Ten years ago this April, I enlisted in the U.S. Army. During that time, I jumped out of airplanes, crawled, marched and ran thousands of miles, blew stuff up, met some of the most amazing people on Earth and served two tours in Iraq with the 82nd Airborne.
Five years ago this week, I got out. Since then, my life has changed dramatically. I’ve gone back to college on the Post-9/11 GI Bill, worked and interned in the private and non-profit sectors, earned a Truman scholarship, studied abroad in Egypt, advocated for fellow veterans on Capitol Hill, married the woman of my dreams and graduated from the City College of New York with a degree in International Studies. Now, six years removed from combat patrols in Iraq, I’m attending graduate school in London.
People say I’ve made a “successful transition” out of the military given the range of problems new veterans are facing as they leave service in Iraq and Afghanistan. As a veteran, however, I don’t like this label. It suggests that once the transition is made, that’s it. All problems are solved. Instead, I would say that I’m “successfully adjusting” to life after military service. And to borrow the title of a couple of good books, this adjustment is a Forever War. I’m still doing it every day.
Looking back, there are key things I’ve learned that every veteran making the adjustment or soon will be should consider. This is the quick and dirty. The bottomline up front. The things to know and do that can make the adjustment a lot less painful. They may not work for every veteran, but they worked for me.
1. Your military service will define you, whether you like it or not. With less than 1% of the population serving, you are part of a tiny minority who have shouldered incredible responsibility. If you served overseas, to many, you are exotic. People around you will find out you served (trust me) and will define you by your service. When you raise your hand in class, people will refer to you as the “military guy” or gal.
2. Adjusting successfully depends on a strong support network. In the military, we succeeded and failed in teams. It’s no different on the outside. Family, friends, and peers will not let you fail if you put your trust in them. I put my trust in IAVA and CCNY’s veterans group. You can do the same joining a veterans organization to learn from your buddies who are on the same journey.
3. Have a plan. This is critical. My senior NCO’s used to laugh at anyone who said they were going to get out and “go to college.” They knew how easy it is to say that, but how it’s a whole separate matter to put the work behind that statement and make it happen. Don’t just get out of the military and take time off. It’s tempting, especially after multiple, yearlong deployments. Strike while the iron is hot. Start applying for school or work before you get out of the service. Plan to minimize ‘dwell’ time to maximize immediate available resources.
4. The little things you learned in the military will make you successful on the outside.Class starts at 0900? Show up at 0850. Iron your clothes. Be respectful to the people around you. These little things will set you apart and lead to success. The most important thing I learned from my service was how to negotiate a bureaucracy. You would be surprised by how many qualifying students won’t apply for financial aid simply because of the paperwork involved. If you served in the military, you have earned a PhD in Bureaucracy Negotiation. Put it to work!
5. Seek out the things that make you uncomfortable. There is a civilian-military divide that exists in this country. What are you going to do about it? Often, veterans come out of their military bubble only to rush into the veteran bubble. Talk to people who share different and opposing views. Dispel stereotypes of veterans by being a respectful, model citizen. Join a club or society. Do the things that give your stomach butterflies.
6. Now more than ever, be humble. Don’t be obnoxious about the fact that you served in Iraq and Afghanistan. No one likes it. Not the military, not veterans, not civilians. Just don’t do it. Don’t be “that guy.”
7. No one is going to do the work for you. Whether it is filing a claim for an injury at the VA or getting your Post-9/11 GI Bill started, there are a host of benefits you earned waiting to be unlocked. The system for getting them isn’t always easy to navigate, and it can be frustrating and infuriating to wait for answers. In the end though, it’s your benefit. Get a cup of coffee, block off an hour or two, and knock out the paperwork and applications.
8. Know when you are taking on too much. Many of us have big plans and, after serving in a combat zone, it’s easy to feel like we can take on the world. Ambition and drive are great, but so are setting realistic expectations and maintaining sanity. If you’re going to school full-time and have a full-time job, maybe you should wait until after you graduate to start that business or non-profit you’ve been thinking about. No one can do everything all the time. Know your limit.
9. Know when to ask for help. At some point or another, you’re going to need someone to talk to. Whether it is about money, health, family, or your service, know it’s okay to open up. The network you have around you wants to help. Let them know when you need it. They will go through hell to help you, but they can’t do it if you don’t let them.
10. Never forget where you came from. Whether you loved serving or hated it, for most of us it was a life-altering experience. Take it, embrace it, and use it to help you get to where you want to go next in life.
After I returned from Iraq, I learned these ten lessons the hard way–but they continue to work for me on a daily basis. Of course, there are countless other great lessons that I’ve left out and I have plenty more to learn in the years ahead. But whether you are a veteran, a military family or a friend, pass them along. We’re all in this adjustment together.
Note: This post originally appeared on the Huffington Post on April 12, 2011.