Joining up for military service is a choice that you made voluntarily but getting out may or may not have been your choice. You may have anticipated your retirement date for years, or, like me, you had to end your term early for medical reasons. Regardless of the way you exit the military, the realization that you have ended your military service often comes abruptly. One day, you are in the Military, and the next day you aren’t.
As a service member, you were used to some perks, like a regular paycheck, and a boss that oversees what you do every day. But once you get out, you will have to concern yourself with how to adjust to civilian life, which is a completely different ballgame. This transition can be fraught with challenges, but it can also yield opportunities if you know where to look.
As you come to terms with the fact that you will not be wearing your OCP uniform anymore as your daily attire, the following tips can help you find purpose, calm your anxiety, and help you re-establish your sense of self after leaving military service:
1) Relocate: Thinking back to boot camp, one thing that struck me is the variety of places that our country can pull from in forming an Army. Not only was nearly every state in the continental U.S. represented, as well as Hawaii and Alaska, but there were also recruits from such far-flung regions as American Samoa, and even Fiji. I’m sure during your time in the service, you have realized that you and your fellow soldiers represent a wide range of states, continents, and territories. You may have even been deployed, which would have further broadened your perspective. But even if you were kept stateside, encountering such a wide variety of people surely broadened your horizons.
Keeping this global mindset of America when you exit the service is an important piece in making your transition smooth. You don’t just have to go back to the same town that you came from when you entered M.E.P.S. Upon exiting the service, my mind was open to living in a variety of different places. There was the obvious choice of moving back home to Santa Monica, CA, or the surrounding Los Angeles suburbs. But the perspective I gained through the Army enabled me to see a plethora of options, not just the obvious ones. Instead of selecting a place to move to, and then finding work, I decided to let my job determine where I would go.
I applied for jobs in the Telecommunications Tower Technician field and was called back by a company called Black and Veatch. They asked me if I wanted to live in St. Louis, Missouri, Denver, Colorado, or Salt Lake City, Utah. With my military background, I knew that I could adjust to living in a new place, even though I had hardly any ties to friends or family living in the area. I chose the St. Louis market because the cost of living seemed to be the lowest of the three.
My choice paid off, and I was able to buy a house in O’Fallon, IL, just 30 minutes outside St. Louis. Now I am living the American dream as a homeowner, and working up on a Telecom tower all day. It’s nice to be working out in the open air, but the job is very physically demanding. I don’t want to be doing telecom forever, so my goal is to last at least 3 years and then see where the future takes me.
Without my military experience, I would not have had the courage to pull off such a bold move into a new area and purchase a new home to boot. But with all that I learned in the Military about our country, I knew I could feel at home anywhere “from sea to shining sea,” and find a good life for me and my family.
2) Work out daily: Chances are that after the military, your ACFT score will go down. After all, it’s hard to keep up the rigorous physical performance standards that you maintained during your time in service. And that’s perfectly okay. You won’t have to perform any workouts at all after the military. You’ve simply got to want to. It can be tough on your psyche that you aren’t able to knock out 60 pushups in a minute, or run a sub 15 minute 2 mile, but you simply have to start somewhere.
After I retired from the military, I was put on medication that made me gain 20 pounds. My run speed was drastically reduced to a walk, which only enabled me to run 12-minute miles, just a shade over a fast walk. I knew I was out of shape, so I re-started my physical fitness journey by joining Planet Fitness. The Planet Fitness in Fairview Heights, IL is a clean, basic gym for people who want to do just that. In addition to having plenty of cardio machines, they also have a nifty 30-minute workout zone, which allows you to get a full body workout in just a half hour, as long as you follow the “red light” and “green light” prompts that tell you when to move on to the next machine.
If you get sidetracked from your daily workout, do not get discouraged. Even working out 2 or 3 days a week is enough to keep in shape. But keeping a benchmark of working out every day is the way to increase your physical fitness. We all know that we’d feel better mentally and emotionally if we were in better shape. The best practice to do so is take it day by day, and do not get discouraged when you fall off your schedule.
3) Embrace a new look: When you think of an Army Veteran, a certain look comes to mind – probably a guy with hippie-like long hair, sporting various tattoos on his body, and carrying an American flag. But not all veterans embrace this look. When I came out of the Army in March, I wanted to look different, very different. I experimented with putting on women’s make-up and painting my nails. While this look only lasted for a couple of weeks for me, it was liberating to know that there was no boss over me who was going to make me dress or appear a certain way.
Eventually I came to the realization that I did not like wearing women’s make-up. Although you might find this situation laughable, be prepared for this ultimate feeling of freedom when you come out of the armed forces. Being out in the civilian world is such a total shock, so don’t be startled when part of you is wanting to dress or look totally out of the box.
By stepping out of my comfort zone for a little while, I eventually found a regualar day-to-day look that I could put on every day. I call this the “clean cut veteran” look. It’s basically just a clean shaven face, sporting an Army hat and t-shirt. Like tuning an instrument in an orchestra, I had to get grossly out of tune in order to find my note. Appearing in a totally out-of-the box way for a few weeks allowed me to eventually settle on the look that I currently embrace.
When you get out of the military, it’s a liberating feeling to know that you can dress however you want. I suggest experimenting with a few different looks, and finding the one that works best for you.
4) Continue your education: Zig Ziglar said “If you’re not willing to learn, no one can help you. If you are determined to learn, no one can stop you.” Chances are that being in the service has taught you that you need to take control of your own learning. Even with all the published regulations of the military, and directions from your superiors, chances are that you still had to step outside of these sources to get by in your day to day. I’m sure you have had to ask your peers what is going on from time to time. But while co-workers and peers can be a good source of information for getting by in the day-to-day grind, formal education is the way to get ahead of the pack.
If you are still in the military, I would recommend looking at the CSP courses that are on the base where you are located. CSP stands for Career Skills Program. These are courses that are designed to help you transition to employment outside of the military.
The one I took was called Air Streams; they teach you how to enter the fields of Telecommunications, Solar, and Wind. The information is displayed in a crash course type of format, with a lot of information being thrown at you in a short amount of time. For example, advanced electrical theory is covered in only one week. Overall, you will forget a lot of stuff you learned, but you will gain something even more precious than useless facts you would forget anyway: a job. Airstreams is a great way to land a job at a Telecom Company, Wind Energy Company, or Solar. They review and revise your resume right away, and help you submit it to various companies. If it were not for Airstreams, I would not be employed today.
5) Don’t be afraid: While there are more rules in the civilian sector than the military, like local laws, ordinances, and the like, the civilian sector is not as oppressive as the control that you were put under in the military. In the service, everything about you was being scrutinized, from the way you looked, to everything you said and did. While you were in the service, you probably dreamed of the day you would be out, when the vice-like grip of your commanding officers was no longer a factor in your life. And then you got out and found other ways to repeat the cycle of oppression: your job, your friends, or even your spouse.
It’s important that you pursue your passions when you get out of the Military, because no one will pursue those for you. You must figure out how to achieve your own goals. One way to start living freely is to give away some things. When my wife ordered me some pants that were too small, I had two choices: keep them and lose some weight or give them away. I opted for the latter choice. After pulling out of the drive-through liquor store in Pittsburgh, PA, I saw a clothing donation box from Paralyzed Veterans of America. I don’t know about you, but I can’t even imagine the hardships that paralyzed people go through. The least I could do for them is give them a pair of pants.
Keep your mind fresh by reading books, particularly those written by other Veterans. I am currently reading the book Can’t Hurt Me, by former Navy Seal David Goggins. No matter what the branch of service you served in, all veterans share a common past, and can thus help each other out in the future.
Conclusion: Whether you are coming out of the Army, Navy, Airforce, Marines, Coast Guard or Space Force, your friends and family may not see you in the same way after completing your military service. After all, you have grown and matured in a variety of ways, and you surely have seen and experienced things that the general civilian population has not. If you got out from illness or injury, it’s especially important that you celebrate this transition.
The very first step you should do is to give yourself a pat on the back for enlisting in the first place. Only 1% of Americans enlist, and you should be proud that you took that step in risking your life to preserve the freedoms that we often take for granted.
After that, Relocate, work out daily, embrace a new look, and continue your education. But most importantly, don’t be afraid to be you.