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Leaving the Service

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Andy Plumlee
September 12, 2017

parachuteEventually, every service member will leave the military and return to the civilian ranks. Every one of us at some point thought about what our last day in uniform would look like. Transitioning out of the military is both scary and exciting. We miss being a part of something larger than ourselves and look forward to being home with our loved ones after missing more birthdays, holidays, first steps and first games than we can count. The timeline is different for every veteran. Some stay four years and move on with life, some do 20 years or more, and some like myself are victims of force reduction, or what civilians call downsizing; with little time to prepare for what’s coming next.

I would like to say having a plan ensures a smooth transition, the truth is it is nearly impossible to plan for the emotional and mental responses a person will have to leaving the military. Even veterans with solid plans in place can find transition to be a daunting experience. While a plan improves the odds of a successful transition, having a solid support network is the biggest factor in a veteran’s success. In the five years since my separation my network of family and friends have been the reason I have not ended up homeless. More importantly they are the reason I am still alive to write this article. I should note, unlike past generations, today’s veterans have social media to stay connected with those they served with and the larger veteran community. Whether this is good or not is based on a veteran’s individual circumstances. Just the same, social media is an aspect of reintegration new veterans must deal with.

Reintegration Is Hard

Why is reintegration so hard? Why can’t so many of us go back to the lives we had pre-military and pick up where we left off? I live the struggle to reintegrate every day and I am convinced three things have made my reintegration a challenge.

I attribute my difficult reintegration to:

  1. Different societal norms
  2. Job skills and pay don’t match
  3. Servicemember heavy network

Different Societal Norms

To a civilian, a military uniform is a bewildering, and intriguing conversation starter. To a veteran, a uniform is a person’s interaction manual. Imagine if everyone you encountered wore a shirt that told you exactly who they were in the world and how they were to be treated. Service members are taught to read uniforms, at a glance you know the other person’s name, rank, place of employment, achievements, if they have ever been in trouble, what campaigns they have served on. You know if they have advanced qualifications. The uniform tells you how to greet each other, address each other, who speaks first, who moves to the side and more. Every social interaction in the military is dictated by something on a servicemembers uniform, there is now guessing. As a civilian, everyone has their own rules of interaction and no one shares what theirs are unless you break one of them. For me, this has caused me a great deal of anxiety over the last five years.

Job Skills and Pay Don’t Match

Some service members obtain job skills that are easily transferrable, most of us don’t. For those that don’t, we are told to go back to school, get an advanced degree and play up our soft-skills. Veteran’s quickly learn a painful truth, when you are competing for jobs against people the same age as you but with 15 to 20 more years of industry experience, soft skills and degrees are a fast track to an inbox full of rejection letters. Even when a veteran does have directly transferrable skills, the military and civilian pay structures are so different that using those skills might be a sure-fire way to go broke. A military cook with 20 years of service will earn around $4,000 in base pay a month. With housing and other pays, he or she could be bringing home close to $7,000 a month. This service member will be hard pressed to find a job as a cook that pays that much as a civilian.

Servicemember Heavy Network

The old saying rings true, it is not what you know but who you know. The military is a tight-knit and very secluded community. Without a strong network of civilian contacts, a veteran’s chances are severely restricted. Vets need to expand their network outside the military, it needs to be a primary focus in any transition plan.

Is Reintegration Ever Complete?

Reintegration should be seen more as a series of milestones, not a destination. Many veterans never fully integrate back into society and others do so without missing a beat. There are a lot of factors impacting a veteran’s transition, no to experiences are the same. Still, more can be done to tip the odds in the veteran’s favor. For example, make transition milestones a part of military advancement requirements. Require an updated resume be included with fitness scores and performance evaluations to advance. Who knows, it might just work.


Author: Andy Plumlee is a veteran with 14 years of Naval service. He held many leadership positions including Officer in-Charge of a Naval Landing Craft. He holds both a Master’s in business and public administration from Presidio Graduate School. He is currently looking for his next career opportunity. He can be reached at [email protected] or connect with him on LinkedIn.

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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