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Tips for Making the Transition from Military to Civilian Life

Tips for Making the Transition from Military to Civilian Life

When Reservist Bill Lyons landed in Bosnia on September 11, 2001, he and his unit expected a routine peacekeeping mission. Instead, they spent the next seven months hunting terrorists.  

After his tour of duty, Lyons happily returned to civilian life, where danger and death were not constant companions. The city of Somerville, Massachusetts, gave him his old job as director of traffic and parking. He had always prided himself on his communication and problem-solving skills as well as his ability to satisfy constituents during their encounter with government.

But back on the job, he found it difficult to focus, and he felt frustrated fielding calls about “allegedly unjust parking tickets,” or petty complaints like someone parking in front of a house.

"I'd seen kids with missing limbs,” Lyons says. “I was still very involved in the war on terrorism. My tenor and tone with constituents changed dramatically. I was curt, and less willing to hear out minor complaints.”

Today, as reservists return from dangerous but adrenaline-filled tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan and head back to once-challenging jobs they now see as mundane, Lyons's experience is instructive.

Sort Out Your Priorities

“You return with a lot of mental baggage on both a personal and professional level,” says Alex Baxter, managing partner at Lucas Group, an executive search firm specializing in military talent. “The civilian world is a lot different from the military. In the workplace, people have different expectations of what can be done. You can get very frustrated if people don't meet the standards you're accustomed to. But you're not on a military timetable anymore. Tasks get missed; jobs don't get done.”

Communication is important, Baxter says. “You have to convey what you want done, but you can't bark orders,” he says. “Civilian work demands more persuasion, even with someone who reports to you. If you treat them like they're under your command, you lose loyalty and suffer turnover.”

“It's a big adjustment,” says Joe Riggio, a Marine for 26 years who now writes about making the transition to civilian life. “You've been in life-or-death situations, you're finally reunited with your family, and now all of a sudden you've got a project deadline. You have to be professional, but you also have to sort out what's important to you personally.”

There may be special difficulty if a company has no clear policy on reintegrating returnees, or if coworkers oppose US military efforts. Resentment may be expressed as: “I've done your job for a year. Don't tell me what to do.”

Riggio describes the natural reaction: “Hey buddy, I was over there fighting for you.” However, returnees must resist that impulse and convince themselves: “They just don't understand. I can't get caught up in conflict or office politics. I have to remember, these guys don't have a clue.”

Of course, that is easier said than done. “War is 24/7,” Riggio notes. “Christmas and New Year's blend into one. All of a sudden, you're back in a Monday-through-Friday world. You have to keep that in mind and realize it takes awhile to adjust.”

Once you return, “you're being paid to do your job,” Lyons says. “You've got to learn to focus. When your mind wanders to your friends overseas, you have to snap back and realize life does go on here.” Though he struggled to maintain a professional demeanor, after a few months he rediscovered his civilian work rhythm. However, he says, “the underlying tension never went away.”

Resources to Help Vets Adjust

The military itself can ease the adjustment. Active members have access to transition counselors at their full-time post -- some soldiers are ordered to meet with them before returning home. The MWR (Morale, Wellness, Recreation) division is another resource. Reservists may consult with transition and MWR officers at their base even after returning home.

Of course, some returnees find themselves so miserable or bored back in their old jobs that they consider changing careers. For them, the news is good.  Skills learned in the service can be leveraged into a different position, even an entirely new field. Many employers, in industries as varied as contracting and IT, consider military experience a plus. And the government offers veterans a variety of scholarships.

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