Your contract is up. You are mentally and emotionally exhausted but so excited to be a civilian. You're probably a little nervous but you’ve got school lined up so it’s not like you’re going to be homeless if you don’t get it together right away. You’ll have the GI Bill and E5 BAH to fall back on. Heck, if you’re lucky you’ll even be able to pocket some of that leftover BAH to pay off small bills. The future is bright and you’re taking breath of fresh air. That’s good. Hold on to that optimism because few things feel that great, but I’m here to tell you it can sour fast if you fall into the common veteran student traps.
Don’t be this guy/gal. This is the person who goes back to college and can’t shut their stupid mouth about their service. As I was getting out, a friend of mine was graduating business school and said to me, “Be proud of what you’ve done. You can let people know so they have a heads up but then it’s time to stop talking about it.” Well, I got a masters’ degree that dealt mainly in foreign policy, irregular warfare, and terrorism so avoiding military talk was hard and I'm probably guilty of some Bro-Vetting. I tried to keep my stories relevant to the topic at hand but after a while even I was tired of listening to myself. The Bro-Vet wears lots of military paraphernalia to class (operator hats, veteran owned company shirts, tactical bags) and is quick to let people know that their three years as an aircraft mechanic in Kansas made them a foreign policy expert and they “were basically special forces.”
Go in humble. Recognize that this is a new arena and you are here to learn. You might even learn a little about how to be a real boy or girl by watching those younger folks you might look down your nose at because, news flash, the military probably made you a little weird. You have probably dealt with a lot more responsibility than most of them and you'll probably be made group leader of every project but that doesn't mean you know everything. Being a good leader means recognizing each group member's strengths and value. Peer leadership is the hardest kind and you can develop it here. Don’t be a jerk, don’t brag, don’t condescend, and realize that after a certain point, no one cares. Keep your head down and do your work. And take off those damn shooting glasses in public.
Pick a program you are wholeheartedly interested in pursuing
I thought I was going to go into federal work after getting my degree, and even made it through the hiring process, only to wake up one day and realize I had zero interest in being a federal employee. I was just coasting on the idea of staying with something LIKE the military. You may have NO idea what you want to do. That’s totally fine for probably the first year or two of undergrad. Take lots of different classes to find what sparks passion for you. For a master’s program or higher, though, this is expensive and a big-time commitment, so it’s better to have a good idea up front. But it is never too late to decide to change your life.
Do LOTS of research and go to every professional talk and networking event your school puts on to get a sense of whether or not it’s for you. One upside is that, if you had a bachelor’s degree before you joined, you should have enough GI Bill to take two masters’ degrees. So I guess you can take a mulligan if you can financially survive four years of school.
So many vets want to take a step back from responsibility after leaving active duty and starting school because they are tired. This does you and your community a disservice because you have a wealth of knowledge and experience that you can share. Student veterans’ organizations can help you navigate the administrative headaches of getting your GI Bill, Yellow Ribbon, or Vocational Rehab paperwork sorted out and, in turn, you can help new vets as they come in. Not only that, but having other vets around to talk about shared life experiences does wonders for your mental health when you get out.
Student and community organizations are a great way to meet new friends, network, and build lasting relationships that could ultimately benefit your career. Getting involved will help develop those community leadership skills and looks great on a resume. Bridging the divide between the military and civilians is very important in today’s world because so many people see the military as foreign. In the end we are all Americans. Some of us chose to join, some didn’t. Bringing your voice to the civilian population is a healthy thing that allows veterans’ issues to become less foreign by representing the community well (i.e. by not being a Bro-Vet).
About the Author:
Chris Walker is a Marine Artillery Officer and JTAC who served eight years on active duty, deploying to Afghanistan and on two Marine Expeditionary Units with infantry, ANGLICO, and Force Reconnaissance units. He is still serving in the reserves and living in New York.