A Military Separation Story
Half of all U.S. veterans face a period of unemployment after transitioning from military service, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. For younger veterans, that number is even higher: service members age 18 to 24 face an unemployment rate double that of their civilian peers. In a report by Prudential, in conjunction with the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, 69 percent of veterans listed “finding a job as a civilian” as their greatest challenge after service.
Likewise, Casey Heaslet had her own challenges after separation from the military. Now the Senior Military Admissions Officer at Northeastern University’s Fort Bragg Training and Education Center (BTEC), Casey reflects on this distinct experience for service members entering civilian life.
By Casey Heaslet
While serving Active Duty in the United States Air Force, I often wondered how I would transition to a career in the private sector after separation from military service. How would I support my family and myself? In the military, I always sought the next rank, devised strategies to achieve it, and then worked diligently to attain my goals. However, would this strategy translate to achieving success in a career on the outside?
To achieve promotion within the military, I pursued higher education. This, no doubt, would also benefit me in civilian life. Yet military parameters changed faster than an antibiotic cycle. High turnover rates resulted in various leadership styles, which concerned me as to how it would affect my future. I found myself having to prove my worth over again to each leader, in order to get the signature of approval to fund my education.
Within the chaos of moving at a fast pace, managing multiple tasks, and grabbing for straws in desperation to succeed, I began to gain focus. After consulting with my Squadron Commander, I devised a career path aligning my interests, experience, and academic degree plan. Operating efficiently between my day job and academics, I maintained faith that a combination of education and networking would one day lead to success. I began to hustle, redefining my path to prosper and pave my own road to achieve lasting accomplishments.
Separation came faster than I imagined. It was time to apply my background, experiences, and knowledge into a career in civilian life. My experience going through the mandatory “Death-by-PowerPoint”-styled pipeline of the various briefings (i.e., Pre-Separation Brief and Transition Assistance Program) seemed largely a scare tactic to dissuade service members from separating. Realities of high-end costs of health insurance and competitive workforce environments began to cause anxiety. My approach reminded me of the famous Steven Spielberg film Jaws when Martin Brody was stunned after observing the size of the shark in a 20-second silence until he uttered, “You’re going to need a bigger boat.” In other words, big problems need big solutions!
My solutions were, as army soldiers like to say, “too easy.” I remained flexible and prepared multiple alternative plans. I welcomed opportunities to various geographic locations, while always revamping a contingency plan to support my inner-diva lifestyle.
Adjustment played a huge role in my military career and it was used advantageously to transition into civilian life. Learning to adapt to change is what steered me to pursue a bachelor’s degree, join the Air Force, and then later separate and find employment through Northeastern University. The lesson learned here was to make the right moves toward a job one can be passionate about and to master positioning through the help of networking.
Know your strengths…and weaknesses.
On April 15, 2018, it felt as if I was 21 again and could fly to Mars, since I had a “sky is the limit” mentality. I officially separated from the military and accepted a job working for BMW and Volkswagen. I thought selling cars would result in large commission checks, yet I quickly discovered this was a rookie mistake. While I was highly motivated for the money, in that line of work, honesty was not a productive trait in the pursuit to sell products at top dollar. The problem was that I could not tell a lie if my life depended on it!
I worked at the dealership until speaking with Northeastern University staff at Fort Bragg about a job opening on base. This was a winning chess move. Networking came naturally because of my passion about the job. In June, I interviewed for the part-time military recruitment position at the Fort Bragg office and was hired. This gave me the opportunity to totally submerge myself back into my field of interest and help others like me while advocating higher education.
Now after six months separated from the Air Force, I am now starting a new role with the university as the Senior Military Admissions Officer. My belief is that networking gave me an advantage in securing this position. Networking with other veteran senior staff at the university, highlighting my strengths, and genuinely being passionate about military engagement and recruitment led to results.
The competitive edge.
Through persistence, passion, and focus, I was able to navigate through the waters of change after separating from the military. Yet I cannot overlook the benefits of education and networking on my successful transition to a civilian career. Education and networking helped me avoid unemployment, for the most part. They gave me the competitive edge in an industry—higher education—that is dissimilar to military service, as are most industries.
To develop networking skills and other winning strategies that will reap a desired, successful transition, you don’t have to do it alone. Patriots Path, a non-profit organization that supports veterans, transitioning service members, and military spouses, is designed to assist in developing career goals and job search strategies, as well as networking and mentoring. The organization often partners with Northeastern University–Charlotte to offer workshops on managing change, resume writing, goal setting, and a wealth of other topics.
Like the good work at Patriots Path, I also hope to inspire other service members contemplating the move into civilian life. To assure a successful fulfilling career is not just of a figment of the imagination, military personnel with drive and determination can make it happen. And for their education, they might start first with Northeastern University.