Separation day was so exciting. I remember taking a video of myself smiling and shrieking, “I’m a civilian!” as I was leaving the base for the last time. I’m naturally a planner so I didn’t think much about the transition out of the military. I assumed transitioning would be a breeze because I had a plan. I had already been accepted into The University of North Carolina. Myself and my boyfriend at the time, who separated three months prior, had signed a lease for a house in North Carolina. So, I actually moved from Virginia to North Carolina the day I separated!
I was looking forward to going back to school because I knew I would be using my education benefits this time. And this time I wouldn’t have to stress about finances. But, it didn’t take long to realize I had no chain of command, no sense of structure, no camaraderie. That lack of structure often poses difficulties with time management for veterans once they transition into school, or even just into the civilian world. In the military, we’re used to being told what to do and when to do it. We had mandatory exercise built into our schedules, for goodness sake. Once we become civilians, we’re in charge of our own time. It’s up to us what we do with it.
I’m a civilian, now what?
For me, I was six months away from starting school, and all of a sudden I was a waitress with a top-secret security clearance. That clearance had given me a clear purpose for four years as an Intelligence Analyst. But as a waitress and student, I felt lost and struggled to find my next purpose. Even though I was only 24 years old when I transitioned out of the military, I felt like I was at least a decade older than my classmates who were between 18 and 21 years old. I had matured so much and so quickly that I felt like I had nothing in common with anyone. I felt out of place. As such, I struggled to make friends. I felt like Lindsay Lohan in Mean Girls when she eats her lunch in the bathroom stall. I wanted to hide.
The extrovert in me guided me to a veteran organization on campus where I did make a few friends. But females were obviously still outnumbered. Unless there were female-only events, I was likely to face some of the same issues I did while serving. I loved that we all had military service in common, and I felt like we could all relate to each other on that level. But, I felt like I was placed in the shadows when discussions revolved around military experiences and conveniently placed in the spotlight when discussions revolved around sex.
As a female, my experiences were never good enough. It was assumed during AND after my service that any accomplishments or awards I received must have been because of how I looked. And not how hard I worked. I hated that I had to continue to prove myself and defend my service… to fellow service members. I wanted to hide.
During some point in your transition, you will likely feel lost, and maybe even depressed because your sense of purpose has been taken away.
That is completely normal. Many veterans have felt or feel this way. If and when you feel like this, don’t hide. Instead, become noticeable. “Become noticeable” is something I learned from Graciela Tiscareno-Sato and her workshop B.R.A.N.D. Before Your Resume, which she has made into a marketing guide book for veterans. I urge you to get a copy of this book if you’re about to transition out of the military. It’s a wonderful resource that can be used again and again as you learn how to apply your military skills to a school program, a job, or a different career.
One quick way to become noticeable is to find a network. Now more than ever, networking is at our fingertips. Social media is a great way to find people who share similar experiences, or people who want to learn about your experiences or both! It is therapeutic to talk to others about your experiences, and it can make your transition smoother. Through networking, you might even find a support group you’d like to join. I highly recommend finding something that can help you get out of the funk that the transition can put you in.
I think one of the best ways to do this is to help others; it will do wonders for your own mood and purpose. You might even build meaningful relationships along the way. For example, if you like to bake, sign up to be a baker for Meals on Wheels. It will provide you with accountability, and hopefully prevent you from falling into couch-land. Believe me, I’ve spent way too many days in couch-land. If you wish to still be part of the veteran community, there are so many different veteran-related volunteer organizations.
I separated almost six years ago. And it wasn’t until I started my new career last year that I felt like I had made it through the transition stage.
I am so grateful for my mom, my stepdad, and my husband for providing the emotional support I needed throughout my transition (and my time in service!). It also helped me to be a student because it kept me busy with classes and clinical rotations.
Now, I have finally found another purpose because I feel fulfilled by my new career as a medical speech-language pathologist. Ironically enough, my military experience directly relates to my new career. Yes, you read that right! I have highlighted my military experience to employers because although it appears quite unique and unrelated, I continue to uphold the exact values they are often looking for: Integrity first, Service before self, and Excellence in all we do. Thanks, Air Force! I encourage you to use your military experience to your advantage, even if you think it doesn’t apply to your new career field. You can move on to a new chapter while keeping your military service an important part of your story.
Military service and the process of transitioning looks different for everyone.
But, I think as veterans, we can all agree that our veteran status and the values we uphold will always be part of us… no matter how long ago we separated.
How are YOU using your military experiences to help you through your transition out of the military? Did you have an I’m a civilian moment?
Marissa was 19 years old when she enlisted in the Air Force in 2011. She served as a Geospatial Intelligence Imagery Analyst at Langley Air Force Base in Hampton, Virginia. Marissa’s specialty was Battle Damage Assessment; she established training materials, checklists, and graphic templates for 877 airmen across 10 squadrons. She was chosen as a liaison officer for the Air Force Targeting Center’s Crisis Management Element where she quality checked and distributed enemy target graphics during combat operations. Marissa was named Airman of the Year in 2013, received a line number for E-5 in 2014, and presented with the Air Force Achievement Medal just before she separated in 2015.
Marissa is from Phoenixville, Pennsylvania and briefly attended Millersville University prior to enlisting. She knew she wanted to return to school after her service and was excited to learn that she had been accepted into The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Marissa is a “Double Tar Heel.” In 2017, she received a Bachelor of Arts in Linguistics and a Masters of Science in Speech and Hearing Sciences in 2019. She is now a medical speech-language pathologist working in the home health and acute care rehab settings.