“I don’t know what’s on the other side.” – Patrick Swayze
By Steven Leopard
Professor at University of Kansas
About a year after retirement from a long and relatively undistinguished military career, the local Transition Assistance Program invited me to speak to a group of future Veterans about strategic communication. Although the topic was one with which I was intimately familiar, I realized early in my comments that what I was saying wasn’t what they needed to hear. I paused my slide presentation and looked at the collected group of uniforms in the audience.
“There’s an old saying,” I said. “Experience is something you don’t have until after you need it.” With that statement, I left my presentation behind and spoke for over an hour about the things they would need to know that no one was telling them. Things that might seem minor in the moment but would have a significant impact on their post-transition experience. I recalled my own time with transition assistance, and how little of it was meaningful. I told them about the man who mentored me through transition, and how much his assistance influenced my post-transition success.
When I finished, there were questions. A lot of them. With those answered, I left them with one final thought: “Transition is a brutal reminder that you never know everything you need to know until after you need to know it.”
Mind the Gap
Transition is a lot a tactical gap crossing. It requires a tremendous amount of planning and foresight to overcome the inherent complexity of the operation. Success depends on a level of coordination and synchronization that transcends any other tactical task. And the unknown — what might lie hidden on the other side — is a significant concern.
Most transition programs maintain a near-side focus, narrowing the aperture to primarily emphasize those things necessary to prepare for that crossing. Resume? Check. Job search? Check. VA medical overview? Check. Financial literacy class? Check. Sign off on your clearing papers? Check. The average transition assistance program positions you at the approach to the gap crossing and waves goodbye. But it’s the far side that poses the greatest risk to a Veteran. The standard-issue transition program commits little to no time assisting the soon-to-be Veteran with far-side reconnaissance. The future often remains shrouded in uncertainty, and the newly minted Veteran — separated from their tribe and the sense of team it represents — crosses into that space blind to what follows.
Step onto Firm Ground
Alone, unprepared, and uncertain, some Veterans struggle to find firm ground on the far side of that tactical gap crossing. While nothing will prepare you for everything that comes after transition, there are steps to take to get a clear view of what’s ahead and to set a better azimuth for the future.
Foremost among those steps is to find a good mentor, hopefully someone who’s made the gap crossing within the past five years. Not to be too blunt, but you want a mentor who still has the scar tissue from their own experience — someone who still carries a bit of a chip on their shoulder and hasn’t quite come to terms with it all. That’s a mentor who, with everything still fresh in their mind, will provide the best advice. They won’t coddle you. They won’t sugarcoat anything. They’ll lay it all out there. Find that mentor, buy them lunch (probably more than one if you’re serious about gaining a good footing on the far side), and spend a lot of quality time asking questions and drawing on their lessons learned.
A good mentor can get you onto solid ground again, but each path that follows is unique to the individual. We all have different interests; we all have our own ways of doing things. But there are a few things we can all do to ensure that when we finally cross that gap, we find our way.
- Find your purpose. As servicemembers, we tend to be mission-focused. You need that same sense of purpose following transition, probably more than anything else. That sense of purpose will give meaning to your post-transition life. What drives you? What inspires you? How can you still make a difference? Find that mission. Then give it everything you’ve got.
- Find your team. One of the most common statements you’ll hear from a Veteran is that they miss the sense of team that once surrounded them. That loss of team and togetherness can be crushing. It can lead to an overwhelming sense of aloneness that can take you to a dark place. Find your team. Join a good Veteran service organization, such as Team RWB or Team Rubicon. By building relationships, you will regain that sense of team and begin to establish your identity out of uniform.
- Find yourself. Many Veterans struggle after transition because their entire identity is centered around their military service. Take away the uniform and there’s nothing left. You should be proud of your service but remember that it’s just one part of who you are. Transition will inevitably affect your identity. Your best years are still ahead of you. Don’t look back, look forward.
- Find your goals. This might seem obvious, but there’s more to purpose than just a mission. Far too many Veterans transition without a clear idea of how they’ll carve out their niche in the world. Goal setting can be a daunting task, but it’s a necessary one. Pick up a copy of James Clear’s Atomic Habits and get to work setting those goals. Take the time to think through where you want to be in six months, a year, and five years after transition. The more detailed your vision, the better appreciation you will have for the work needed to reach your destination.
- Find your network. You’re going to meet a lot of people who genuinely want to help you find your way in your post-transition world. Connect to them. Forge those relationships. Bring them together. Let them help you. Build a support structure. Make friends, spend time getting to know them. They will be your new team, your new circle of battle buddies. They are your network.
Once you find your way, buckle up and be flexible. Change comes quick and you want to be prepared. Don’t satisfice. Seek out the opportunities you want and don’t settle for anything less. Lean on the skills that made you a success in uniform and they’ll continue to serve you well. Then, in the same way you would in any new assignment, hit the ground running and make a difference. Most importantly, be a mentor to someone else. Share the knowledge you gained from your own experience and help someone else avoid the missteps and pitfalls that might await them. Pay it forward.
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