Culture Military

Back to being a private

A while after I transitioned out of the military and into civilian life, I was speaking to a veteran friend on the value of military experience in the civilian workplace. He told me that, at the end of the day, “if you sell milk, and [you’re in] a milk company — you gotta go out and sell some milk.”

What did he mean?

If you’ve been following my writing since before The Freq, you may have heard the phrase I often use: “doing your private time over again.” I think it’s worth bringing up again because it’s not only a concept that can be applied to military veterans transitioning out of the service, but it is indicative of a philosophy of humility and a willingness to learn, something I endeavor toward but certainly do not always excel at.

When you’re a private in the military, there is no question that — no matter who you are or where you came from — you’re at the bottom of the totem pole. This is made very clear to you again and again, and the more you resist this mentality, the more you get beat down. The military is known for taking cocky people down a peg or ten.

Working your way up from this low rung on the ladder takes time and effort. However, after a while you finally feel like you’re no longer the bottom of the military barrel.

Then (assuming you ETS) you’re flung out into the civilian world, and things get a whole lot more complicated. There’s no ladder to climb, no frame of reference for where you stand, no clear path forward. Sure, it can be a much easier lifestyle in the sense that many things aren’t all that “hard,” but in this respect it is more complex.

A lot of guys respond to this by feeling like their military experience has earned them some inherent respect. Like their life experience entitles them to be fawned over, or that it ought to qualify them for a job that has nothing to do with the military.

I have a deep love and respect for my fellow veterans, but if you’re running a business then it’s reasonable to expect them to expect one thing first and foremost — the skill to complete the required job. A management position is probably going to go to someone in-house who, though they may not have managerial experience, understands the ins and outs of a functioning company — the practical day-to-day stuff.

Military experience is going to help in many careers — the military instills a lot of discipline, a strong work ethic, organizational skills, and other invaluable qualities (provided the individual can apply them outside the service) that many other people simply don’t have. And yet, the most important skill will always be the task at hand. All the organizational and disciplinary skills in the world don’t matter to a French linguist if you aren’t all that great at speaking French.

So you have to be willing to learn. You have to realize that you did, in fact, leave the military, which means you’re going to have to be a “private” in some new field. In the civilian world, people won’t knock you down a peg like they did in the Army — they’ll just not hire you at all. No one forces you to be better out here.

I have had to take more than one humble pill in new positions, understanding that just because I was good at something once doesn’t mean I know the nuances and practical skills of a journalist or a commercial editor. I have always done better when I came into a job thirsty to learn and humble to listen — trying to be the ideal private in an organization, who realizes their place, but will scramble their way to the top before anyone knows it.

So if you’re a veteran in the civilian world, and you’re working for a milk company — use your veteran experience, propel yourself forward, but realize that at the end of the day you’ve gotta go out and sell some milk. Get out there, embrace your new position, and thrive.

Never be too proud to do work that seems “stupid” or beneath you — even as an experienced veteran going to a place like college or into some cubicle-type job.

Featured image: Marine Corps Private Michael L. Riddle crawls under concertina wire during an event at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, Calif., March 23, 2016. Riddle, assigned to Delta Company, 1st Recruit Training Battalion, is graduating as a squad leader. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Tyler Viglione

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2 years ago

Master Luke, In the United States it is rare even for the active duty military to overly impress the great “civilian world…” Oh, in WWII a lad hitch-hiking anywhere in uniform would never see more than a few cars (if that) pass him by. (I found the same to be true in Rhodesia during the bush war.) But the great majority of citizens who have never served really don’t have a clue. You feel ahead of the game if they can recognize what branch of the service you’re in by your uniform. In one way it’s a bit sad. On… Read more »

2 years ago
Reply to  yankeepapausmc

Never mind, YP; I’m sure the lady didn’t mean any offense. 🙂

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