10 Steps to Navigate Your Military-to-Civilian Transition


If you’re considering enlisting, are on active duty or are one of the approximately 200,000 service members who will transition to civilian life this year, you should start planning now. 

Research confirms that making the military transition can be burdensome and confusing for Veterans and their families. Although there’s been progress, data suggests that around half of all recently separated Veterans don’t connect with available resources and benefits for several years, and sometimes only when they’re in crisis.

In honor of National Military Appreciation Month (NMAM), Kenneth L. Heyward, management analyst at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, and Cherelle Hines, program training manager at the National Guard Bureau, explain some of the most common challenges veterans face during the military transition process and proven steps to better navigate your military-to-civilian transition.

Military Transition Challenges

Many hurdles exist in transitioning from military to civilian life. Heyward says one of the main challenges is transferring military jobs and skills to civilian careers. Examples include infantry and artillery.

Furthermore, most retirees have been “institutionalized” and will have difficulty changing the mindset they’ve developed and operated under for the past 20 years.

According to Hines, the most significant military transition challenges include:  

  • Recognizing available benefits. Veterans are unaware of all the benefits available to them during and after their service. Instead, a strong emphasis is placed on the mission when they serve, and their personal development and professional needs are put on the back burner.
  • In turn, these individuals miss out on crucial educational and professional benefits, many of which go untapped by those who require them the most. Various organizations are dedicated to helping military members thrive. However, many of these programs lack proper advertising, and word of mouth is insufficient to reach a wide audience.
  • Translating military experience into corporate civilian terms. “Demilitarizing” your resume, speaking plainly without military jargon and finding strengths that can easily transfer from operational military service to corporate business is a difficult task.

  • Building a sustainable community. While joining military-centric volunteer groups is great for leadership development, they tend to be siloed in a vacuum, lacking the ability to boost your circle beyond the base’s gates.

  • Being stationed in rural areas. Many transitioning service members are stationed in these areas, which typically don’t have a robust job market. Job search support is limited with busy schedules for out-processing, VA medical appointments and duty transitions. This makes it near impossible to truly find meaningful networks and build lasting connections.

Steps to Navigate the Transition

Heyward and Hines advise the following 10 steps to better navigate your miliary-to-civilian transition:

  1. Choose your military specialty wisely.

    Before enlisting, consider your long-term goals and ask yourself, “What do I want to do once I get out?”

    For example, before Heyward enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1994, he knew he planned to serve for less than 20 years. Therefore, he chose a military occupational specialty that would allow him options once he made the military transition.

    “Think about what could be easily transferred to the civilian sector,” Heyward suggests. “Almost anything in the medical field was my first choice. However, that was everyone else’s first choice as well. The wait for positions in that field was approximately eight to 12 months.”

    After more research, Heyward enlisted in the U.S. Army’s Signal Corp as a 31D, which later became a 31R. His job title was Mobile Subscriber Equipment Operator and Maintainer.

    “My unit provided tactical and mobile telecommunications to the various units we supported,” Heyward said. “About the same time, the Telecommunications Act of 1996 was signed into law. This very important piece of legislation was the catalyst and the beginning of the boom in the telecommunications industry.”

  2. Go to sick call and obtain documentation.

    Ensure you get a copy of your active-duty medical service records before leaving active duty.

    “I own and operate a non-profit organization whose primary mission is to assist veterans with getting the disability benefits that they have earned and deserve,” Heyward says. “It saddens me when Veterans come to me with little or no medical documentation simply because they never took the time to be seen or treated while on active duty.”

  3. Adopt a growth mindset.

    “Think about your transition from military service on day one,” Hines says. To help, she suggests reading “Mindset” by Carol Dweck, Ph.D., a world-renowned Stanford University psychologist. In the book, Dweck emphasizes the importance of continuous learning and growth and having a flexible, growth-oriented approach to personal and intellectual development.

    “Never stop learning and never stop growing,” Hines exclaims.

  4. Start looking for jobs 18-24 months ahead.

    Hines says you should reverse engineer the job requirements and experience and then build on the skills you lack. Reach out to employees and request an informational phone call to learn about the position and company.

    “Go a step further and request to job shadow as a visitor to get a feel for the day-to-day life,” Hines suggests. “Ask employers if they have a veteran employee resource group to connect with and build that relationship well before you separate. Organic relationships are key, and they must start early.”

  5. Know who you are.

    Take a personality-strengths assessment test. “Learn your values and what motivates you,” Hines says. “Link them with where you want to go after your military transition.”

  6. Match your military skills to a civilian job.

    Find civilian employment where you can apply your military skills and foundational competencies to the knowledge, skills and abilities required for that position.

  7. Upskill with competitive and in-demand skills.

    “Don’t get too comfortable and don’t get left behind in the job market,” Hines says.

    “We often get comfortable in our military career, and that tends to hurt us down the road when we have to compete in a larger market,” she continues.

  8. Build financial resilience.

    Studies show that financial insecurity is a major cause of stress. That’s why Hines says you should aim to have a robust emergency fund during the transition, while navigating the job market and try to pay off all consumer debt.

    “Build an emergency fund of six to 12 months,” she reveals. To help, Hines recommends taking a financial education program called “The Financial Peace University – Military Edition.” The program is designed for military personnel and their families and is hosted by Dave Ramsey, a renowned personal finance expert on debt elimination and wealth building.

    Hines adds: “This will build your financial resilience so you can focus on finding a meaningful post-military career.”

  9. Explore job fairs.

    “Attend hiring fairs, in person preferably, or virtually,” Hines says. “Get to know the hiring managers and recruiters face-to-face,” she recommends. “Connect with them on LinkedIn.”

  10. Find a mentorship-leadership program.

    Identify a mentorship-leadership program with a professional organization connected to the industry or sector you’re interested in joining.

Heyward and Hines say you can effectively leverage your military experience and hit the ground running into your civilian life by proactively navigating your military-to-civilian transition. Be sure to utilize the numerous resources available to help with this process, they add, ensuring a smoother and more positive transition.

Additional Resources for Military Women

Federally Employed Women (FEW), a private, non-profit organization founded in 1968, recognizes the special education and experience your military service represents and honors your selfless dedication to the defense of our nation.

If you’re a military service member discharged from the service and looking to be hired by the Federal Government, here are a few resources:

Also, consider joining our professional women’s organization dedicated to serving women employed by or retired from the federal government, civilian or military.

Here are FEW membership benefits:

  • The organization plays a leadership role in promoting legislation that’s beneficial to its members.
  • The group provides communications and information via its national website, regular legislative updates, email alerts and a newsletter available via email or special request.
  • It holds an annual awards program, given to a maximum of six exceptional military service members: one for each service branch (Army, Air Force, Navy, Marines, Coast Guard) and one member of the National Guard.

FEW works to advance and support military women. To share your ideas and professional expertise gained in the military, contact the Special Assistant for Military Women at military@few.org