Military service ends for everyone at some point. Regardless of how rewarding and enjoyable it has been, regardless of rank attained or awards earned, eventually it's time to start the next chapter of a working life – a time to transition to a civilian career.
For me the time came at the 20-year mark. I spent the majority of my time in uniform stationed at an air base in Virginia Beach attached to various F-14 squadrons. When I received orders to teach at the Naval Academy in Annapolis I knew my flying days were most likely over, so I started considering what life on the outside might look like for me once I became retirement eligible.
Nothing really jumped out at me. Because I'd been a Naval Flight Officer – a backseater – and not a pilot, the airlines weren't an option (not to mention the airline industry has had a major employment downturn in the last decade or so). I had a bachelor's degree but it was in political science . . . pretty useless in terms of determining a viable civilian career field.
In spite of the fact that for decades I had assumed that there would be all kinds of jobs waiting to be blessed by my presence when I elected to get out, only when I actually started looking for one did I realize my options were limited. And when I say "limited" I'm not necessarily speaking about limited in terms of income potential. I'm talking about limited in terms of job satisfaction potential.
You see, like most of us who stay in the military past our initial obligations, I enjoyed what I was doing. Of course there were bad days and the challenges of long periods of family separation, but I was living a life of consequence, working a job that Hollywood makes movies about. I'd flown from aircraft carriers sailing in hostile waters and worked with incredible professionals. We had carried out the important missions we'd been given.
So among my fears as I transitioned to my first civilian job – that of a civil servant working one of the aircraft programs at a systems command – was that my day-to-day efforts wouldn't amount to anything important.
And they didn't . . . at first.
As I traded my flight suit for khakis and a golf shirt I was thrust into a world of grey areas. Sure, there were job titles and GS pay scales, but those didn't replicate the structure I'd known during my time on active duty. Who was I relative to my co-workers? Absent rank on my collar or warfare devices and ribbons on my chest what did they know (or care) about my years of service?
Nothing, or so it seemed. I was suddenly just the new guy. I had no track record. I'd never done anything that mattered. Instead of flying fighters and leading troops I was now tasked with, among other minutiae, updating the program's social roster. I felt like I was stuck in that Bruce Springsteen song "Glory Days":
"Glory days, they'll pass you by; glory days, like the wink in a young girl's eye . . ."
I had no flight schedule to comply with. I had no detailer to call for my next set of orders. I had no master chiefs to keep me out of trouble. I had no uniforms to wear. Nobody was going to be filming any movies about the action-packed life of a civil servant.
In spite of all my "prep" for the transition (including mandatory TAP, of course) I wasn't prepared for the subjective part of the move – the "spiritual" side, if you will. I was more lost (and depressed) than I ever thought I would be. I missed being on active duty more than I thought I would. And the scary part is I wasn't even fully in the private sector; I was working for the Department of Defense.
Fortunately by the end of the first year of my transition, I'd found my footing, job-wise. I switched programs to one that actually needed what I had to offer in terms of talent, outlook, and enthusiasm. In time I was a trusted member of a team again, one with a seat at the decision-making table, and the position was rewarding in its own way. And that job ultimately gave me the confidence and experience to make the move to the private sector into a role that fully leverages my military career and creativity.
Change is hard; transitioning out of the military is harder. Part of making it easier is thorough prep work research and being networking-wise. The rest is understanding that it won't be easy and fighting the notion that the best years are behind you. Sometimes you might need patience. Sometimes you might need to go after it in a hurry. But the same elements that made you an effective warfighter will ultimately serve you well during the civilian chapter of your working life.
Ward Carroll is the editor of Military.com. During his 20-year Navy career Ward served in four different F-14 squadrons based at NAS Oceana and was the operations officer for Carrier Air Wing One. His last tour on active duty was on the faculty of the U.S. Naval Academy for four years, teaching English, leadership, and ethics. He was editor of Approach magazine and is currently a contributing editor for Naval Aviation News. Ward is also a popular novelist; his three books about a Tomcat pilot — Punk's War, Punk's Wing, and Punk's Fight — have been widely praised for their realistic portrayals of a Naval Aviator's life. He earned the Naval Institute Press "Author of the Year" honors in 2001. His latest novel, The Aide, was recently published by Signet.