Why Military Transition is So Difficult -- Part 3 of 3: Identity Crisis

Photo from www.vancouversun.com.

Photo from www.vancouversun.com.

“One Vietnam veteran, an old retired colonel, once said this to me:

‘Most of the people in our society are sheep…I mean nothing negative by calling them sheep. To me it is like the pretty, blue robin's egg. Inside it is soft and gooey but someday it will grow into something wonderful. But the egg cannot survive without its hard blue shell. Police officers, soldiers, and other warriors are like that shell, and someday the civilization they protect will grow into something wonderful.? For now, though, they need warriors to protect them from the predators.’

‘Then there are the wolves,’ the old war veteran said, ‘and the wolves feed on the sheep without mercy.’ Do you believe there are wolves out there who will feed on the flock without mercy? You better believe it. There are evil men in this world and they are capable of evil deeds. The moment you forget that or pretend it is not so, you become a sheep. There is no safety in denial.’

‘Then there are sheepdogs,’ he went on, ‘and I'm a sheepdog. I live to protect the flock and confront the wolf.’

If you have no capacity for violence then you are a healthy productive citizen, a sheep. If you have a capacity for violence and no empathy for your fellow citizens, then you have defined an aggressive sociopath, a wolf. But what if you have a capacity for violence, and a deep love for your fellow citizens? What do you have then? A sheepdog, a warrior, someone who is walking the hero's path. Someone who can walk into the heart of darkness, into the universal human phobia, and walk out unscathed.”

- Excerpt from “On Killing” by LTC (ret) Dave Grossman

I was a badass. A protector. A sheepdog. 

Like many Service Members prepared to go into harm’s way for this country, this was my mind-set in life. We were sheepdogs willing to sacrifice ourselves for the safety of our fellow citizens and our nation’s freedoms. And we trained years upon years perfecting our craft to enact controlled violence when needed. Personally, I spent 10 years training and being an Army Airborne Ranger, a Paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne Division, and then as a Detachment Commander in the Special Forces, a Green Beret. 

Then, one day, I along with 200,000+ Service Members each year, end up leaving the military. Whether by choice or retirement is not important, but all of us face the need to transition our identities from being professional badasses to now being members of society. We were once at the tip of the spear, having led hundreds or even thousands of troops or foreign militaries in combat, and now need to find completely new professions to raise our family and loved ones.

And there is a struggle. After selling the small company I was managing in Indiana, I relocated to Chicago to be closer to my EMBA program in Evanston, IL. I thought that I could only get a job doing what I just did before, so I soon found a job for a mid-sized manufacturing company to be an Operations leader. Yes, I really liked my boss who hired me and I knew I was brought on to fix a culture problem, but 7 months in, my boss changed. I found that being in that new environment with a cultural change was uninspiring and — to be quite honest — soul sucking. 

I was motivating teams of employees to incorporate LEAN principles to improve throughput and reduce product deficiencies, but in the back of my mind, I reminisced of my missions of leading Green Berets to go into the mountains of Afghanistan to train local police forces and conduct complex missions together against the Taliban. In another part of the world, I interacted directly with the three-star Commanding General in the Armed Forces Philippines to identify and improve security measures in a large geographic area, and combat trans-national terrorist organizations. 

In the “real world” now, focusing on process improvements to cut seconds off the build time of a gas pump just didn’t seem to do it for me. This was very stressful and frustrating period for me because I was bound by a time period that I “owed” to the hiring company; I recall having moments where I dreaded going to work in the mornings and feeling angry and frustrated on my drive home afterwards, only to cause stress and anxiety to my family but to do it all over again the next day. (For context, I had not been a “newly transitioned Veteran” by this point in my life. This was around the three year mark after I officially exited the military in 2013.) I had just stuck around manufacturing because this was the first thing I really learned to do after leaving the Army, and countless other Veterans share these similar experiences as well.

But it’s okay. This is a learning process.

As transitioning/transitioned Veterans, you need to work at gaining exposure and self-reflecting on your values and needs (as discussed in Part 1). Understand that you have to go through a mental paradigm shift on how to find purpose (again) in life. Take deliberate action to then use this information to re-invent your identity, have a story that shows what you’ve been through and what you’re now looking for. Like me, even if you’ve transitioned years prior, if what you’re doing now isn’t the answer, don’t give up! You can find new areas of interest through reading, writing, and expanding your network.

If you do find that a regular office job is your thing — like finding a nice minivan to the meet the needs of your growing family — then stick with it! Don’t think that you have to resort to some “sexy” tech job just because it’s the cool, new thing to do. You can learn and grow in any environment, as long as you’re satisfied with the people, culture and how you can contribute to the mission.

Another technique is to create your own personal Board of Directors. These are people who know you and care deeply about you. They are your “go-to” for professional advice and input. Be sure to fill your Board with individuals who can also open new opportunities for you and provide different perspectives. For example, a mentor who has built a successful business would be a great resource. A manager in a large corporation would be another. A non-profit leader, another. Simply approach the mentors you respect and ask if it’s okay for them you to get feedback and advice from them on a routine-basis. Most people will gladly oblige. Tell them of your aspirations and areas where you think you need development. Let them know of your progress along the way.

One key thing to note is that re-creating oneself does not mean you have to start from scratch and throw away your “past life.” A sheepdog will always be a protector and have the desire to serve at heart; though you don’t carry around a M-4 and walk around in the desert anymore, you can still find significant ways to give to society. You can give back by being a mentor for other transitioning warriors along the way, and even volunteering with one of hundreds of non-profit organizations starving for assistance daily. Find ways to continue serving by supporting your fellow brothers and sisters find themselves along their journey, like I’m doing, through MilSpec Capital.

And just like that, I’m back.