (as it is the hub for all government jobs), and you will want to work with the resume-building specialists offered to tailor your experience into a usable product for finding your next career. Maintain digital and hard-copy files with all your service documentation including your DD-214 and VA letter (if applicable). If you are moving to a location other than where you separate from service, reach out to the transition offices in that area as well. They usually host career fairs and maintain a file of industry information and contacts.

Path two: My job in the military was rewarding, but I don’t want to be responsible for anyone else on a daily basis (think senior leaders here).
This is where you have the opportunity to use your GI Bill — you could go back to school to earn a traditional degree, or you could choose a trade school. While you are using your GI Bill, you are given a housing stipend, which will help offset bills, etc. This route is tough if you have a family and other financial responsibilities, but it can be the most rewarding if you learn a new skill that leads you to a career you love. If you are not a single person, definitely discuss this path in detail with your family before proceeding. Education counselors at each installation can help you determine what programs are available to you — they may even introduce you to a career you never considered like long-haul truck driving. (Yep, the GI Bill can be used to cover Commercial Driving school.)

Path three: I was good at my job in the military, but I didn’t really enjoy it. If this is your position when you separate from service, I hope your self-assessment in Step One was thorough.
This path is tough because you may be stepping into something you know nothing about or have never done. For instance, I was a tactical network technician in the Army. I did not want to deal with all that equipment when I got out. I researched various programs like Troops to Teachers, and evaluated what I needed in addition to my degree. I had been a leader for almost 20 years … teaching seemed like a natural progression. Luckily, I had a few months as I transitioned, and I was able to substitute teach in my local area. I also worked another part-time job while working toward my teaching certification. The main skill for this path is flexibility. You don’t always need additional education, but you will likely have to take an entry level position, which may not pay as much as you were making in the military. If you don’t have that luxury, you should probably alter your plans.

Path four: I hated my job in the military. I want to do something — anything — else.
First and foremost, I’m sorry. Thanks for sticking it out. Unfortunately, you now have lots of decisions to make, and you should reach out for as much help as possible in order to make a timely choice. Don’t worry though, it’s all out there. Each installation has a wealth of information and dozens if not hundreds of people whose job it is to help transitioning service members. Start with face-to-face communication. It works so much better than sitting behind a computer. Also, I’d recommend taking some personality tests — it may sound silly, but sometimes it can help you identify character strengths or traits you didn’t realize you have. Don’t be afraid to work a part-time job. Remember, the best part of separating from service is that you have the ability to put in your two-weeks notice if it just isn’t working out.

Path five: I have served long enough to receive military retirement and/or disability benefits, and I just want to relax.
If you are financially able to take time off, go for it. This path is the most flexible. You may find hobbies that make you some extra cash. You can decide to work or not work whenever you want to. If you set yourself up to exit the military and live the retired life, congratulations. Seriously! Bask in the achievement, and take some opportunities you may have missed.

So, what did we learn through all those scenarios? If you want a government job, USAJobs.gov is where you need to go. You have to tailor your resume to each specific position — don’t think you will just get hired because you have veteran’s preference. Their system has at least one algorithm that will eliminate resumes that don’t match all the keywords in the job posting. If this is your path, just think of the search as a job — spend a few hours each day crafting your resume to fit the three or four positions you want (that are available). Try to start doing this a few months before you transition.

If you find yourself walking down Paths two, three or four, remember that most branches of service offer a Career Skills Program to those who are transitioning. There are apprenticeships, internships, and on-the-job training available — sometimes while you are still completing your active-duty time. If you are interested in the Air Force version of this program, go to https://www.afpc.af.mil/Separation/CSP/. If you’d like to read about the Army’s program, it’s available at https://home.army.mil/imcom/index.php/customers/career-skills-program.

If you want to go back to school, meet with the education counselors at your installation (or talk to a VA rep at the college or trade school you have decided to attend). Make sure you use all the government benefits offered by the GI Bill and your particular state. There are many states that offer free or reduced rate in-state education to veterans. Take a look at https://www.military.com/benefits/veteran-state-benefits/state-veterans-benefits-directory.html. This is the best one-stop-shop, in my opinion, if you are looking for the best states to retire/move to as a veteran. You will find information about property tax, education benefits, hunting/fishing licenses, and much more. As a matter of fact, you may want to visit this site during your Step One self-assessment phase.

Don’t be afraid to get out there. Some of the best opportunities emerge in person. Sites like LinkedIn and Facebook are great if you want to see what’s available and even message with a few people for advice. But, good old fashioned pavement pounding produces the best results. Get your best shoes ready and enjoy whichever employment path you choose.