So You're Moving On - Advice From Ex-Military
You can learn the hard way, or you can learn from those that have already walked the walk. It is your choice. I can be stubborn as a mule, so I don't hold out any hope you'll listen to my advice. Yet, to my surprise, a few fools do occasionally listen. This blog is for them.
Get Out of the Military
Getting out? Better yet, don't join in the first place. Some of us made that choice long ago. Now is the time of reckoning. The longer you stay in - the longer you wait to make the right choice - the worse that day of reckoning will be.
Rather than boring you with a sermon on why you shouldn't be a part of the military (really, any military, but most definitely the United States military), let's have a frank honest discussion about the obstacles you face if you decide to follow my advice.
But this isn't all about me. I wrote to several ex-military friends, asking for their own experiences as well. Their thoughts helped shape this blog as much as mine. A couple of their comments are included.
Count Yourself as a Dependent
Military service fosters dependency. It creates it. From the moment you join, your possessions are replaced with theirs, your food with theirs, and your free time with theirs. They take what you have and give you back what they provide. This is a simple reality you must learn to absorb. When you sever that tie, your old possessions are no longer available. You may find some of your old clothes (although now you probably dress in ridiculous tucked-in polo shirts and khaki pants) and you may have your old home. Some of us left the military with absolutely nothing. Everything we brought in was worn out or worthless by the time we left: cars, clothes, furniture, you name it.
Particularly as an enlisted man - and I will write mostly from the enlisted perspective, although I know the officer corps well - you learn to depend on what the system provides. It gives you a job, a paycheck, food, shelter, etc.
If you fail to recognize how dependent you have become for your own well being, you risk making a drastic error. Take the time to make a list of every thing you are currently provided (even things you have to pay for - after all, you are most likely getting those things at a discount too, e.g. the subsidized groceries from the Commisary.)
"[Young married Marines] didn't have the financial capability to try to start a new career. It seemed a lot of this was driven by the obscene benefits given to married enlistees..." - Kyle, ex-USMC
How wil you provide for your family?
What will you do for food? Will you cook? Eat fast food?
What will you do for housing?
What will you do for work? (We'll talk more about this)
How will you dress, walk, and talk?
This last one is much more important than you think.
If you cannot answer these questions realistically, you will suffer some serious trauma when you get out. If you're married with children, you could lose your family.
Your first task is deprogramming. It's way more difficult than you would expect. I strongly recommend you take 30-60 days where you do nothing but try to forget how you acted, talked, and dressed as a soldier. Grow out your hair. Stop shaving. Grow a full beard. Stop tucking in your stupid polo shirt. Stop wearing collared shirts altogether. Don't watch TV. Just listen to music, talk to friends and family, and roam the country if you can. (Hey, you have Terminal Leave. Use it.)
"They convince you that you can't do anything without the military "support" infrastructure. I took a 3 month hiatus and drove across county to see how the rest of the civilzation lived day to day." -Jesse, ex-Air Force
You've been on another planet during your time. The outside world does not live like you, does not act like you, does not walk and talk like you. And guess what? They're not going to adjust to you. You need to adjust to them.
You're Nothing Special
Particularly among Marines, there is a cultural mindset that you're special simply because you wear that uniform. But to some extent, every service promotes this idea. The Marines simply extend it to every knucklehead they can enlist. Additionally, you get constant Thank You's and Congratulations from everyone under the sun: professional athletes, entertainers, politicians, business leaders, and on and on, to include the old lady down the street and the little kids at the playground. It's very hard for those who have been pumped up and coddled for years to understand what I'm about to say:
THERE IS ABSOLUTELY NOTHING SPECIAL ABOUT MILITARY SERVICE.
When you get out, you will quickly learn that all the platitudes you received were just talk. No one actually cares (outside of your very close friends and family - and few of them will understand the problems you are about to face anyway.) No one cares who you are, what you've done, or where you've been (unless it makes for a good drinking story.) On top of that, your so-called "skills" have little value. Leadership? Please.... plenty of private sector jokers pretend to have that too. Discipline? Yeah that really narrows you down from the 6 billion other people on this planet that have varying amounts of discipline.
Unless you learned a highly technical skill during your time in the military that is widely used in the private sector, you are in for a rude awakening.
Trust me, the more humility you can tap into in those first couple of years outside of the military, the better off you will be.
The Market Is....
If you cannot finish this sentence, stay in the military. The military is as close to socialism as we'll hopefully ever come in America. No matter your job, all of the same rank make the same base pay. As you progress, promotions depend more on seniority and less on merit. Everything is collectivized. There is no "market" in the military (except the spontaneous ones that arise when you're in the field.)
The market is a group of individuals exchanging goods and services to fulfill each other's wants.
Your task - preferably before you walk out that door - is two-fold:
1. Make a list of the things you can do
2. Study the market and find out if anyone actually wants those skills, and how much they're willing to pay
Study the market. I cannot stress how important that is. You will flounder from job to job, from frustration to frustration, if you don't understand how a market works.
Find a skill for which employers are looking. Research the salary. Research the requirements. If you think you can become "that guy" with a little study and some late nights, then go for it.
Lather. Rinse. Repeat.
The key to success in the market is very simple. Find out what people want, and then find out how to give it to them. Unselfishness is the key to a big salary.
(This advice also works if you wish to take the ultimate plunge and become an entrepreneur. If you do, I applaud you. I chose to learn a skill first.)
And I have very good news for you. All those kids in college - the ones you will be competing against - are learning that the market is a selfish place where only the greedy can survive. Few, if any, will ever take the time to atually study the market before they graduate. They expect to be fawned over, to be handed work, and if they don't get it they will b*tch and whine. The important thing is that they won't be able to compete with someone who actually does understand how markets work.
Just don't expect anyone in the miltary to help you learn what you need to know before you leave:
"Transition Assistance Program: A complete joke. The instructor was a recently retired officer who made us sit in a class for a week so he could tell us how awesome he was. He briefly touched on some administrative points, but nothing really useful as far as searching for a job or how our military experience translated to civilian life." - Tim, ex-USMC
Get on the Internet and start doing your homework. You should know the salary range for every position you are interested in. You should know the requirements. You should know what employers are looking for.
I'll give you a hint. They're looking for someone who really wants it. If you do find a good opportunity, let them know how badly you want it. It's what they want to hear (usually).
The Greatest Challenge
Do you like to be challenged? Most active duty military I have encountered (and I spent the better part of 15 years around them) think they like to be challenged. They really don't, though. If they truly loved a challenge, they'd be getting their discharge paperwork ready, because there is no bigger challenge they can face in the military.
I knew several people who went in the military because of the challenge. You might be one of those. You might have wanted to be challegened at that point in your life. It was part of my motivation in joining, as well. But as time goes along, the military can get very easy. You can learn to skate and stay under the radar. Military challenges lose their appeal after a while. Your reward is usually tougher duty, worse living conditions, and more danger. In the private sector, challenges reward you with a better life, not a worse one.
It's been my experience that fear of separation - fear of the challenge of going on your own - is the most difficult thing for a soldier to deal with as he contemplates getting out.
It isn't going to be easy. Almost every person I know, most definitely including myself, has hit rock bottom or close to it since leaving the military. We've all pretty much done a year or two (or more) of personal, professional, and financial disappointment.
"Anything worth doing is worth doing poorly the first time." - Joel Salatin
If it was easy, everyone would have instant success. The great thing about challenges is that only those who take them on can reap the rewards. These are not only monetary rewards. You will never be more confident, more secure in who you are and what you can do in this world, then you will after you separate from the military.
I've Been There
If this sounds like I'm talking down to you, trying to make you feel small, let me just say that I wish I could have listened to this when I was getting out. It would have saved me many years of heartache.
I've made it pretty far, but the most important thing I've learned is how quickly you can get wiped out. I've been down in the dumps too. I try not to be too high on myself and what I've achieved because it can be gone tomorrow with a bad break. That's the way the outside world goes.
But I wouldn't have listened anyway. I was way too proud and way too stupid to take anyone's advice. In a way, this blog is for the 25 yr old man I wish I was.
Anything worth doing is worth doing poorly the first time. Darn right, Joel.
David in Liberty