Military to Civilian Transition Advice From a Vet Who’s Done It

Rick Campos
Military VA Loan contributor

Many veterans face limited career options (or so they think) after discharge. However, with enough planning, legwork, the right attitude and some assistance from various benefits programs, your options will be limited only by your dreams and ambitions.

I know this from personal experience.

When I left U.S. Navy Special Forces in 2006, I assumed that my career choices were limited to some form of law enforcement or security protection. Because security force protection was the main skillset I acquired in Special Forces, a career in a police department, sheriff’s department, or with the CIA, FBI, Secret Service or private security, seemed like the obvious (and best) route.

A year before discharge, I’d begun planning for the transition to civilian life. I’d reached out to recruiters from the CIA, FBI and Border Patrol. In addition, I had family members in the Riverside County (California) and L.A. County Sheriff’s Departments.

I didn’t relish the idea of undergoing yet another difficult training program, but what else was I qualified to do with a high school diploma and five years’ of military-specific training?

A Different Path

But then things changed, and I took a different path. After moving in with my future wife, we were soon expecting the birth of our first child. This led me to do some serious rethinking. I thought, “Do I really want to do this kind of work? It’ll mean being away from my family a lot.”

My foot was already in the door at the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department. All that was left was to finalize the paperwork and start basic training. But at the last minute, I pulled out. I decided I wanted a career where I didn’t have to follow strict orders. I wanted more freedom. I wanted more control over my life.

So I started college, which was always a short-term goal, and also attended career fairs. At one of these, I bumped into a company called Trilogy Financial Services that was looking for investment advisors. I didn’t know anything about finance, but I studied hard and soon passed my Series 6 and 63 exams. I worked for Trilogy for about a year.

During this time, I also found a mentor, an entrepreneur who was a friend of my wife’s family. Not only did he pique my interest in studying finance, he was a fountain of advice. As clichéd as it may sound, his most valuable advice was: “Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do something. You can achieve anything if you visualize yourself doing it — dreaming about it, writing down your goals and then taking baby steps to realize the goals.”

Looking back, I never thought I’d achieve so many of my dreams so quickly. But I did.

Hardest Part of Military to Civilian Transition: Finding Work

My transition to civilian life was both easier and harder than I thought. The hardest part was finding work. At Trilogy, I worked largely on commission, and it wasn’t a great time to be an investment advisor. So I changed jobs, moving to a credit union as a financial service representative, where I helped people with everything from personal and real estate loans to opening checking and savings accounts to obtaining small business loans.

I loved it. And I never looked back.

If you don’t know what you want to do when you leave the military, I recommend going to career fairs. They’re a good place to start prepping your resume and getting it out there. And when it comes to your resume, create two. I had one geared toward law enforcement and another toward business administration and customer service.

Make sure your resume is solid before sending it out. Get help if you aren’t sure about the condition of the resume — and even if you are sure. Show it to your family; show it to your friends and colleagues. I also bought a book on resumes, which I recommend you do, too.

Plan Like Crazy for your Military Transition

Another career obstacle for many veterans is not having a clear plan. You have to create a plan. Not only that, but you need to develop a backup plan – and a contingency plan for your backup plan (in case it doesn’t work out). I developed several plans and backup plans before I left the Navy. I planned to: (1) go into law enforcement, or (2) go to college to figure out what I wanted to do, or (3) look into firefighting as a career.

I strongly suggest that you develop career plans a year before you leave, determining which steps you’ll take to implement each plan.

Just as important, be sure to sign up for every benefit to which you’re entitled. Something I’m trying to do now — something I wish I’d done earlier because it’s harder to do now — is obtaining medical benefits for my back problems. (As part of the Navy Special Forces unit SWCC, I was always riding fast boats on the open ocean, and my back often took a pounding.)

If you have any medical conditions before or after you’re discharged, make sure you go to the V.A. to get checked out. You may be entitled to disability money. There are probably a lot of veterans who are entitled to these benefits, but neglect to look into them.

Before leaving the Navy, I also took a class called TAP — Transition Assistance Program — that puts you in touch with resources and people who can ease your transition.

Another great resource is the GI Bill. In addition to paying for my tuition and books, I received a stipend of $1,500 for living expenses. It made a big difference in my life, since I never had to worry (too much) about money while attending college and looking for work.

Creating and executing plans are the keys to a smooth transition from military to civilian life. Fortunately, the military is pretty good at teaching these skills. Be sure you make the most of them.

Photo Credit: DVIDShub. Modified.