Transitioning from active military service to the private sector is, without a doubt, the most challenging thing I have done. Far more challenging than the Special Forces Assessment and Selection course, a 19 day physical and mental gut check to determine if I had the willpower, fitness, and intellect to continue training in the hopes of one day becoming a Green Beret. It is more challenging than my freshman year at the Citadel, where I endured 9 months of Spartan existence at the hands of vindictive young men only 1-2 years my senior. More challenging, in many ways, than leading troops in combat.
I share my experience because millions of military veterans face the same challenge as they navigate into “civilian” life. Over 3.9 million Americans served in the armed forces following September 11, 2001; nearly half of this group deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan, or both. In the Special Operations community, whose members maintain a more aggressive operational cycle than most of the Department of the Defense, men and women have deployed countless times to major combat theaters, their periphery, or elsewhere around the world during the last 20 years. The challenge posed by transition is not caused by deployments, but I would argue that it is exacerbated by it. The challenge isn’t isolated to a specific segment of veterans, either. Whether you completed 4 years of service as a junior enlisted service member or retired after 30 years as a senior officer, service members of all backgrounds are likely to struggle through the monumental change that occurs as they depart military service.
Although there are many aspects to this challenge, one of the most pivotal is the quest for a new career. The natural tendency is to assume that transitioning veterans are unemployed in greater numbers than their civilian counterparts, but Department of Labor statistics show this to be untrue. In fact, as of last month the unemployment rate for military veterans was only 4% (read the DOL report here), virtually identical to the US population (4.1%).
The real problem is not finding a job, but finding the RIGHT job. Military veterans are often underemployed and struggle to find a meaningful and challenging next step. A recent study conducted by the Call of Duty Endowment found that nearly 1/3 of transitioning veterans felt underemployed, 15% higher than their non-veteran peers. VetAdvisor and the Institute for Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University conducted a survey of over 1,200 Veterans between 2013 – 2014. The study found a significant first and second-year turnover rate post-separation from the military. Nearly half of the Veterans surveyed left their first civilian position in twelve months or less and over 65% left within two years. The challenge, then, is not simply hiring more veterans; the challenge is helping veterans find a calling where they can realize the same deep sense of purpose, impact, and value that they came to appreciate while serving with their squad, wing, or detachment.
Although my realization that I wanted to leave the Army after 10 years occurred rather suddenly, once I knew it was time to go, I knew. I had realized my childhood dream of being a Green Beret and leading some of the best men on the planet. What I hadn’t planned for, despite being extremely conscientious and an “expert” operational planner, was life beyond my military career. Whereas before this moment I had a very concrete goal on the horizon and a clear trajectory to follow, I now found myself in the unusual and uncomfortable position of having the freedom to go anywhere and do anything. I had no clue what I wanted to do or who I wanted to be. With so much of my identity staked on my profession, I found myself in an awkward emotional position at the age 32, similar to what most of you experienced toward the end of high school.
“Who am I?”
These are not inconsequential considerations. Probably because of my military experience or maybe just magnified by it, my profession is a significant part of my identity. When I was a Green Beret, I was unbelievably proud of who I was and what I was contributing to the world. I didn’t have to tell anyone about it in order to capitalize on this pride- in fact, I shirked from recognition and worked hard to live up to the “quiet professional” ideal that I valued so highly. I just needed to have the confidence that what I was doing was honorable, prestigious, and meaningful.
Stripped of all that, I was truly alone in the wilderness (borrowing the theme from Brené Brown.) It seemed prudent to attend business school so that I could market my Special Operations management in a way that was understandable to the rest of the workforce. Hastily preparing for the GMAT and applying to only top 25 business schools, unsurprisingly, I was wildly unsuccessful. Recreational drinking quickly spiraled into something more menacing. I wasn’t drinking a liter of Jack Daniels a day, I didn’t take a shot at first light to jump start my day, nor did I need booze to put myself to sleep. But I did drink every day, and finally realized with the help of my amazingly patient and supportive wife that my problem was not that I needed alcohol to be happy, but that I was unhappy when I was not drinking or looking forward to drinking. Recognizing that, it was clear that alcohol was in control. I’ve also struggled with depression and anxiety, which I believe are strongly correlated with the erosion of my sense of purpose. I share this to make clear the magnitude of finding a clear direction post-separation and to demonstrate the consequences of simply treading water. The veteran suicide rate being what it is (veterans are 22% more at risk to commit suicide than non-veterans), I often wonder how much of an impact these types of identity concerns have on the veteran community, at large. I was a Special Forces officer…specially selected, highly trained, heavily tested, inoculated to stress and discomfort. If I struggle with these fundamental issues, how many of the 3.9 million post 9-11 veterans are also struggling? How much more are they struggling than me?
There is a disconnect in our society. We’re successfully finding veterans jobs, but in many cases we’re not finding them the right jobs. I think often of my Special Operations colleagues- Green Berets, Army Rangers, Navy SEALs, Air Force Pararescuemen, Marine Raiders- super humans in many respects who can accomplish the impossible and frequently do. After decades of honorable service, they transition into the “real world” and are faced with a population that can’t make sense of them. Employers can’t see past the fact that they may not have a bachelor’s degree nor do they bring the 15 years of experience as a supply chain manager or commodities trader that is listed as “required” on the job application. What they do bring to bear- incredible leadership and project management acumen, unparalleled ambition and drive, character and integrity, the ability to connect deeply with people and lead through collaboration and influence, the list goes on- are the very things companies value the most and spend millions trying to develop in their employees. In the end, these men and women frequently accept a position that is well below their ability level that will not provide them the inspiration and development they need to optimize their skills.
On one hand there is an ample supply of highly qualified veterans prepared to join the work force, and on the other are thousands of companies and businesses that desire talented performers and value military veterans. American society must discover a way to make that linkage.