11 Things Vets Find Confusing About the Civilian World

 high speed low drag soldier with bulletsThe military keeps things simple for its members.

Your job is to take care of the mission.

Deal with the enemy or the objective at hand; the system will take care of everything else.

Housing, training, family care — all those things are taken care of.

The institution has your back.

That can make a transition to a world where everyone is functionally on his or her own tough.

Here are some of the most common things that vets struggle to adjust to when they muster out and start dealing with the civilian world for the first time:

1. People Say One Thing and Do Another

 high speed low drag soldier trainingThis is a big issue because this behavior is almost non-existent in the military.

A Soldier’s word is his bond.

A Coastie stands by what he says.
The Marine motto is literally Always Faithful (Semper Fi) An Airman is true to his word.

Sailors can always be counted on except on shore leave 🙂

Just kidding – you know us Marines love you squids!

Seriously – If someone says he’ll do something and then doesn’t follow through on it in the military, he’s in for an ass-chewing at the very least, and likely for actual discipline as well.

Officers who continually underperform can face demotion, reassignment, and punishments of their own. In the extreme cases you have institutions like the MP, the service courts and the JAG, and so on, that handle serious under-performers or troublemakers.

You don’t have any of that system in the broader civilian world. Some companies will have their own internal policies and review systems, and there are obviously civil and criminal laws that bind everyone, but there’s no real method for preventing people from telling you that they’ll do something and then not following through.

That can be frustrating for veterans. You can get a contract for agreements and business arrangements — and you should! — but at the point where you have to use the contract to legally enforce things, the relationship has basically broken down anyway. It can be made to work, but it’s not good.

Unfortunately, there’s no good way to deal with this. You just have to watch out for yourself, read each contract carefully, and learn to be patient when people aren’t doing what you expected.

It’s a big transition from a world where life-or-death assignments can be given and agreed upon in a few sentences to one where you sign a ten-page contract just to buy a phone. And unfortunately, there’s no solution for that besides awareness, caution, and a whole lot of patience.

2. Narcissism

 high speed low drag soldier air forceWhen you’re in the military, the focus isn’t on you.

Oh, you’ve got some individual characters — some of them with a little too much character, if you know what I mean, and you know what I mean — but at the end of the day everyone is about what they bring to the mission.

It’s a team effort. It’s almost a communal or communist society in a lot of ways: shared goals, shared resources; shared support and effort.

That tends to result in people who aren’t all that egotistical or self-centered. It’s not all about them because it can’t be all about them. The system (or your buddies) will knock some sense into you if you get too selfish.

Civilian life, on the other hand, actively encourages a culture of narcissism. Witness the rise of “selfies” (pictures taken with a cell phone camera, held out at arms length and pointed back at the owner) on Facebook and Instagram last year: it’s the iconic gesture of “hey, everyone look at me.”

That mindset is everywhere.

The internet has made it more obvious than ever. Everyone wants their fifteen minutes, and they’re going to shove it in your face whether you want them to or not.

It can be tough to adjust to. A lot of veterans end up being viewed as “withdrawn” or “reserved,” just because they’re not in the habit of making their private business public and expecting everyone else to find it interesting.

Finding a group that’s got a shared mission can be a huge help with this. If you work for a small start-up that’s reliant on everyone pitching in together, it helps weed out the self-serving career-booster types.

You want to watch out for people who always seem to be talking about themselves, or looking at business in terms of what benefits them personally. Those guys are going to get ahead in the short term, and as often as not end up pissing someone off and taking a fall down the line. You don’t want to be a part of that, for both moral and professional reasons.

3. The Importance of Physical Goods and Image

 high speed low drag soldier and familyServicemen and servicewomen don’t own a lot of material goods.

Everything is “G.I.” — “government issue,” just like the troops (although the acronym didn’t originally stand for that; it was stamped on supplies made from galvanized iron in WWI, and people misinterpreted it).

That’s not to say that you won’t get some prized possessions that people have spent their paychecks on, but they tend to be small, portable, and more sentimental than material in value.

Part of that’s a practical function of living on the go and having most of your physical needs met by government-issued supplies. But part of it’s also the reality of being a soldier who might see combat, injury, and death at a moment’s notice. You learn to value the important things in life — your friends, your family, and your health and happiness — over material goods.

Mainstream American culture has gone in entirely the opposite direction. For so many people, the most important things in life are, well, the things — having the most luxurious car, or the biggest gold chain, or the brand of deodorant that advertisers swear will make girls rip their panties off for you.

It’s very stupid and wasteful, and it’s hard to deal with when you haven’t really had a lot of things that were actually yours for the last couple years. It’s easy to get sucked into that mindset and think “oh, god, I don’t really have any stuff of my own; I’d better go get a huge TV and a nice house and a fancy car” and so on.

But the reality is that vets don’t need to go get much stuff. As long as they and their families are provided for, it’s easy to build up and buy material goods later on, when they’re actually needed for something more than status.

Staying out of the material goods and image trap is crucial to staying happy as a recently discharged veteran.

4. Layoffs and Being Fired

 high speed low drag soldier sleepingThe concept of a “layoff” doesn’t really exist in the military.

Contract workers can get trimmed during budget cuts, and when branches of the service are downsizing they might not offer as many contract renewals, but your employment has a clear, fixed term from the moment you sign on the dotted line, and it’s rare for anyone to be “let go” before that.

That’s the exact opposite of how most civilians experience employment. In the private sector, your term of employment always comes with the possibility of early termination (unless you’re a tenured professor or a Supreme Court justice or something like that).

So where a serviceman or servicewoman is looking ahead and planning for the fixed date when he or she gets out, civilian employees are seeing every day as a potential last day, and trying hard to avoid losing their job before they’re ready to move on.

That can be a big adjustment to make. It’s very foreign for soldiers to think of superiors as bosses who might be looking for an excuse to fire them rather than as officers trying to keep them as dedicated and high-performing as possible.

And the reality is that every vet — just like every civilian worker — is probably going to experience the unexpected layoff at one point or another. It will feel out of the blue and unjustified. Bam, one day you’re jobless.

But that’s how the system works. So veterans need to make sure they’ve got some savings built up, and more importantly, a good support system of friends and families. Losing a job can have a big emotional impact as well as a fiscal one — when you’re coming from a world where the only people who get “fired” are the borderline criminal screw-ups (dishonorable discharges) or the people who literally can’t perform anymore (medical discharges, etc.), it’s easy to take getting let go from a civilian company as a much harsher blow than it really is.

Hang on to perspective, and remember that people lose their jobs all the time. It’s not really comparable to a discharge from the service.

5. Negotiating Salaries

 high speed low drag soldier holding a gunThis is another area where military and mainstream corporate culture are almost completely opposed to one another.

Military pay is transparent. Everyone knows the scale, and that it’s based on rank and need (location, housing, family, etc.). There are ways to get more or less out of the system, but they’re all pretty simple, and most people don’t worry much about squeezing a few extra dollars out here or there.

In most civilian jobs, on the other hand, your salary is open for negotiation. You won’t necessarily know what your employer is paying anyone else, including people that work with you and do the exact same job you do.

Both models have their frustrations. In the military, it can be infuriating to see a mediocre officer drawing higher pay than a stellar non-com. In civilian work, it can be nerve-wracking to always wonder if you could have gotten a better salary — and infuriating if you happen to find out that someone who holds the same position as you is making much better money and benefits.

That makes up-front negotiations crucial when you take a job in the civilian sector. It’s much harder to negotiate raises and changes in benefits once you’ve signed the initial contract. Don’t ever take the first offer without asking for some improvement on it — it’s almost certainly been lowballed in either pay or benefits, or both.

Sometimes you’ll be told that salaries are fixed and non-negotiable. Even when that’s the case, companies will still often be willing to negotiate changes in benefits or in things like work schedules — you can get more flexibility in your hours, for example, if you request it up front, and it’s a concession many employers will be more willing to make than salary increases.

Take nothing for granted, and try to look at it as a positive system — you’re getting rewarded for your actual worth, not simply for the rank you’ve earned. It doesn’t always work that way in practice, of course, but it’s a comforting idea.

6. Translating Your Stories and Experiences

 high speed low drag soldier with kidsEveryone has war stories (or “service stories,” if it never involved actually going to war).

The trouble is, most of them only work well when they’re told to other veterans, or to active military members.

A lot of that is based on the language. Military terminology is loaded with acronyms, slang, and bureaucratic phrases that civilians won’t understand. If you’re stopping to explain them all, you inevitably start seeming long-winded and pedantic.

It’s natural for veterans to expect a little interest in and respect for their service, but you’re still subject to the same social rules as everyone else. Talking extensively about yourself just isn’t that interesting. (Lots of people do it — see #2 on this list — but it’s dislikeable in them, and it is in you too.)

If you want to talk about your military experience, that’s fine. But keep it relevant to the topic at hand, and keep it brief and simple. Skim over things that won’t make immediate sense to civilians. If it takes more than a few words to explain an idea in the story, you’re probably better off cutting it.

7. Business Language

 high speed low drag soldier reading mapsJust as military language can seem incomprehensibly full of acronyms and shorthand to civilians, so a lot of industries have their own internal language that can bewilder veterans.

Different fields have different amounts of slang or “buzzwords.” A cook or a retail clerk probably won’t run into too much specialized language; a computer programmer or a financial officer is almost certain to.

Fortunately, navigating military language does train veterans to speak clearly, confidently, and in terms their peers and co-workers understand — it’s just a matter of learning a different set of terms, and using them the same way you used to use military jargon.

Probably the best thing a veteran can do is immersing him or herself in the language of the trade, once he or she chooses a career or field.

Check out four or five books on your new job from the library and read them. If you’re not a big reader, get them as audiobooks and listen to them instead (in some ways that’s even better, since it’s training you to hear the language as well as to use it).

It’s a way of training both your brain and your tongue at the same time. That way when you show up for a new job you can speak on the work with confidence, and sound like an “insider” even if it’s a completely new career direction for you.

As an added bonus, doing that kind of research is a good barometer for how well the career or field suits you. If you’ve read four or five books on the industry you’re planning to enter, and they all bored you stupid, you might be going into the wrong field.

8. How to Find a New Career Path

 high speed low drag soldier with a drumsOne of the biggest problems with transitioning from the military to the civilian sector is that you’re coming from a place where you had a clearly-defined job and were trained how to do it as well as possible.

That can leave a lot of veterans feeling like they’re one-trick ponies. But it’s worth remembering how fast the military trains you in new skills — anyone who’s earned a specialization in the armed forces can clearly learn something new in civilian life as well.

Stay out of the trap of feeling like you have to find something similar to what you did in the military. A former MP doesn’t have to become a cop. He or she can become a lawyer — or a cook, or a rodeo clown. There’s no rule saying you can only use the skills you already know.

Find what you really want to do, and apply yourself to learning how to do it. That’s what the future is all about. Your military service, however useful it was to you, is the past. Use it to help you, but not to guide you.

And if you don’t know what your driving passion is, don’t panic. Most people don’t! Civilians and veterans alike sometimes have to spend a long time working different jobs before they find the perfect one. It’s a lot like falling in love with the perfect partner — there are things you can do to make it more likely, but you still have to kind of stumble into that perfect match.

For a veteran who isn’t sure what he or she wants to do, it’s not a bad idea to try a couple of different jobs, each one for a year or two. Figure out what you like and dislike about each one, and whenever you move work on finding somewhere that has more of the “likes” and less of the “dislikes.”

9. Taking Time Off

  high speed low drag soldier exercise“Leave” in the military is a rare but complete thing. When you’re off-duty, you’re off-duty. There are people in place to take care of things for you while you’re gone. If there weren’t, you wouldn’t get the leave.

That’s increasingly untrue of civilian vacations. Especially now that smartphones and wireless internet are so universal, companies are more and more convinced that their employees can be reached — and asked to work — 24/7, no matter where they are or what they’re doing.

It’s enough to make someone long for work in the classified intelligence sector, where you literally can’t take your work home because it’s sealed on non-networked computers within a secure building.

Veterans need to be prepared to push back when they need their free time. Like salaries (as discussed in #5, up above), this is something you may have to negotiate for actively.

Time off that’s really time off, not just working from home, is important for everyone. It’s a lot like working out — you only spend a couple hours a week actually lifting weights, but the real strengthening process takes place as the muscles rest.

Your body and your brain need the same treatment. When you work them hard, you have to give them time to recuperate and come back stronger. Don’t be ambushed by the demands of the 24/7 workplace. Insist on some time off, and when you get it, turn the cell phone off and don’t check your e-mail!

10. Healthcare

 high speed low drag soldier checkupHealthcare in the armed services is automatic and absolute. If you’re an active service member, you’ve got health care. Wounds and other immediate needs are going to be treated by a medic, and there are hospitals waiting for you if you need long-term care of any kind.

The private healthcare system, on the other hand, is a chaotic, expensive, barely-functional mess. Hospital costs are so insane it would be funny if it weren’t bankrupting people — it’s not uncommon, for example, to see a line on the itemized bill charging someone between $5 and $10 for a single aspirin that the doctor gave them. The fact that you could buy two or three bottles of aspirin for that much at a drugstore doesn’t even enter into it.

What that means is that veterans absolutely have to get themselves some health insurance. Going without it just isn’t a safe option. If you have the bad luck to break a bone or catch something that needs medicine, going to the hospital uninsured will bankrupt you.

Know your options. Most veterans are eligible for at least assistance with health insurance, and if you have a disability rating it may be covered entirely. Make sure you talk with your local Veterans Affairs branch to get all the benefits you’re entitled to.

11. Insurance

 high speed low drag soldier injuredHealth insurance is the biggest worry for a lot of people, but veterans tend to need at least a few other policies as well.

Your car probably needs to be insured (it’s illegal to drive uninsured in many states), homes and apartments need insurance to protect against fires and other disasters, and — probably the most important one other than health insurance — men and women with families should have a life insurance policy to protect their dependents.

Like health care, these are things that you may be eligible for assistance with. The Veterans Benefits Administration is the federal office that oversees benefits for former servicemen and servicewomen, which can include everything from pensions to assistance with house loans and home insurance.

When you’re getting cycled out, ask what you’re eligible for. And don’t be afraid to go back in and check again later — you might not have been thinking about buying a home, going to school, or taking out a life insurance policy when you were discharged, but that doesn’t mean you’re not eligible for the benefits down the road.