Transition Is a Challenge: Tips for Success in the Private Sector

Retired Colonel John Buckley
Retired Army Col. John Buckley offers hard-earned advice for the military transition. (Courtesy photo)

"I constantly lean on my Warrior Ethos to guide me in all endeavors. It has guided me through some very difficult and complex situations when in uniform. It has been my North Star, guiding me through some of my darkest days. And, it continues to orient me on this journey as I serve military veteran job seekers and Koch Industries with military recruiting and retention." -- John Buckley, Koch military relations manager

Transitioning from the military into the private sector is a tremendous challenge. My period of transition was the most difficult period of my entire life. And to be clear, the transition challenges did not stop when the ink dried on my new contract.

Some transition struggles are humorous, like looking for my "cover" when I get ready to leave my office, saluting an innocent civilian walking through the grocery store parking lot and finding myself standing "at ease" when having hallway conversations with my superiors. Then, there are those that are not so humorous, like becoming acutely hypersensitive about my surroundings every time our three-hole punch is used because of its uncanny resemblance to a round being chambered.

The underlying issue for many transitioning veterans is the stark contrast of communication and culture between the military and civilian populations. Ever since our nation converted to an all-volunteer force, soon after Vietnam, military service has been fulfilled by a very few in this country. Although the support, respect and appreciation for our military has increased since the terrible post-Vietnam days, the understanding and connection have not. The military-civilian divide has grown to detrimental proportions.

Approximately 93.5% of the current American population has never served in the military. Simply put, this means that supervisors, human resources leaders and even business leaders probably never put on a uniform.

Translated, this means they do not understand the veteran, their language or their culture. It also means they cannot connect the dots between military skills and experiences, and their relevance to their business needs. Furthermore, it leads to misunderstanding, miscommunication and tremendous barriers to the transitioning veteran in their new environment once hired.

In the military, the success and survival of our organization is more important than any individual ambition, goal and, sometimes, survival. Embracing these values within the military culture creates a connection amongst service members that is not replicated in the private sector. We work together, train together, live together, celebrate life's events together, fight together. ... We are connected on a deeply personal level.

When we finally arrive in the private sector, the lack of the deeply personal connection is painful and sometimes debilitating. The challenges we face after transition are exacerbated when immersed into this foreign environment. The same struggles associated with the communication and cultural gap persist, and new ones emerge.

Oftentimes, veterans begin to fear the stigma they may experience by being known as a veteran, so they don't seek help, according to the rules of the private sector. Moreover, they just pack up and leave. However, much of this turnover can easily be resolved with only a little bit of effort by both the veteran and the company.

Three things to help veterans assimilate into the private sector:

  • Develop veteran retention programs: Connect new veteran hires with other veteran employees; educate employees on the military culture; modify onboarding for veterans; host holiday remembrances such as Veterans Day, Memorial Day or the services’ respective birthdays; create a veteran-focused philanthropic effort; support military or veteran causes, such as providing care packages to those deployed or to their families.
  • Encourage veteran employees to assist new veteran hires: Coach, teach and mentor new veteran employees; assign "battle buddies" to confront challenges together; share "war stories" to remind veterans they are not alone; share stories with civilian co-workers to help them dispose of their preconceived biases.
  • Do it yourself: Inspire veterans to take the initiative to learn more about the company's vision and how each role helps to achieve the mission; stimulate veterans to learn about career development and career enhancing opportunities in the company; allow veterans to apply their unique experiences, tremendous initiative and critical thinking skills; recognize and reinforce their steadfast loyalty to the team so their new colleagues and company better appreciate their experiences and contributions.

Doing these simple things will create more value for the company and enable the team to provide valuable support to your customers collectively. Additionally, veteran employees will acclimate easily and feel content in their new surroundings.

Transition is a challenge. And my challenge to you is that when you succeed, turn around and help another military veteran. Bring that veteran into your "perimeter."

Never leave a fallen comrade!

Hopefully the lessons and messages throughout this series of articles will help others successfully transition from the military into the private sector, and enable companies to benefit from the value of your contributions. -- John Buckley, Koch military relations manager

Get more tips on each of these steps in Koch Industries' Transition Guide.

John C. Buckley, II, colonel, U.S. Army (Ret), is a veteran, career coach and mentor, author and an expert in the field of military-to-civilian career transition. He currently assists Koch companies to develop and implement military recruiting and retention programs. Prior to civilian life, he commanded infantry soldiers in combat and peacekeeping operations and directed two of the Army's most prestigious schools. He teaches transition courses, gives seminar presentations, writes about the military-to-private sector career transition, and continues to counsel current and former military personnel.

Find the Right Veteran Job

Whether you want to polish your resume, find veteran job fairs in your area or connect with employers looking to hire veterans, can help. Subscribe to to have job postings, guides and advice, and more delivered directly to your inbox.

Story Continues