How to Transition from the Military During the COVID-19 Pandemic

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Shot of a young man using a laptop while waiting in line for a job interview

You ghosted your own transition during COVID, didn't you? Swept into meetings about how to make the military a germ-free zone, you stopped calling. Stopped texting. Started cutting your own hair. You kept the picture of yourself in uniform on your LinkedIn page. Maybe you even pushed off your retirement or separation date.

This would have been a good strategy -- if everything had gone back to normal. Now that COVID-19 continues, you know you need to get back together with your transition, but every time you sit down to do it, someone bursts into tears. How do you get your transition back on track during a time of COVID?

1. Recognize COVID Brain.

Know that everyone you are going to deal with for the next few months of transition may have a touch of COVID-19 brain -- even you. Neuroscientist Hilke Plassman coined the phrase "COVID-19 brain" to describe how the area of the brain responsible for complex planning, working memory and analytical thinking is swamped with ambiguous signals. This impacts our decision-making ability and leaves us with "a fragile, frazzled state that keeps our thoughts simultaneously on edge and unfocused." Expect decisions to take longer, and plan accordingly.

2. Ask the right question.

No need to waste energy asking why COVID had to happen, why you did not transition last year, or why you ghosted your transition. Instead, take a breath and ask yourself only one question: What exactly is stopping me right now? Each one of my clients has something different. They don't know what they want to do post-military. They hate their LinkedIn headline. They want to know which of their thousand skills to include in their professional summary. Many of them know what they should be doing, but recognize they need the accountability a coach provides to get themselves to do it. For those who have stopped because they have a specific question about how TAP or VA benefits will work during COVID, the Department of Veterans Affairs has provided a series of specific answers for you.

3. Anticipate more than one scenario.

While most transitioning service members I work with hope for a superior job offer before their separation date, COVID can complicate things. Employers are still hiring, yet many of my colleagues report the actual process is slower than it was before. Just like you have COVID brain, the employers and hiring managers do, too, and it slows decision-making. Don't ruminate over what you will do if your perfect plan does not work out. Instead, use that magnificent mind of yours to actively work through several alternatives.

4. Reframe the worst activity.

Most of my transitioning clients dread networking. It goes against everything they stand for -- competence, self-reliance, leadership. Yet countless research studies show jobs come to us most likely from second- and third-level connections -- the network. But the network is not working like it did before. Psychologist Shauna Springer, co-author of "Beyond the Military," pointed out in an email that sheltering in place has left most people with a shrunken social life. "We have lost the variability of our previous social lives -- the incidental contacts with a variety of other friends and acquaintances that add unexpected pleasure to our lives," she said.

Springer is right. People don't meet for coffee or lunch like they did. They don't talk in elevators or walk down halls together. And the brain craves this kind of casual connection. Springer suggests that, to combat the mental burden of sheltering in place, we can add a reminder in our phone to call someone we haven't contacted for weeks or months or years. Transitioning service members are not bothering people when they reach out right now. They are actually offering something their networks need.

Transitioning service members like you are exactly what the world needs right now. You are a person who has spent your career making order from chaos. This is not new to you. Use the shared nature of the pandemic to align yourself with the world and think through how your learned skills can be of help in the outside world.

Jacey Eckhart is a transition coach who trains senior military clients how to get a job during the last months of their military career. She is known for her insightful assessment of the invisible barriers to employment each client faces, and for her ability to develop specific strategies to overcome those barriers. Trained as a military sociologist, her professional focus is on veteran employment, spouse employment, and long military marriage. For more information about the training program, visit no regret military transition or email Jacey.

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