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If I Had It To Do Over... Advice From Veterans
by Carolyn Heinze, Contributing Editor

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It makes sense that transitioning out of the military breeds, in many ways, a sense of loss. Change is good - but difficult - and despite the resources out there, returning back to the civilian world takes many by surprise. Loss also produces opportunities, especially if one has the chance to plan for it. In this spirit, we asked several veterans to look back and share their transition experiences: what they got right, what they didn’t, and how they would approach it if they had to do it all over again.

transition out of the military Prepare Early

During his time in the Navy, Mike Abrashoff rose to the rank of commander of the USS Benfold, an underperforming naval ship he was charged with turning around. As author of It’s Your Ship: Management Techniques from the Best Damn Ship in the Navy; It’s Our Ship: The No-Nonsense Guide to Leadership (both published through Business Plus); and several others, he is co-founder of the Denver, Co.-based business consulting firm GLS Worldwide. He recounts that what helped him make a smooth transition out of the military (Navy) was witnessing how others did it - and where some succeeded and others fell down. The biggest lesson he learned was that if you start preparing for it long before you retire, chances are you will enjoy a more positive transitioning experience.


“I think the smartest thing is finding something that you can make a living at, and that you have a passion for, and that doesn’t seem like work,” Abrashoff said. “The key is to test it out while you’re still in uniform.” His advice? Get involved in your local community. Go to events. Think about your skills, and what you can provide to a prospective employer. “Ask yourself, ‘How can I start tailoring this so that I’m attractive to employers?’”

But transitioning isn’t just about your next career move; veterans must consider the personal ramifications of their retirement as well. “You’ve got to make new friends - we never had that problem in the military,” Abrashoff said. He adds that transitioning vets should also have a good idea of what elements contribute to their definition of a great quality of life. “Lots of different factors weigh on you: High schools for your kids, aging parents, and your spouse’s preferences. It’s not one-size-fits-all, but if you make a mistake, it can be very costly.”

Dual Income Transitions

During the initial stages of your transition, quality of life can become a big issue, notes Dr. Dolly Garnecki, a chiropractic physician and founder, president and director of Spinal Health & Wellness, LLC in Charlottesville, Va. A former air battle manager with the U.S. Air Force, Garnecki made a transition out of the military at the same time as her husband, Steve. “It was psychologically and emotionally difficult to transition from getting a steady, dual-income paycheck to living off of savings and G.I. bills, and we were both students,” she said. “That was a huge change in our quality of life.”

Coupled with this was the challenge of moving to a new city where there was no family and friends nearby. This initial lack of support system was especially difficult for the Garneckis, who had just had a baby. “Starting a practice in a city and state that you’ve never lived in before, where you don’t know anybody, and you have a 13-month-old baby strapped to your back - that’s what I did - wasn’t the easiest thing to do,” Garnecki admitted. “It was one of the hardest years we’ve ever had.” The recession of 2008 also contributed to a sense of instability.

For women who want - or already have - children, making the transition back to civilian life can result in feelings of separation from their peers who are still on active duty.

When you have a married couple, and the woman wants to get out so she can spend more time with her children - which is a trend I tend to see - it’s hard to make that jump,” says Garnecki.

That said, for the Garneckis, things have worked out: because the couple was debt-free when they made a transition out of the military and their credit was solid, which made them eligible for a veterans’ business loan to start their chiropractic practice.

“Even though we don’t have a dual income in our family, we also don’t have the expenses that we had when we were dual-income officers,” Garnecki explained. “We have gone through some trying periods, but we are not worried about someone taking the house away, or taking anything else away from us, because we are living well within our means.” She adds that this results in a certain amount of freedom.

Joining Academia

Upon his retirement from active duty in 1992, Bill Smith - now a health educator in the Student Health and Wellness Department at the University of Missouri at Kansas City - took a couple of years off to explore what it was he wanted to do. Eventually, he enrolled in a university, which proved to be yet another transition - academia being a world within the civilian world itself.

“I didn’t have any connection with other veterans, and I wasn’t prepared academically, so I had to negotiate that system on my own to figure out what I needed to do, and who I needed to go to,” he explained. “I think this is common for a lot of new students, but being a non-traditional student at the time - I was a little bit older than the average 18-year-old college student - created a bit of a barrier.”

He adds that back in the early ‘90s, universities didn’t offer the veteran support that many institutions provide today. “The new G.I. Bill has been a great incentive for veterans to return to school and I think many campuses are making an effort to be more veteran-supportive. They may not be creating new services, but they are enhancing the services that they already offer to support veterans, such as academic tutoring, advising, and creating veteran spaces on campuses where veterans can connect with each other.”

Another challenge for Smith - who served in Desert Storm - was the effects of having been in combat. “I was experiencing things from my military service that I was learning to cope with on my own,” he related. “There were some physical and mental health issues that I didn’t relate, initially, to my military service.”

He admits that it took him almost 20 years to make that connection, and to finally seek help through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Smith encourages transitioning veterans to sign up with the VA as soon as possible.

“Despite any of the negative perceptions that people have of the VA, become connected with it as soon as you transition out,” he advised. “You may not need it now, but in a couple of years you may find that you do need its services for health care, or you may start to experience things that you can definitely put a claim in for.” It’s a process, he says, but it’s a process worth going through. “Getting connected with the VA is the most important thing that any veteran can do upon their transition out of the military.”

For those interested in starting a business, Garnecki suggests Service Corps of Retired Executives (SCORE) - a free, national business counseling resource operated by experienced volunteer mentors. “Because I used a SCORE mentor, I was able to avoid several pitfalls new business start-ups often endure,” she said. SCORE recently launched a new initiative - Veterans Fast Launch - specifically designed for transitioning vets.

Abrashoff concedes that one error he made early on was not adequately researching where he wanted to settle once he got out of the Navy. “When you’re in the military, you’re told where you’re going to settle,” he said. “Then when I had the opportunity to pick and choose, I probably didn’t choose wisely - I ended up in an area that I didn’t like, and that precipitated another move within 18 months.” He counsels transitioning vets to do their homework in order to avoid additional moving costs.

For Smith - who partly financed his education through the Montgomery G.I. Bill, and partly financed it through student loans - the only thing he would have done differently during his transition out of the military is to have found another way to pay for school.

As for the rest?

I have no regrets in terms of my military service; that was a good thing for me to do when I did it,” he said. “The path that I took was the right path for me at that time, and it continues to be today.”

Carolyn Heinze is a freelance writer/editor.

U.S. Army photo courtesy of S.K. Vemmer/Released

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