It is NOT a Transition - Leaving the Military is a TRANSFORMATION
Updated: Jan 19
What am I talking about? How is it not a transition? How could the Department of Defense, Department of Labor, the Veterans Administration, and so many others be wrong in their approach to assisting veterans? I am talking about the difference one word can make to our approach to helping service members who are leaving their respective service. I am talking about the magnitudes of differences between cultures—the seismic shift in lifestyles. I am talking about leaving military service and joining the private sector. The certainty of this reaches every service member, regardless of whether they get out as a Private or General, the trail eventually ends for everyone.
After years, and in many cases decades, service members leave an environment that has facilitated much of their personal growth. Officers and enlisted alike begin their journey as teenagers, either through college or through enlistment; their journey starts in the formative years of their lives. In some cases, the military has been the only real family unit they have known. The military provides them stability, purpose, praise, and love. Leaving that environment is traumatic and, without a plan, is fatal for some members.
A transition is defined by Merriam-Webster as “a. a change or shift from one state, subject, place, etc. to another; b. a period or phase in which such a change or shift is happening.” I would challenge this word because service members are not shifting from one state to another, nor is this a particular period or phase in their lives. It is far greater than that, far more traumatic, and demanding. Because of the shocking nature of this change, it is time to recognize that this is not a transition but a transformation.
Merriam-Webster defines a transformation as “a complete or major change in someone’s or something’s appearance, form, etc.” Leaving the military culture and joining the private sector culture requires “a complete or major change” to the mindset of the service member. This significant emotional event is a TRANSFORMATION.
The change in lifestyle and environment requires multiple transformations and thrusts the veteran into a new world. The values that have guided them in their previous profession change from a team orientation to a bottom-line, profit motivation for success. The veteran is also transforming at home as their family adjusts to life beyond the close-knit military community to the civilian world beyond their installation’s wall. Finally, there is a transformation from their level of responsibility within the military to potentially stepping back and starting over in a new field.
Compounding the confusion is the lack of a formalized roadmap for their transformation. Instead of transforming service members into civilians, it fits service members with a one-size-fits-all program developed in 1991 to accommodate the massive reduction in forces after Desert Storm. There is little education on translating decades of experience into a meaningful resume. There is a little discussion with leaders on what types of professional opportunities they would be a good fit for in the civilian world. Finally, there is no formal connection between non-profit programs such as Hiring Our Heroes, FourBlock, and The Commit Foundation to the current Transition Assistance Program. These critical points leave each “transitioning” service member at the trailhead of a new life with little more than a picture of the woods.
It is time for the Department of Defense, the Department of Labor, and the Department of Veterans Affairs to recognize the need for fundamental change in assisting those who have served. It begins with renaming “The Transition Assistance Program” to the “Transformation Assistance Program.” The program should develop plans for three workforce demographics: an education path, a labor certification path, and a corporate path. It should create a program that helps service members redefine who they are, their goals, and how they intend to reach them. These “pathways” should outline what is available to service members to aid in their transformation while in uniform and out of uniform. Many “transforming” veterans do not know or understand that some programs disappear when they leave the military. They are not “Soldier for Life” opportunities. A distinct issue for the uninformed.
Finally, if you are a “transforming” service member, you must reconcile that your transformation may never reach completion. There will be days when you yearn for your past environment and “tribe.” If you are struggling with the massive change taking place in your life, I recommend you pick up the book “Tribe” by Sebastian Juenger. (It is also a great listen on Audible!) Juenger’s book lends perspective on what you feel and why – a significant step in your continuing transformation. Groups of veterans can help your transformation; your local American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, and new groups like the Veteran Beer Club.
One last piece of advice: If you are a “transforming” veteran, reach out to those that have gone before you. There are myriad FREE programs available to assist you in finding your life beyond the military. DO NOT pay for executive placement, resume writing, or a professional certification. Each of these services exists through non-profit organizations. I know this from personal experience. My goal is to help bridge the lack of knowledge between our current TAP model and educate veterans on what they need to know in order to succeed.