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Transitioning from Military to Civilian Life

By Dee Dacey Emory , Kristin Byerly

Transitioning from military to civilian status can be one of the most significant and exciting experiences of your life. It can be as monumental as joining the military, getting married, or starting a family. As with any significant change, you should be well informed and prepared with the information you need.

It may seem overwhelming at first, but like prior tasks and duties, breaking this transition down into digestible pieces and making sure you have the right support will set you on a path to meet your goals.

Start Planning Early

Review your options about two years before your Expiration Term of Service (ETS). Unlike with a Permanent Change of Station (PCS) move or your next assignment, you will be making decisions entirely on your own.

Take a Personal Inventory

Consider your family situation, your finances, your housing needs, your career goals, and whether you'll need additional education to reach those goals and meet those needs.

“Our military-affiliated students describe their transition to civilian life and considering higher education as a ‘two-step process’,” says Keith Hauk, a retired U.S. Army colonel and current associate vice president of stateside military operations at the University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC). “The best advice I got from a friend who had already retired was to look at three things: What do you want to do? Where do you want to live? And what is the salary you’re chasing? Then prioritize those three things.”

Fortunately, you have access to several resources when you leave the military, such as Military.com’s transition support. The earlier you take the inventory, the more prepared you will be both financially and mentally. Also considering what you don’t want to do, where you don’t want to live, and the minimum salary you need for your life is just as important.

Build a Resume that Showcases Your Military Achievements

As you plan your departure from the military, securing a job may be your top priority. With a background of military service, you already have impressive experience, skills, and knowledge. But you will need to create a resume that fits with the civilian job landscape. Detailed resume builders such as Military OneSource’s “How to Write a Civilian Resume” give you step-by-step instructions and offer tools to help.

Even if you’re not looking for a military-related job, your military experience makes you unique. You can set yourself apart by adding resume-boosting awards, medals, and other achievements to your resume. You can also include key skills like working under pressure, time and project management, technical skills, and accounting.

Many employers are actively hiring veterans and specifically encourage veterans to apply. These companies are familiar with the incredible assets you can bring to many roles, and they recognize the potential challenges your transition may entail. Circa Job for Veterans connects you with organizations based on your experience and skills. Employment assistance can also be found at the U.S. Department of Labor.

Be Ready for the Challenges of Transitioning to Civilian Life

Your body and mind will need time to process that you are no longer in service mode. The new rhythm of your day, interactions with coworkers and neighbors, and even relationships may seem foreign at first. Social, personal, psychological, financial, and other challenges may arise. But, if you anticipate these changes, you will be more likely to think of strategies to overcome them. Numerous resources and tools are available to ensure you transition successfully.

Get help with any potential serious results of time in service such as PTSD, addiction, or other mental health issues. Military OneSource is a no-cost service provided by the Department of Defense to servicemembers and their families to help with a broad range of concerns, including mental health challenges. You can also call 800-342-9647 at any time (this service is available 24/7).  

MentalHealth.gov offers mental health and support services specifically for veterans and their families. Whatever challenges you are facing, the sooner they are addressed, the easier other hurdles will be.

Encourage Your Spouse to Seek Support in Their Own Transition

If you have a spouse, you understand the challenges they have faced with job opportunities, both while you have been active-duty and as you both leave the military world. Moving often, lacking continuity in career paths, and not being recognized for the skills they have learned in nontraditional learning are challenges, but they can lead to advantages. Encourage your spouse to research the job or career that best suits them and find the higher education they may need to achieve their goals.

Find Robust Support for Your Transition

Having people who have successfully transitioned from the military as your guides can give you and your spouse a great advantage. You can find this community through online forums that connect you with other military members who have already made the transition to civilian life. If you choose to pursue higher education, you can look for a university with a dedicated team for military and veteran students.

“I think for military and veteran students, and their spouses, it comes down to accessibility—not just to academic programs and choice—but to real-life people who can provide face-to-face, wrap-around service,” says Kelly Wilmeth, a military spouse and vice president of UMGC’s stateside military operations.

UMGC has Military Education Coordinators (MEC) who are responsible for meeting your needs through advising, helping you with registration, being a coach, mentor, and career advisor. They can help you be proactive and get ahead of challenges that might be coming your way.

Reference on this webpage to any third-party entity or product does not constitute or imply endorsement by UMGC nor does it constitute or imply endorsement of UMGC by the third party.