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Vets Share Their Journey from the Military to the White House

U.S. Marine combat correspondent Brian Gabriel, left, during his deployment to Helmand Province, Afghanistan in 2010-2011. Five years later, he is the senior press and media operations assistant at the White House. (Courtesy photo)
U.S. Marine combat correspondent Brian Gabriel, left, during his deployment to Helmand Province, Afghanistan in 2010-2011. Five years later, he is the senior press and media operations assistant at the White House. (Courtesy photo)

If you're in the military and working to transition back to civilian life, the prospect of finding a dream job out of uniform can be daunting.

It's not always clear how military skills translate to civilian jobs, and many veterans worry they will have to settle for an entry-level or less-skilled job to prove themselves, despite years of military experience.

But these three veterans -- two Marines and one Navy officer -- are taking some of the mystery out of the process by describing their own journeys from life in uniform to key staff positions at the White House. We asked all three the same questions and they shared not only how they were able to secure these dream jobs, but also how their military experience has helped them to succeed. Some answers have been edited for length.

The Spokesman

Brian Gabriel, 28, from New Orleans, Louisiana, is a senior press and media operations assistant at the White House and former Marine Corps combat correspondent and broadcaster.

Q. What were your years of service and what was your terminal rank?

A. I served from 2007-2001, and I left the Marines as a sergeant. I deployed to Helmand Province, Afghanistan, from March 2010 to March 2011.

Q. What did you do after you left the military?

A. After I left the Marines, I immediately enrolled at Loyola University New Orleans in pursuit of a political science degree using the Post-9/11 GI Bill. While in school, I spent my free time organizing the school's first ever student veterans organization in order to make current and newly separated servicemembers' transition to civilian life a little bit easier.

Q. How did you get to your current position?

A. During my senior year of college, I applied for an associate position at the White House Office of Presidential Correspondence -- the department responsible for handling all incoming letters, emails, phone calls, and gifts sent to the president and First Family. The program offered me an associateship at the White House Comment Line, where I managed the interns and volunteers who take phone calls from constituents. Hearing American people's voice every day regarding their opinions and concerns was a rewarding experience that gave me a better perspective on how our work in the Obama Administration affects citizens.

After spending a semester at Presidential Correspondence, I was given the opportunity to move over to my current role in the Office of the Press Secretary.

Q. What does your day to day work consist of? What achievements are you most proud of in your job?

A. I'm responsible for coordinating press coverage of the president's activities domestically and internationally with the traveling group of the journalists that cover the White House. My day-to-day responsibilities are largely dependent on what the president has on his schedule. My duties are to ensure that the press get every possible opportunity to hear the president's message, whether that might be simply sending a press release or organizing thousands of reporters and photographers on the South Lawn for an event.

As someone who spent time listening to the American people in the Office of Presidential Correspondence and now constantly monitors the news and stories of the day in the Communications department, I have been rewarded on a nearly daily basis when I hear stories of how a policy that the White House set in place positively affects our fellow citizens.

Q. What do you enjoy most about your current position?

A. I'm most proud of being able to have a hand in communicating the president's message to the American people and the larger global community. I spent my four years as a military public affairs specialist telling the Marine Corps' story, and now I have the honor to help the president speak to the nation.

Additionally, watching news break and major presidential events unfold in real time is incredibly rewarding and addicting. In many cases, I've had the opportunity to have a front-row seat to history being made.

Q. How did your military experience prepare you for what you're doing now?

A. The Marine Corps instilled in me the ability to keep a cool head under pressure while also maintaining attention to detail. These skills come into play every day while coordinating precise press movements and editing press releases.

However, the most treasured gift the Marine Corps passed on to me is the ability to work successfully in a team environment. At no point in time is a Marine able to pick and choose who he or she fights alongside. The men and women I served with came from all walks of life, and the Marines in my public affairs unit couldn't have been any more different from one another in terms of how they grew up. Nevertheless, we were charged with accomplishing our mission while functioning in lock step with one another. Those experiences translate directly into my daily work with reporters and photographers from across the globe.

Q. What were the greatest challenges for you in transitioning from the military to the civilian sector?

A. The most difficult part of my transition from military to civilian life was no longer being a part of an organization with a mission larger than myself. Though I was only one person in an entire branch of the military, I felt directly connected to the Marine Corps' role in protecting the nation. In order to cope with that, I tried to find a path back into public service. A job at the White House has been nothing short of an absolute dream.

Q. Why do you believe it's important for veterans to serve in government/the executive branch?

A. As people who willingly pledge to give their lives in the service of our nation, veterans know exactly what sacrifice means. Country before self is a motto for many of those who wear the uniform, and that dedication and work ethic would do nothing but benefit civil service.

Q. What advice would you give veterans transitioning out of military life who want to make a difference?

A. Find a purpose and seek a way to dedicate your time to pursue that passion. The United States offers veterans a number of ways to pay for higher education and job training. Taking advantage of those programs can help provide an avenue to a job that gives you the same sense of purpose found while in the service.

The Private-Sector Assistant

Rob Diamond, 39, from Staten Island, New York, is the special assistant to the president and director of Private Sector Engagement at the White House and a former Navy surface warfare officer.

Q. What were your years of service and what was your terminal rank?

A. I am a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy (2000) and served on active duty from 2000-2006. I deployed to Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom in 2004. I left active duty as a Lieutenant (O-3) in 2006.

Q. What did you do after you left the military?

A. I left the Navy in 2006 and moved to New York City and into the finance industry. I worked at Bear Stearns on their equity derivatives trading desk for two years, and then moved into the real estate private equity world where I was a Senior Vice President at Realty Capital International for three and a half years.

Q. How did you get to your current position?

A. In 2011, I left the finance industry and joined President Barack Obama's re-election campaign ... where I served as the National Veterans & Military Families vote director, as well as the New York state director for Obama for America, overseeing all campaign operations across the state. After the president's re-election campaign, I worked for two years as the downstate director of intergovernmental affairs for New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, where I supervised outreach and engagement with New York's elected officials, community organizations, constituency groups and advocacy organizations. It was this experience in campaigns and government, coupled with my nearly six years in the private sector that brought me to my current role here at the White House.

Q. What does your day to day work consist of? What achievements are you most proud of in your job?

A. As a special assistant to the president and director of private sector engagement, it is my job to provide strategic and management oversight of the administration's interaction with the private sector. I work with entrepreneurs, small business owners, and corporate and financial leaders, finding ways for the administration to partner with the business community on the full range of administration priorities. I am most proud of the work we have done to put Americans back to work after the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.

Not a day goes by where I don't work on issues that affect my fellow veterans -- like employment, healthcare, education, homelessness or suicide prevention. And being a veteran myself, I am motivated to work doubly as hard to ensure we are doing all we can to assist the men and women who have served this nation in uniform.

Q. What do you enjoy most about your current position?

A. First, the sense of teamwork here at the White House. From the president on down, this is truly a team effort. Working here is demanding, with long hours and difficult issues, but everyone at the White House comes to work every day motivated to do all they can to move the country forward that day. Secondly, I have the great fortune of working on such a wide range of issues. From veterans employment to climate change to autonomous vehicles to equal pay for women, I get to see and touch so much of the work that goes on here.

Q. How did your military experience prepare you for what you're doing now?

A. I think my military service has had an enormous influence on my life and my work now here at the White House. From the little things you're taught in the military on day one, like being organized, having a plan, attention to detail, to being able to operate under pressure in a demanding environment where decisions are needed. This job is all about creating plans and executing them, and there's no finer training ground for that skill-set than the US military.

Q. What were the greatest challenges for you in transitioning from the military to the civilian sector?

A. I think the hardest part for me was simply maintaining that sense of mission that is so inherent in your daily life in uniform. It's what brought me back to public service once again.

Q. Why do you believe it's important for veterans to serve in government/the executive branch?

A. I think it's absolutely critical. I think our government, at every level, needs the experience and leadership that our veterans bring to the table. But not just government, every company and organization in this country can benefit from hiring veterans. They bring an enormous set of skills and experiences to bear. They know how to work hard in any environment. They know how to lead and how to manage. And most of all they understand that you are only as good as the man or woman on either side of you, and that makes every team or business or government office better.

Q. What advice would you give veterans transitioning out of military life who want to make a difference?

A. I think it's pretty straightforward. Find what you are passionate about and go do it. What field, what issue, what cause gets you out of bed every morning? And then pour everything you have into it. And don't be afraid to fail. No one knows what the road ahead will bring. You simply have to apply yourself as best you can and try to be the best at what you do. Through that alone you're going to make a difference.

The Legal Assistant

Alexander Philip Wu, 28, from McLean, Virginia, is a senior legal assistant in the office of White House Counsel and former Marine Corps tank officer.

Q. What were your years of service and what is your current rank?

A. Active duty from 2010 to 2012 (1st lieutenant), Reserve from 2012 to the present (captain). I was deployed to Helmand Province, Afghanistan, from April to October 2012. My unit operated primarily in Trek Nawa, Marjah, and Garmsir.

Q. What did you do after you left the military?

A. After I left active duty, I joined a small non-profit called the International Leadership Foundation that is dedicated to promoting civic awareness and public service in the Asian Pacific Islander community. They serve this mission primarily through their Civic Fellowship program, through which they sponsor and provide leadership training for approximately 30 undergraduate AAPI in summer federal internships annually. I was the Program Director for this fellowship.

Q. How did you get to the position you hold currently?

A. While working at the ILF, I applied to law school fulfill my long-term career goal of being a prosecutor. I also applied to a number of public service internships and fellowships for the spring and summer before attending law school in the fall. I was lucky to be selected for a White House internship in the Office of Management and Administration, specifically in the Office of Information Services (informally known as the Switchboard). Because of my incredibly supportive team there, I was then hired to be the Associate Director for the Management and Administration Front Office. I felt so honored to be able to work for this White House, so my wife and I decided to defer my law school plans until the end of this administration. After spending a year in the M&A front office, I was presented with an opportunity to work in the White House Counsel's Office.

Q. What does your day to day work consist of? What achievements are you most proud of in your job?

A. As is the case in most offices in the White House, I think it's tough to predict exactly how any given day is going to go. Generally speaking, I provide legal, organizational, and administrative support to our various attorney teams as they respond to congressional information and civil discovery requests, conduct ethics and compliance reviews of event participation and partnership requests, and work with other offices on their policy goals.

I think what I'm most proud of is how this group of incredibly accomplished individuals is a true team. There have been so many times when huge projects with an incredibly tight timeline pop up and everyone comes together -- regardless of what they have on their plates -- to accomplish the mission together.

Q. What do you enjoy most about your current position?

A. The legal support team -- and the White House Counsel team in general -- is a really special one that I feel very privileged to be a part of it. Additionally, as an aspiring lawyer and prosecutor, working with and for some of the best lawyers our nation has to offer has been an incredible apprenticeship and has prepared me for the study of law in ways I never before could have imagined.

Q. How did your military experience prepare you for what you're doing now?

A. I was really blessed to have an amazing team while deployed. Witnessing my Marines embody the best of American goodwill -- serving simultaneously as cultural ambassadors, tactical trainers, and professional warfighters -- showed me what a true team can accomplish together. None of these guys had to be where they were. From so many different walks of life, we all volunteered to join the military during a time of war because we believe in our country and American values. I will forever cherish what my guys taught me about courage, sacrifice, and service; I think that knowledge of who the government is serving motivates me to work as hard as I can, which enables me to meet the uniquely challenging demands of working here.

Q. What were the greatest challenges for you in transitioning from the military to the civilian sector?

A. I only spent a few years on active duty, and even I felt the culture shock of transitioning to the civilian world. The ILF provided me an incredibly supportive work environment through which I was able to learn quickly how to apply the leadership principles and skills I learned in the Marine Corps to a very different set of challenges in a very different environment. Along the same line, it can be difficult to relate one's experiences in the military to civilian friends and family. That's why it's so important to hold on to the relationships with one's brothers and sisters in arms.

Q. Why do you believe it's important for veterans to serve in government/the executive branch?

A. Our veterans are public servants who truly know what it means to put the mission and their teammates ahead of themselves. Theirs is the type of selfless commitment and leadership that our government needs to confront the ever more complex challenges we face domestically and abroad.

Q. What advice would you give veterans transitioning out of military life who want to make a difference?

A. I think it's more important for us veterans to stay humble and open-minded. Though you may have an incredible amount of experience and expertise that you built up through your time in the military, your new job in the civilian world will inevitably be different. The personalities, culture, and attitudes may all be different. It's not your job (unless it is!) to change their culture right off the bat to something you're more familiar with. As you build up your situational awareness in your new surroundings and environment, I think you will find that the training, discipline, perspective, and experience you have will manifest itself in helpful and unexpected ways that will naturally make you a go-to leader.

-- Hope Hodge Seck can be reached at hope.seck@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @HopeSeck.

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