How One Female Veteran Found Meaning in Her Post-Military Career

(Master Sgt. Jonathan Young/U.S. Air Force photo)

In March, we celebrate International Women's Day, and the focus is on the impact women have made to all sectors of technology, social causes, the military, politics, our communities and more. To all the female veterans, military spouses and veteran military spouses reading this, thank you for your service to our great nation.

I'd like to share a story of one brave and amazing female veteran I worked with who found her voice and continues to serve after her time in the military.

I first met Mary (not her real name) as she was leaving the Army as a Judge Advocate General's, or JAG, Corps officer with many years of experience and several notable accomplishments to her credit. She handled several high-profile cases and worked alongside influential leaders and now was facing a civilian career.

She feared that what she'd do next wouldn't carry the same level of significance as her work in the military.

One of her first comments to me was, "What if my work just doesn't matter when I leave the Army?"

Mary was right to be concerned about meaning and significance. Many veterans struggle to express their passion for service after the military. But with several job offers in front of her, Mary and I evaluated each for the opportunity and risk they presented.

She had an offer from a rural community that was looking for an assistant district attorney, another offer from a large bank that was adding to its roster of in-house counsel, and she was offered a position with a community activist group in her hometown to focus on helping underserved populations.

We evaluated each offer for what it could afford her:

The District Attorney's Office

The pay was commensurate with entry-level legal advocacy work in a rural community. This position meant Mary could grow her visibility as she'd get to be hands-on with interesting cases that could change people's lives significantly. But living in a rural community -- she grew up in major metropolitan areas from Singapore to New York City -- could be problematic. She never lived in a small town before.

The Big Bank

The financial rewards of this opportunity were stunning. Mary quickly imagined all the things she could buy and do with that kind of salary. The position was in New York so her cost of living would be high, but she really could help a lot of people she knew with extra resources. There was risk to her sense of service, however, because she didn't see how she could be connected to a cause that was meaningful.

The Community Group

This one felt the riskiest to Mary. The pay was unpredictable (could they retain their grants and funding?). They were also a polarizing group (some members of her community wished them to stay silent), but to Mary, their cause was exciting and noble. She was a huge supporter of the issues the group advocated and felt compelled to see whether she could retain her career progression and serve a population she cared deeply about.

After much consideration and soul-searching, Mary accepted the position with the community group.

As she put it, "Service is who I am and serving an underrepresented population feels consistent with the work I know I'm meant to do."

In making this decision, some of the realizations Mary came to included:

  • Each position had risks. To think she could make a "safe" choice was naive. The question became which risk was more tolerant to her.
  • Service would look different in her post-military career. While she wouldn't be serving the same mission as when she was in the Army, she still could serve a population she cared about.
  • Money was not her main motivator. The bank position offered a handsome salary and package, but the meaningfulness of the work became more compelling with the community organization.
  • Making this decision was not life or death. Mary recognized that no option was a bad option if she was clear in her thinking and reasoning.

She embarked on her new civilian career with all the enthusiasm and bravery as the first day she arrived on an Army post. She leveraged her deep experience in the courtroom (in the Army), her love of the law and serving justice and her passion for her community to help underserved individuals find their voice and get heard. For Mary, this bold transition from the military was just beginning.

"As long as I keep my focus on service, I'll be fine," she told me. And she is.

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