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Moving On...and Up

Veterans tell their stories about relocating back into civilian life

by Carolyn Heinze, Contributing Editor

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Ted Williams emerged from the Mekong Delta after serving 18 months in the Vietnam War, transition assistance for veterans consisted of a few flights.

“I spent Christmas in three time zones,” Williams recounted. “I started the morning getting on a plane, first stopping in Guam and then Hawaii, and then Oakland, California.” It was Christmas, 1971. Williams, a newlywed prior to being drafted, hadn’t seen his wife in almost two years. Needless to say, he was in a hurry to get back to Illinois, where she was going to college.

transitioning out of the militaryIn Oakland, however, no clerk knew how to process the appropriate paperwork. A minor delay, since in the military, Williams worked in personnel management. “I knew how to do it, so I ended up processing myself, and the guys I was with, out of the Army,” he said. “So when I told the guys in Oakland that I knew how to do that, what that meant is they didn’t have to work late. And, they let me do it. At the time, believe it or not, typing 65 words a minute was almost unheard of, particularly for a guy, but I was motivated.” Several hours later, Williams was in Illinois, shopping for the groceries for Christmas dinner with his wife.

While the grocery thing was a bit surreal - “Here I am, 36 hours ago, walking around with an M-16 all the time, and now I’m sitting here in jeans and a T-shirt - and remember, it’s cold in Illinois, too!” - Williams, originally from Memphis, Tenn., admits that thanks to the support of family and friends, his transition was easier than it was for many of his fellow vets. He and his wife finished up college in Illinois and then moved to Berkeley (“…to see what the hippies were up to...”). There, the couple applied to several law schools around the country; it turned out that the one that accepted them both was in San Francisco. With the help of the GI Bill, Williams got his law degree.

“College for me, after that, and law school, from my perspective, was a piece of cake,” Williams reflected. “I was on full academic scholarship and the GI Bill, and I had this lovely woman who was my wife. I was like: It couldn’t get much better.”

Today, Williams heads up his own company, The Williams Group, a human resources management consulting firm based in Des Moines, Iowa. “I knew, deep down in my soul, that I was probably not going to be an employee after my experience in the military,” he said. “But I knew I needed to get the training to position myself so I wouldn’t have to be an employee. And I had a frame of reference to work from.”

Ajmer Singh entered the U.S.M.C. Reserves in 2009 after high school. He attended boot camp in Parris Island, S.C., then Motor Transportation School at Camp Johnson, N.C. From September 2010 to April 2011, Singh was in Afghanistan on a combat deployment. When he returned, the economy and unemployment were destined to work against him when he searched for work.

“When we got back to the States, the Corps gave us a list of online job search firms to help with the search,” he said. “I signed up on so many sites.” One of the sites was CivilianJobs.com.

It was Pete Charest, Director of CivilianJobs.com, who called Singh and recruited him for a position at Star Leasing, a company that leases trailers to trucking firms. Singh was placed as an operations assistant. While the position is in the transportation field, he is not turning a wrench as he did in a combat zone. The position of operations assistant has him in the bigger picture of orchestrating the dispatch and return of leased trailers. According to Singh, “Star Leasing was very receptive to my military background. My supervisor, Mr. Rusty Swarts, said that he knew my experience in the Corps would bring responsibility and flexibility to a high-tempo operation.”

Singh also attends college at Augusta State University and is on schedule to earn his Bachelor’s degree in Computer Science in 2015. He utilized his Post 9/11 GI Bill benefits to pay for tuition. [SEE ASK THE RECRUITER TO LEARN MORE ABOUT THE GI BILL].

For Troy Johnson, transitioning out of the military was more of a rocky ride. After 21 years serving as a combat engineer specializing in bridges, he decided, one day, to get out. “I retired in 2004 after the initial invasion into Iraq,” he explained. “I said, ‘I’m done. I’ve got 20-plus years in.’ I made an emotional decision to get out instead of thinking it through.”

Originally from Indiana, Johnson and his wife moved to the Tampa area in Florida, where finding work was not easy. He took a job as an armored vehicle driver while still on terminal leave, with minimal pay for a lot of hours. Eventually, Johnson paid a visit to his veterans’ rep at the local OneStop Center, and he got lucky: it just so happened that several positions were open for Disabled Veterans Outreach Program Specialists (DVOPs). “(My rep) told me how to apply through the state website. He told me to use my transferable skills on the application to help market myself. I did that, and I got the job about two weeks right before I retired,” Johnson said.

Johnson remained a DVOP for about a year and a half, until he was relocated to the MacDill Airforce Base as a Department of Labor (DOL) TAP Workshop Facilitator. Again, he worked there for a little over a year until a term position opened up at the Army Family Readiness Center’s transition program. “I kind of took a bit of a risk there, but sometimes you’ve got to get your foot in the door with the federal government,” he explained. The risk paid off: the position became permanent, and today, Johnson is the transition program manager at MacDill.

Still, Johnson admits that he got lucky; if he did it all over again, he probably wouldn’t have made the spontaneous decision to retire right then and there. “One thing I think is critical is to really identify what you would do in a career before you transition out, and prepare yourself for that,” he said. “I had no idea what I wanted to do in another career. I just got my resume together and started shotgun-blasting it out to all of these poster board sites, which is not very effective, obviously.” The OneStop Center proved to be his salvation, he adds, thanks to his being in the right place at the right time. “If not, I don’t know where I would be, to be quite honest.” Johnson also notes that part of this transition planning should include adequate research into where you want to move. “(If I did it over again), I probably would research a little more as far as the labor market and the housing market, and the overall crime rate,” he said. “I would do a better assessment of the area that I’m going to.”

The Price of Relocation

Budgeting for a move is vital and should include costs associated with leaving a current residence, which might need home upgrades, to costs for arriving in your new location.

“Once you get your budget done, increase it by about 25 percent,” counsels Chad Storlie, a former Special Forces Major now based in Nebraska, “especially if you are moving to an urban area. Groceries are going to be more expensive, services are going to be more expensive - especially if you are looking at things like daycare. That may be 200 percent more expensive than what you are dealing with today.” He adds that it’s wise to establish a network of people who can tell you what’s going on in the community that you are considering relocating to, and, if possible, visit once or twice to gain an idea of what it’s really like.

It’s also wise to make a list of all of the products and services you use on a daily, weekly and monthly basis - items such as groceries, utilities, healthcare, daycare, babysitters, and so on. “When you start making a list like this, you start to find that there’s not just 10 or 15 items. It’s more than turning on the phone. It’s probably more like 50 or 60 different items that you have to look at and plan for,” Storlie said, admitting that this is an exercise he and his wife didn’t apply at the beginning of his transition. “Luckily, it was just my wife and I, so we could adapt pretty easily. But if you have a family and children, or if you are a disabled veteran, now you have a big list that you need to coordinate.”

Storlie, who now holds a full-time post at Union Pacific Railroad, retired from the military to attend Georgetown Business School in Washington, D.C. He has authored two books, “Battlefield to Business Success: Applying Military Leadership and Skills in Your Career” and “Combat Leader to Corporate Leader: 20 Lessons to Advance Your Civilian Career.” He has taught marketing courses at Creighton University, and volunteers his time to help veterans with transition issues.

Attending Georgetown meant that Storlie and his wife (and an 80-pound Golden Lab) had to relocate from Colorado to D.C., which mandated a significant lifestyle change. “For us, it was a tremendous downsizing,” he relayed. “When we were in Colorado, we had a nice townhouse, a view of the mountains and lots of space. Then, we were in an 800-square-foot apartment. It almost seemed like not just one step backwards, but almost like five steps backwards.” Before, both he and his wife were bringing in full-time paychecks; in D.C., it was only his wife who was working full-time. “There is a great deal of faith and confidence that you need to have. You need to say, ‘Yeah, we are stepping forward into the future.’”

While tallying up expenses and defining a strict budget is extremely important, Storlie is a firm believer in taking the time to develop what he terms ‘multiple revenue buckets’. “I got out and I was in the Guard. I also did about a 30- to 35-hour-a-week internship to bring money in, and my wife had a job,” he explained. He notes that vets should also look into all of the benefits that they are eligible for, such as VA Chapter 31 for retraining, or the new GI Bill. “That’s also a source of income. People will spend time on the cost side, but people need to spend even more time on the revenue side: What are all of the different benefits and different things that we can get to help us reduce our costs?”

For Johnson, despite his initial challenges, the best part of civilian life is the freedom to strike a more equal balance between his work and his personal life. “One of the reasons I decided to get out was family,” he explained. “At that point in time in 2004, I had a five year-old boy, and I wanted to be there more for him.” He notes that one of the things he teaches those he counsels is the importance of defining one’s own career values. “For me, it’s having a fixed schedule. I know at a certain time I can get off and I don’t have to worry about working on the weekends, for the most part. Now I have the time to take my kid to all of his football practices, I get to go to his games, and that’s probably the most significant reward for me.”

With this freedom, comes challenges, and Storlie likes to think that the main challenge of transitioning out of the military is all of the opportunity that awaits. Yet, in order to benefit from this opportunity, sometimes it’s necessary for vets to call upon others for help. “When you run into challenges, you have to be proactive and reach out,” Storlie said. “I think so many people think that transitioning is something that they do by themselves. You need to think of it as, ‘I own the experience, but if I need help, there are people that will help me. I just need to reach out to them.’”

To get the best out of what civilian life can offer, Williams underlines the importance of developing mentors who may not only assist with transitioning, but who can also help your career ambitions to take shape...in the form you want them to take. “Get someone who can give you a frame of reference that you might not have, who can listen to what you’re saying and what you’re not saying, and then offer up some suggestions as to what you may or may not do,” he advised. “I tell everybody that I work with: You are the CEO of you. I’m an advisory board member, but ultimately, you determine you.” A coach should be there to contribute the subject matter expertise that you may not have, but that may help you in making your ultimate decision.

But, in the end, Williams reminds us, it’s all about you. “You’ve got to be responsible and accountable for you,” he said. “This is a time when you do have to be ruthlessly selfish. You’ve already given to the country. So give to yourself.”

Carolyn Heinze is a freelance writer/editor.

 

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