Transitioning With Vulnerability

I know you are probably thinking great, another service member giving his two cents on how to transition out of the service. I get it: network, have a plan, get an education, and square away my medical documentation. Well, yes, all of that but so much more. I do not want to share just another list of what you should be doing in transition, but also share my fears and actions to successfully transition out of the uniform.

I do not use the word fear lightly. I have a lot of fear surrounding my transition. I am sure some of you are wondering what those fears are, and here is a list of a few of them. I have a fear of failure. I fear that my wife and kids will not look at me the same without the prestige and titles afforded to me in uniform. I fear that I will become another Veteran statistic, and not of the good stats. I fear that I am making the wrong decision. I fear that I will not find my purpose in the next chapter of my life. These are a few of the fears and questions I ask myself daily as I enter my last few months in the Army. The other question I ask myself is: do I have the courage to address these fears with an open and vulnerable heart and mind? The answer is yes, but it will take a lot of work coupled with the willingness to ask for help—the desire to be vulnerable.

Naturally, the question asked of me by others, and myself is where is this fear derived? I have been part of a team for as long as I can remember. Growing up, I started playing basketball at a young age, shortly after my parents divorced. Basketball and the teams I was a part of guided me as I tried to understand everything surrounding my parent’s divorce. Basketball was the one constant in my life from ages 10-19 and was my purpose in life. As I was nearing completion of High School and what I considered my first life transition, I started to have fear surrounding this transition and the separation from my sport and team.

Then the Army enters the picture. Joining the Army and pursuing selection into the 75th Rangers seemed like a natural choice if I wanted to remain part of a high-performing team. Fortunately, I completed the selection process and assigned to the 1st Ranger Battalion. Once again, I found myself surrounded by a team of like-minded people, all pursuing the same goals. I thrived inside the 75th, and I held every leadership position, from squad rifleman to Operations Sergeant Major of the 3rd Ranger Battalion. I deployed to combat 16 times, got married, had kids, lost friends, gained friends, all within the confines of this great organization, the 75th. I had once again found my purpose inside of a team.   

Now I am looking at retirement directly in the face. Not only retirement from the Army but retirement from the team. From age 10-40, I have been part of a team, and the teams I have been a part of have directly influenced every decision in my life. This is where my fear is derived. I fear that without the team, I am nothing. Without the team, I will have no purpose. I know I am not the only one who has felt or is feeling this way. The next question is, how do I address these feelings? The answer is courage, vulnerability, and leadership. I must have the courage to ask for help, to be okay with not having all of the answers. I must have a willingness to be vulnerable with myself and others. I must lead, and this is not the leading of others but the leading of myself. I have to take the initiative and lead myself as I lead all of those teams over the years.

During my 20+ year military career, I have often said initiating movement is the hardest of the eight troop leading procedures. There will always be a reason not to do something, but are they legit? I needed to initiate movement on my journey to transition, and my first step was into the behavioral health clinic. I was finally ready to address some of my demons, or so I thought. My first endeavor in mental health was derailed by nobody other than myself. Thankfully, I did not give up and eventually went “all in” on mental health. My first piece of advice for transition is finding yourself a good therapist and having faith in the process. When looking for a therapist, shop around, find someone you connect with, and makes you feel comfortable. I interviewed therapists, and you should do the same. My mental health journey has given me a better understanding of myself. I am a firm believer that until you gain more significant knowledge of yourself, you will never unlock your fullest potential. Mental health is a journey never completed, and I must continue to pursue my mental health balance. But how can I replace the absence of a team?

All of the mental health work in the world will not change the fact that I am walking away from being part of a team for more than 30 years of my life, or am I? I had to redefine the meaning of my team. My team does not have to consist of sports or 75th Ranger teams. My team now is my family and my group of close friends. I can rely on them to help carry me through difficult times. My second piece of advice is to build your transition team, and again this will take courage and vulnerability. Sharing your fears with your wife or close friends is not easy. People want to help, and your spouse wants to help. You do not have to carry everything by yourself. You are not a burden to others. You are a human, and we need each other. Share the load.

Get involved in your community, and build relationships. The word commonly used when in transition is network. Network, network, network. I am not a fan of this word, and it is overused and misunderstood. Networking does not mean mindlessly connecting to as many people a possible on LinkedIn. Change the language from network to relationship. My third piece of advice, build relationships of meaning and value. Talk to people on the phone, Zoom, or meet at a coffee shop. Get to know people and what they do, and more importantly, why they do it. Relationships are the key to a less painful transition.

My fourth piece of advice is to continue lifelong learning. You can accomplish this in many ways. I went back to school to finish my degree, and it has been a life-changing experience. I was not ready for college out of high school. I made up every excuse in the book to avoid it for the last 20 years, but I am so happy I returned. The course work is helping me translate 20 years of military experience into civilian speak and subsequently showing me that I have value on the other side of the uniform. If you are education complete, read books, listen to podcasts, and seek out intellectually stimulating activities. Challenge yourself to become a lifelong learner.

My last piece of advice for transition (for today anyway), find a hobby. The military fills our cup in ways we do not realize until it is gone. The military stimulates the creative part of the brain more than we realize. Building a CONOP for a mission, redesigning the company area, making your workout plan, the list goes on and on. We are creative beings and need creative stimulation to occupy our minds to keep the dark away. I started a podcast and a YouTube channel. I planted a garden and built a food plot for deer hunting. If I do not keep the creative part of my mind busy, I tend to regress to some of the darker times of my life and career, and that is not healthy. If you can involve your new team in this process, the results are even better.

Many other things need to be done in a military transition journey or any transition for that matter, but this an excellent place to start. I will leave you with these important points: own your journey, ask for help, and get comfortable being uncomfortable.

Transition with vulnerability.