Building and maintaining a network of connections while you're in the military will pay dividends when you get out.
This article originally appeared on Task & Purpose, a digital news and culture publication dedicated to military and veterans issues.
We tend to believe that the minute we get out of the service, everything you've ever lived through for the last "X" years, immediately vanishes from our existence. Some of us dream about saying things we have been holding back, but try not to act on those impulses.
It's very important that you create and maintain an image of yourself that you want to professionally market. This requires that you maintain open, and frequent communication with people you've established any type of relationship with.
What tends to happen when people get close to separating from the service, is that they start burning bridges. Bridges are those metaphorical ties that help us interact with people easily, instead of sludging through the rushing tide of resistance that prevents us from getting things done. The bridges you build lead will you into a place of success more quickly than if you don't bother to establish a good rapport with those you work with.
When you leave the military, the people you served with are going to be the people who understand you the best. It is important to maintain good social standings with all the service members and civilian contractors you come in contact with throughout your time in the military; from your first duty station until it's time for you to separate from the service.
Believe it or not, the world is a small place and the military is even smaller, and you may run into the people you meet in the military again someday — in or out of the service. As a civilian I've bumped into people I used to serve with in completely different countries, years after I'd seen them last. I've even run into people in passing at airports, and in random hotels while on vacation with my family.
Some of them may just know someone you served with or served under. When I separated and realized I needed to get work, I walked into a job fair that my first employer was holding, and I handed in my resume, took a seat, got through the first interview, and was asked to wait for a second.
As I sat in this room of hopeful candidates, I heard people talking about how hard it was to get into this company because of all that it offered its employees.
An older man in his late 40s and a goofy smile walked out and screamed "Graves!"
I replied with a nice solid, "yes sir," and offered him a firm handshake. He introduced himself and added, "We may have a few things in common."
It turns out that he and I shared the same MOS, though he hadn't been in the Marine Corps for well over 15 years, and he knew my first master sergeant, very well in fact — they still meet up and have barbecues with each other's families.
I already had a foot in the door because of our shared service, but now we had a mutual acquaintance in common, and you better believe he reached out to her and asked some questions about who I was as a person.
The people you encounter will always hold an image of who you are. That old saying, "a first impression is a lasting impression," holds very true. You may not have a lot of one-on-one time with everyone you come in contact with, so keep in mind that your attitude and your personality for those few moments of contact define who you are to everyone you meet. If you meet someone once, and all they meet is the sarcastic and abrasive you, they will never get to understand that you were just having a bad day and that wasn't who you really are. To them, you are rude and hard to deal with. To the guy who fell in a squadron run, and then you helped them up and dusted them off, you will forever be a good person to them, assuming you never run into each other again.
Not burning bridges works in other ways too. If you establish great rapport with someone whether it's at work, on a softball team, at the gym, in church, or wherever, a strong relationship can substantially benefit you in the future if you maintain the proper connections.
If you've created a positive image of yourself with the right connections, people will keep you in mind. When many veterans get out they go on to live completely different lives. Some jump into the trade they left behind, like yours truly, and some go on to create their own businesses, many of whom are looking for like-minded individuals that they can rely upon to help run and grow their companies. They're looking for partners and loyal friends that they can trust to maintain a standard, and who better than you?
If you've done your job by networking properly you may be a top runner on another veteran or past coworker's list when they start businesses of their own and begin looking for people they can trust.
The importance of a good impression and the need to foster a strong network doesn't go away outside of the military, it continues when you go to college, back to work, or even to church or to a social function.
I know for a fact that if something happened to me and I needed a job, a place to live, or even an ear to talk to, I have options. That is the feeling that you want to have when you walk away from the military. You want to leave feeling that you'll be okay, and not be alone to fend for yourself. If you keep your bridges intact, you will be able to walk across them at any time for whatever it is you need.
Every interaction you have in the military could possibly change your life later down the road. Whether you realize it or not, a little genuine kindness and respect can go a long way. Do whatever it takes to not burn any bridges unnecessarily.
Robert Graves is a 10-year Marine Corps veteran, who is currently working on publishing his book, "How to Grow a Beard: A Transitional Guide from the Military Life back into the Civilian World," where he shares that knowledge for all vets to to have a successful transition. Follow Robert Graves on Twitter @how2growabeard.
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