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From Paratroopers to Rockets: One veteran’s journey to a dream career

Army Paratroopers
Army Paratroopers (Photo Credit: David Smith/AP)

Liz Mclean, Air Force veteran and Military.com’s veteran employment representative, had the opportunity to speak about recruiting veterans as well as participating on the panel “from the trenches: female veterans perspectives" at NASA Ames in Mountain View, CA. Army veteran and director of operations Robin Aube-Warren participated in the panel and sat down with Mclean to talk abotu the trials and tribulations of her career path.

From Army paratrooper to NASA operations, Aube-Warren’s career trajectory has been unconventional; including working at Taco Bell as a manager for $25,000.00 a year. Likewise, many veterans experience a similar roller-coaster path. And as Aube-Warren’s life illustrates, sometimes the path to a dream career, is not so easily charted.

Mclean: Why did you join the military?

Aube-Warren: My family has a history of military service. In fact, my older sister was the first woman in the Connecticut National Guard (1974). It gave her a great deal of independence. When I was in college I was still very shy and afraid of many things. I thought the military would help me in both areas, which it did significantly. I enrolled in ROTC my sophomore year and I was commissioned and went on active duty when I graduated.

Mclean: What was your role in the military?

Aube-Warren:
While on active duty, I was a military police officer at Fort Bragg. I served as a “leg” (someone who isn’t airborne) and a paratrooper. I was also a platoon leader in two different military police companies as well as a battalion adjutant. I had various roles in the reserves, including battalion X.O., brigade operations officer (S-3), and acting battalion commander.

Mclean: What is your role now?

Aube-Warren: I am the director of center operations at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley, California.

Mclean: Why did you decide to leave the service?

Aube-Warren: I was on my third deployment in three years, in Panama for the invasion. My promotion board had been postponed twice and they had just cancelled it. I wanted a family some day and I saw very few career military were successful with all the deployments, the Reserves looked like a better option.

Mclean: What was your story/path when you left the service?

Aube-Warren: My path was not well-planned or straight. Like many veterans, I took the first job offer without very much thought. I worked at a resort for a year and a half. It didn’t pay well nor offer any career opportunities but it let me pay the bills.

I found out about an assistant manager with Taco Bell through a county veteran service officer. I had more leadership experience than the manager and I found it frustrating at times. I was missing much of the camaraderie and sense of purpose that my military career gave me. I found a reserve unit and that was a great bridge for the loss of the things I loved in the military. During my years with the reserves, I worked as a police officer with the VA, eventually becoming chief, all the while working to earn my Masters in Education.

Once I was promoted to GS-13, I applied for VA’s Executive Leadership Development Program. The program was phenomenal and a major turning point in my career path. During the two year program, I started applying for positions as an associate director throughout the country. I had several interviews and even second interviews but it wasn’t until about my 20th attempt that I was finally selected. I have to admit, being rejected so many times was discouraging and I wondered if this career path was a mistake.

I worked my way through the ranks at VA hospitals, finally achieving senior executive (SES). I loved being a hospital director but my timing was poor. I started a month before the 2014 VA Phoenix scandal hit. The politics became almost unbearable. While I truly loved the mission of the VA, I was not happy in that environment. My work life balance was non-existent and I wasn’t finding satisfaction in my work. I was at least three years away from minimum retirement age and I couldn’t imagine doing it for that long.

I started looking for other opportunities outside of VA. I saw the position at NASA and thought I’d apply even if it was a longshot. I mean, its NASA! I have to say I absolutely love my new agency and position. NASA has been rated the number one large federal agency for the last five years and it shows (according to the Best Places study published by the Partnership for Public Service and the Deloitte consulting firm). I have a meaningful job and work/life balance. I work with people who are brilliant and amazing and my work is exciting. When I worked for the VA our mission was to take care of our nation’s heroes. I thought there was no more profound mission. Then I came to NASA and one of our missions is to make life better for all humanity. Pretty inspiring!

Mclean: What were your biggest struggles/obstacles to overcome in your transition?

Aube-Warren: There were many. I had no time to plan. I didn’t get a transition briefing when I left. I had never really looked for a job before. I was ignorant of the Federal hiring rules and regulations, and so much more. I made many, many mistakes.

Mclean: What advice would you like to give transitioning members?

Aube-Warren: Try to plan as much as possible. Don’t limit yourself. I never thought NASA would hire me but I tried and it has been a wonderful experience. Know what is important to you and don’t compromise on that, but be very willing to compromise on everything else. Find an organization that shares your values. Challenge yourself; if not in work than in volunteering or in play. Understand the hiring rules before you accept a position. Look for mentors who can help you transition and move up in an organization. Don’t expect to be compensated for everything, appreciate the experience, it will make you more marketable. Understand there are many ways to serve and your life can still have meaning outside of the armed forces.

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