The other side of transition

My last post was the second of three that delves into the transition educational opportunities that I was fortunate enough to take advantage of.  As many of my readers have pointed out it was another long one, so in an effort to keep things moving along without bludgeoning you, my friend the reader, with another lengthy post I present this brief missive about transition…

Transition is a nice word.  It is a genteel euphemism that we in the military use to describe the transformation from uniformed defender of freedom and the American Way of Life back to the population we all came from.  It makes you feel a little warm inside because it is such a nice word; great feelings about what lies ahead, but also feelings that belie just how nice parts of the transition really aren’t.

There are a lot of elegant synonyms for transition; words like passage, conversion, and adjustment come to mind.  Not bad!  You can read these little bits of cheerful lexicography and your blood pressure stays nice and low.  “I am transitioning.  How nice.  It’s a happy passage from my days in uniform to the rest of my life as a civilian.  The conversion should be a gentle one because of all the programs and whatnot that are out there to help me along.  I used to be a civilian, so the adjustment shouldn’t be too bad!  La de da de da…”  These happy terms are usually accompanied by images of palm trees swaying overhead as you lounge on a nice sandy beach with a mai-tai in one hand and big fat cigar in the other.

Other synonyms are not so nice.  Upheaval.  Distortion.  Revolution.  “Ahhhhhhhhh!  What am I gonna do?  What can I do for a living?  I have no idea what to do for the rest of my life!  Aaaarrrrgh!”  Not so good for your blood pressure.  Visions of a future sitting at highway offramps with a cardboard sign offering to work for food compete with a strong desire to see how fast you can make it all the way to the bottom of a bottle of brown liqour go dancing around your head as you reach for the antacids and Alka-Seltzer.

The truth of the matter is that the transitional process is often only looked at from one perspective- the perspective of “getting out” and neglecting “what’s next”.  We all tend to focus on our End of Active Service day- our EAS- because that is when our career carriages turn into pumpkins.  Woe to those of us who don’t get everything done before midnight….but all too often Marines (and Sailors and Airmen and Soldiers) don’t pay close enough attention to the morning after their last night in uniform.  What are you going to do next?  All of a sudden everything on the list is checked off and you have nobody telling you where to go, what to do, and what to wear as you do it.  It is just you, alone with your thoughts and probably a splitting headache.

There is nothing wrong with sitting around in your underwear for a week or so burning through bags of Cheetos and cases of beer, but that isn’t much of a plan for the rest of your life.  What often occurs is just that- the giddy feeling of hanging it up wears off pretty quickly and is replaced with a burgeoning feeling of dread at the uncertainty that lies ahead, not to mention an epic case of indigestion from all of the junk food and cheap beer that turned out not to be as  rewarding as you thought.  Just like a hangover, the after effects are often not quite what you expected, and then it is too late to go back in time and perform those actions that needed to be done months before.  Without a plan things can go horribly awry- just ask anyone who thought that dropping out of high school would lead to a great upper middle-class way of life these days.  You make your own luck a great man once told me, and sometimes we all need to be told what we need to do even though we don’t want to hear it.

As a commanding officer I made a point of sitting down with each and every Marine and Sailor that left my command.  Many were moving on to new duty stations, but many were also getting out.  The conversation invariably turned to what they planned to do with their lives, and the answers were sometimes surprising.

“So, John (or Bob or Bill), what are you going to do when you get out?”

“Go back to school, sir.”  This is the answer I got about 80% of the time.

“Great!  Good for you.  Where?”

There were a million different answers to this question, but they all boiled down to variations of:

“I am going to (fill in the name of college/school/apprenticeship here).”

or…..

“I dunno.”

The first answer led to a great discussion of life after the Marine Corps- the benefits available with the Post 9/11 GI Bill are quite frankly spectacular.  These Marines and Sailors were well on the way to a successful life on civvie street because they had made a plan and were ready to make it happen.

As for the second answer, well, that led to a completely different dialog, which focused on not ending up like the guy with the cardboard sign.  Some were receptive, some just looked at me with the hollow stare as they inwardly prayed that the bad man (me!) would just stop talking…..but I wouldn’t.  After torturing them for a while, I would wheedle a commitment out of them to do something, anything, but to have a plan.

I think it worked.  I still get emails and facebook hits from a lot of them.  It is very gratifying to hear that a Marine with whom I had such a conversation was now well on his way to graduating from college, and believe it or not I actually run into them from time to time.  Most memorably was a young corporal who got out years ago, and long after he hung up his uniform our paths crossed at Disneyland.  He was there with his young family, and was happy to report that he had completed an apprenticeship as and now had a great life as a locomotive mechanic for the railroad.  I also receive appeals for help from those who didn’t have a plan or who found life on the other side of the fence a lot different than they remembered it.  Where some may turn that into an “I told you so” moment, that isn’t helpful.  I do what every Marine that I ever asked for advice did for me- I see how I can help.  That’s what Marines do, and you know what?  It is just as gratifying because you know that some day down the road the person you help today will send you an email or drop you a note to let you know how things turned out.  And odds are that they will turn out just fine.

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