Becoming a Civilian — The Transition from the Military

SC&C military transition to civilian lifeAs a member of a military family, routines can be strikingly similar to civilian life. The soldier goes to work Monday thru Friday, is usually home for dinner, has holidays off, and takes vacation time during the year. Of course there are duty days when the active military member must stay on the base for 24 hours, or a weekend day is suddenly gone. Every soldier is subject to that.

A military family also can’t move wherever they want to; they have to stay in the town where they are stationed. They could change apartments or houses as they see fit, as long as they were still near the base.

Deployments are a fact of life. One might be obliged to spend nine months in Iraq, a year in Okinawa, or maybe just a month and a half overseas. It can be quite disruptive to be separated for such an extended period.

The good part is the insurance is covered and there is a steady paycheck. The nonmilitary partner has the ability to dedicate themselves to child rearing, a civilian job, or chickens in their backyard if the notion strikes them. It can be a tradeoff, but some people really blossom with the reliability and organization.

Rich Morin of Pew Research tells us, Military service is difficult, demanding and dangerous. But returning to civilian life also poses challenges for the men and women who have served in the armed forces, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey of 1,853 veterans. While more than seven in ten veterans (72%) report they had an easy time readjusting to civilian life, 27% say re-entry was difficult for them.

When You Leave the Military

Things change once you’re “out.” You’ve gotten used to the structure and the way things work. Realigning your sensibilities to a civilian viewpoint can lead to some misunderstandings, for both parties.

The military has a top-down hierarchy in which the top person makes a decision and it’s passed down through the chain. In business that is looked upon as an old-fashioned model that is seldom used anymore.

Modern computer integration and information sharing across all departments has led to a matrix structure rather than a hierarchy. Better, well-considered decisions are arrived at by consensus.

In the military, roles are well-defined and clear; everyone knows what they’re supposed to do and when they’re supposed to do it. In business it’s a little more flexible; roles and status can be more ambiguous. This allows creativity and increased synergy, which in turn leads to more evolved solutions to complex problems.

In the military you advance rank by rank, designation by designation, and your career path is clear. In business career progression relies more on individual initiative and creativity as well as the ability to work outside your area of specialization. Accepting a parallel assignment outside of your area of specialization can lead to sudden, great strides in your career.

One’s ability to network can boost a career explosively. Quite often a meritocracy prevails, where if someone is good at something they get rewarded. It’s not unheard of for a new but brilliant employee to rapidly climb the corporate ladder and become a vice president of development.

Even the most astonishingly talented enlisted private will never make colonel in just a few months. The corporate world loves diamonds in the rough and will provide training and incentives to get clever people into positions that will do the company the most good.

Brooke Julia, of Demand Media: The military offers quite a few benefits that most civilian jobs don’t offer. On the other hand, civilian jobs provide more freedom than most military positions.


For someone that has recently left the military it can take a while to get the confidence to contribute. It’s not a case of questioning orders; it’s a case of cooperative effort to develop a satisfactory solution.

If your boss says, “See if you can get these contracts signed by the end of the day,” and you have an idea, it wouldn’t be wrong to say, “I can do that for you, but if I could make a suggestion…” you might find them very willing to listen to another idea, discuss it with you, and implement a new solution.

Civilian life is not Military life. There’s more freedom to explore and contribute. Take advantage of it.

Stewart, Cooper & Coon has helped many high-level military personnel transition from their military careers into a nonmilitary. Learn more about how SC&C can manage your transition and connect with them on LinkedIn at

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