The transition to a bridge career


The Military Guide” is full of advice and stories from dozens of servicemembers and veterans who hope that you’ll benefit from sharing their experience. I don’t tell their stories in the blog (you’ll have to read the book!) but I’ll post the stories that didn’t make the manuscript. As you read this next story, think about whether you’d like to see yours in the book’s second edition.

Here’s a comment on the “Fog of work” that grew into its own guest post from “Chief”:

That was a great read. I found myself shaking my head in agreement as I read through the article. If I could be so bold I would like to add a few of my thoughts on this topic– in particular the unique, almost surreal world in which members of the military find themselves submerged for the most part unawares.

Chief goes on to describe his retirement transition:

I joined the military in 1987 fresh out of high school with a whole lot of energy and very little direction. The Navy provided me the structure that I needed to “pull all of me in” and have a noble purpose for which I could bury my past and make a real difference. They provided me training, clothes, food, shelter, and a sense of community like I had never experienced before. I was a true believer and spent my every waking moment attempting to live up to the standards. I wanted to be the best “X” (whatever “X” happened to be) because the Navy told me that’s what leaders did: take charge and complete the mission.

At first those challenges were easy or mildly troublesome, but through the years with promotions came greater responsibilities. Real sacrifices (personal time, family) became factors. Remembering what I had been taught, I doubled down and work twice as hard, longer hours, and ultimately achieved the mission. Accommodations, medals, kudos, wall plaques.

This scene played out many times during my 20-year career. It reached a point for me personally, around year 15, where the “payoff” was not exceeding the “pain”. I found myself in a diminishing returns cycle professionally, personally, mentally and emotionally. The harder I tried to double down like before, the more unhappy and disgruntled I became.

I retired in 2007 for some of those reasons. I was burned out and tired. Unfortunately I realized that the hours upon hours of work away from family did not have a payoff, especially in the civilian sector. I was no longer “The Chief”, I was a newbie. It was boot camp all over again, only this time no one was telling what I should do or not do. I was totally unprepared for civilian life. I went through about a year of just trying to figure these strange creatures called civilians – their work ethic, social norms, ideas and attitudes about leadership. How are you supposed to land a job that doesn’t involve french fries? What about my leadership training? What about my work ethic ? My college degree? I received blank looks all around. They didn’t get me and I certainly didn’t get them. I realized the military wasn’t my job: it was my lifestyle. And I’m trying to sell ice to Eskimos.

So, I set about trying to understand my new place and work harder at developing relationships with the people I am surrounded with. Three years out and I can still only give my self a B- but I’m working on it.

I found that [the “Fog of work” post] struck a chord in me and brought me back to a time of some very scary moments. It was similar to the sensations I had during high-school graduation, my wedding, and the birth of my first child– that sense of foreboding and fear at the leap into the unknown. I discovered that all my “norms” were focused and centered around what the Navy considered normal. I found to my shock and horror that most civilians don’t share the same world view or perceptions and so I felt isolated.

Chiefs (historically and as a matter of record) are known for their over-inflated egos, sense of self-importance, and overall omnipotence. So, in keeping with long standing Naval tradition I felt obligated to document my part.

Chief went through the same transition-assistance seminars and had the use of the same self-assessment programs that we all used (or will someday use). He learned from the resources and paid attention to all the warnings but was still surprised by how much the military differs from “the civilian lifestyle”.

It might be tempting to sit around Monday-morning quarterbacking the transition, but I don’t think any of us would have done as well. (I know I wouldn’t have done that well– it’s why I never even tried in the first place.) However, keen our hindsight may be, I don’t think anyone can truly anticipate the fundamental differences between the military and civilian life– or the unpleasant surprises that come from those cultural gaps. It has to be experienced to be understood. The best that a servicemember can do is to be aware of the situation and be ready to change their transition plan on the fly.

Are there any particular techniques to help ease the transition? Well, sure– we’ve all been exposed to the hundreds of books and websites that help translate the military lifestyle to its civilian advantages. (Impact Publications produces some of the best and has one of the most comprehensive catalogs in the business.) Here are a few additional suggestions that are discussed more thoroughly in “The Military Guide” and the pocket guide:

1. Strive to be financially independent before you leave the military. For some of us that means a 20-year career and an aggressive savings program. (Of course persevering for 20 years may be worth the effort (or not) and it depends on a number of more important quality-of-life factors.) For many servicemembers, financial independence means completing a career with the Reserve/National Guard through a combination of drills and mobilizations. For a very few highly motivated and disciplined individuals it means saving an extreme amount of money while living a very frugal lifestyle, and then deciding whether or not to stay with military past the first obligation. (Yes, it can be done in five years but it’s not easy– see for the details.) However, you achieve that financial independence, and however long it takes, it gives you choices. You have fantastic flexibility in deciding how you want to handle your transition. There’s a huge pressure difference between “I have six months to live on before I need my next paycheck” and “I think I’ll just take a few years to explore my options”.

2. Keep doing your research and don’t leap on the first “opportunity”. Even a few months of savings can give you the flexibility to make sure you do it right the first time. One negative aspect of the military culture is its tendency to make you feel “worthless and weak” while barely capable of carrying out your duties at your current rank– let alone promotion. Don’t carry an inferiority complex into the civilian world. The reality is that every veteran has tremendous skills sought by every worthwhile employer, and that “first offer” is really just the first of several. Be courteous to prospective employers and treat each offer with the professionalism that it deserves, but don’t feel obligated to terminate the career search at the first “Yes!” Of course the more financial independence you have, the more choices you’ll be able to consider.

3. Include your “military lifestyle” standards in your job search. Maybe they’re a higher priority than a career that exactly matches your technical skills. Maybe they’re more important than your location or your salary or other opportunities. Your career-search criteria could include a military headhunter or military-friendly companies or businesses that have won Reserve/National Guard awards for supporting their employee’s military responsibilities.

4. Network, network, network. You already know this from all the transition programs, but treat it just like a new duty assignment. When you were offered a set of active-duty orders, you did a lot of shipmate research to find out if it was a good fit for you and your career. The same principals apply to a civilian career: find a culture that matches your lifestyle. Maybe you’ll even limit your search to the defense industry or electrical utilities or other employers who are known for their “wardrooms” and “Chief’s Quarters”. Seek out old wingmen and battle buddies who have been through the transition and ask them where the military culture fits into the business.

5. Pick a different type of career where you can still seek out mentors, gain knowledge, and help other people instead of just earning more money. Even if you’re not financially independent yet, you can leverage your military benefits to pick a field with other advantages. Work part-time while using your GI Bill (and its housing stipend) to improve your skills in a new interest. Ask your college if they need contract instructors for topics where you’re already an expert, or employees to help maintain their services & infrastructure. Look for temporary jobs or contracting opportunities at military bases near your chosen location. Consider working for a school, a volunteer organization, a non-profit, or federal/state civil service. (One retiree even joined the Peace Corps.) You won’t earn $175K/year with stock options or a company jet, but your stress level will be a lot lower. Veterans excel at training, counseling, and motivating– these sectors offer outstanding opportunities to do more of it and it may be the most satisfying work you’ve ever tackled.

6. Above all, treat the transition like a transfer to a command at a foreign culture. Overseas duty exposed you to experiences that most civilians will never see. Even if you just crossed a few state lines, you had to learn how to live with a totally different society and possibly even a new version of the English language. The military gives you lots of practice at handling big changes and teaches you how to handle all sorts of surprises. The “civilian culture” is just one more foreign experience where you’ll learn to acclimate. You’ll still have your same standards and lifestyle, but little by little you’ll learn the language, the rituals, and the subtle signals that are part of every culture. You don’t have to compromise or “give in”– just learn, appreciate, and enjoy the differences.

How did you handle your transition? What did you learn that wasn’t in the seminars, and what unpleasant surprises did you face?

The first edition of “The Military Guide” is being typeset this month, so now I’m collecting contributions for the second edition. Please post a comment or contact me if you have a story to share!

Related articles:
The “fog of work”
How many years does it take to become financially independent?
Frugal living is not deprivation
Retiring without a military pension
Retiring from the Reserves and National Guard

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About Doug Nordman

Author of "The Military Guide to Financial Independence and Retirement" and co-author of "Raising Your Money-Savvy Family For Next Generation Financial Independence."
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