There are a million tips and tricks out there to help veterans transitioning out of the military. Most of them are pretty good — “have a plan” is one that comes up a lot, and is debatably the best advice anyone can give. After all, wandering aimlessly through the civilian world will not pay the bills, and failing to pay the bills can send you in a downward spiral that’s difficult to climb out of.
However, I’m not here to repeat the same advice about transitioning out of the military you’ve heard before, so here are some tips you may not have seen. They are more on the advice side, less on the practical “how to build a resume” side, but I believe them to be useful all the same.
1. Find a passion and feed it
Another common piece of advice you hear is “finding a new mission.” It’s a good metaphor, as it takes the mindset of a veteran and applies it to the civilian world. That mission could be a career, a hobby, a family, or some other thing you can sink your teeth into after service.
However, I’d like to take those thoughts one step further. I’ve seen a lot of veterans hung up on which mission they pick in particular. They want to shoot professionally, but they don’t have the means or the time. They want to become a writer, but but they don’t know where or how to publish regularly. They want to start a business, but there always appear to be unending obstacles to their success.
First of all, if you have a goal in mind, then fight for it. Don’t give up, keep at it.
BUT if you’re not 100% dedicated to one mission, if what you’re really after is peace of mind, purpose, or a sense of belonging, don’t be afraid to open your horizons and find a new passion. There are all sorts of communities built around things like rock climbing, playing music, volunteering in the community — hell, it could even be pottery. Whatever it turns out to be, it needs be clearly identified and sought after. Even after transitioning out of the military, objectives are still important.
What a lot of guys find is that the path doesn’t always matter, the trick is simply getting on a new path in the first place. I have lost count of the number of veterans I’ve seen who have thrived after they finally embraced some new passion in life, some thing that came out of left field and surprised them as much as all their friends. It required them to open their minds and dive into something they were probably not inclined to dive into.
Even for those of you who 100% know what your follow-on mission is after transitioning out of the military — that road is likely going to be very difficult. And though that path may comprise the broad strokes of your life, it’s just as important to figure out how to spend those small moments, those odd Saturdays or boring weeknights.
Find something that lights a flame of passion within you. Once you find it, don’t expect the flames to fan themselves — get back out there and make it happen again. Develop and mold that new passion, go out hunting with those friends again, spend that time with your family, or get back on that guitar. Sometimes they feel like such small, irrelevant moments — 10 minutes with your dog in the back yard or a 20 minute hike on the weekend — but don’t forget them. If the big moments are the bricks in your life, then those small moments are the mortar keeping them together.
Passion waters the soul — it’s not a luxury, it’s a necessity, and it needs to be treated as such.
2. Stay flexible with your new mission
Life will force you to adhere to this tip, but it’s a lot easier if you see it coming. If you were a raging success in the military, life will probably throw some failures your way as you get out. If you felt like life was unforgiving in the military, it will not be much kinder to you on the outside. But these are simply just obstacles, waiting to be overcome.
If it helps, think of it like going on a real mission. You plan, you prepare, you align all possible circumstances in your favor, but things never quite go your way. On a mission, that could mean a thousand different things from enemy maneuvers or equipment failures. In life, that can mean anything from financial surprises to relationship issues to, let’s just say, a pandemic and subsequent unemployment.
Flexibility doesn’t mean giving up. When you’re on a mission in Afghanistan and an unexpected IED blows up or rounds start tearing through the air, your mission usually stays the same. Take that building, detain that HVT (High Value Target) — the path forward just changes.
Similarly, when obstacles come your way, an argument with your girlfriend or a mound of debt on your table, you may have to shift. You may have to find some other path toward your objective, and it may take longer and the path may be more arduous than you thought. But you stick with it.
This applies to whatever passion you found in my first point. Remember, those passions are not a luxury, they’re necessities. They must become one of your objectives, and, when they are, you have to figure out how to take those objectives.
If your objective changes (for example, “When I set out on this career path I didn’t have a family, but now that I do, I’d like to shift my mission to focus on them”), that’s okay. Missions change on deployments as the circumstances change all the time. Shift focus appropriately and move forward.
This sounds like this advice could apply to anyone, and that’s because it could. A lot of veteran advice applies to everyone, but veterans often find themselves in the biggest gear change of their lives which adds a layer of complexity that’s worth mentioning. As life takes its unexpected turns, it’s important to remember these fundamental things: figure out what you want (identify your objective), get after it, and pivot when necessary. It’s as true in the military as it is when you’re transitioning out.
3. Veterans often have similar issues — know where the solutions stem from
A lot of veterans suffer at the hands of bureaucratic nonsense. Many suffer due to experiences from their time in the military — PTS, problems transitioning, culture shock, sexual abuse, etc. Some got out because they felt betrayed in some way by the organization they submitted so much of their lives toward, and others lament the lack of purpose they found after the military (stuck on the glory days). Of course, it’s not all bad, in fact, I would attribute many of my fondest memories and most important growth to my time in the Army. However, it would be disingenuous to deny that these problems exist for many people.
What you find is many fixate their blame on the military itself. Sometimes the blame is warranted, sometimes it’s not — every situation is different. Even so, when you’re a veteran, you must remember that the only person who can ultimately take control and fix their own situation is yourself.
There are countless problems with the VA and how it functions, but even if it ran 100% smoothly, there are a whole host of issues they would not be able to fix. Some veterans fall into a trap of their own making, where they are lost in a cycle of blaming the military for any obstacle that has risen in their path. For example, if the VA provided top-of-the-line therapy for combat veterans, it would still be up to the combat veteran to seek that therapy in the first place.
Ironically, this type of veteran’s life begins to revolve around the system they judge so harshly.
Yes, some veterans do need to continue on with the good fight against the issues in the VA or in seeking what their owed in the way of treatment (for example, the Feres Doctrine) or compensation. Conversely, some guys just need to move forward with their lives. They need to find that new mission or passion and dive headfirst into it. If you feel like working with an organization is akin to beating your head against a wall, at some point you either need to change the wall or move on to something that actually works.
In combat, you don’t have the luxury of playing the blame game. You have to realistically assess the situation and figure out how YOU can be a part of the solution. It’s the same after transitioning out of the military — you take whatever problem you’re facing (PTS from deployments, financial problems from unemployment, feeling lost and passionless), and figure out what you can do to make it better.
Does that involve hounding down the VA to hold them accountable for something they promised you? Great, do it. Does that involve putting negotiations with the VA behind you and focusing on a more acceptable system of care? Get after it.
Does that involve opening yourself up emotionally to a stranger in order to fix a relationship? Does it involve ending the relationship in order to work on yourself? Does it involve stripping yourself of your possessions and hitting the road? Does it involve you diving into an entirely new career field from the bottom rung and working your way up? Does it involve an uncomfortable but necessary conversation with a loved one?
These are questions that only the individual can answer. But, after a realistic assessment of the battle ahead of you, the only thing worth focusing on is how YOU can find the path to achieving your objective. So, naturally, the first question is: what’s your next objective?