Making the Transition from Military to Civilian Life

Dennis Wilson

By Dennis Wilson | November 8, 2016

I joined the Navy for personal reasons. I had dropped out of college, and I felt lost. My great uncle told me stories about my grandfather and how serving in the Navy had changed his life. That got me thinking that it might help me by bringing some discipline to my life and move me in the right direction. My mom was against it, but joining the Navy turned out to be the best decision I ever made.

Once I was in, I came to understand that I was part of a bigger purpose. My daily work contributed to our national security and served America’s best interests, and therefore, the interests of my family back home. It was a wake-up call for me.

After four years, I left the military to return to college. The change from military to college life was surreal. My first semester at Penn State was set to begin ten days before I was scheduled to separate from the Navy, so I requested an early separation. This required getting the head of admissions at Penn State to write my commanding officer. Months went by, yet I had heard nothing, until one day when I was working on the flight deck in the Red Sea and someone pulled me aside and said, “The Skipper wants to see you.” I was told that I was going home early and given only a few hours to pack. From the carrier in the Red Sea I flew to Sicily, and from Sicily to Spain and then to Philadelphia. I landed in Philadelphia and in just a few days started school at Penn State.

I was older than my classmates, and I felt very out of place. But I knew what I wanted to achieve, so I relied on the discipline I learned in the Navy. I realized it was my job to assimilate and adapt, not theirs. Ultimately, I ended up doing very well at school, both academically and socially, but those first several months were difficult.

My transition into a career at Penn Mutual is also a great story. I was working as an implementation specialist for a benefits consulting firm. I enjoyed the work, but my first child had just been born and I wanted a work environment that allowed me to be home more often with my family. I did a computer search for “Best Places to Work in Pennsylvania,” and up came The Penn Mutual Life Insurance Company, which was only eight miles from my house.

I laid siege to Penn Mutual, spending six months networking with people to find my way in. Finally, someone put me in touch with Shannah Halper, who worked at Penn Mutual. Shannah did some digging for me and sent me a few job descriptions for positions that were being posted internally. I applied for one, interviewed for it, and was hired.

What impresses me most about working at Penn Mutual is not just how friendly everyone is but also how the work enables you to contribute to a bigger, larger purpose. This is very similar to the feeling I had when I was in the Navy, and I think that connection should be a very important part of anyone’s career but especially for veterans looking to enter the civilian workforce.

My advice to someone coming out of the military and facing a transition to civilian life:

Start early. Start thinking about your transition earlier than 30 days before separation. It would be better to start a year in advance, thinking about what you want your life to be like when you get out. Do you want to go to college? What kind of a trade would be a good fit for you? Are you married with a family? How should you think about the transition for your family? Starting early gives you time to explore your options and plan your path.

Get ready for inspection. When you’re in the service, inspection is a fact of life. In civilian life, you are also going to be evaluated by potential employers and academic advisors. They will make judgments about you based on what they see. Things like your social media presence, the email name you use, the clothes you wear — all of these are practical things that will go a long way to give your appearance a bit of spit and polish.

Become “bilingual.” Civilians don’t understand military language, so it will be hard to describe your experiences during your military career. With a little bit of effort, you can translate what you did in the military into language that can help others understand your experience; during a job interview, for example.

Be bold. The work you’ve done and the experiences you’ve had while in the service are powerful examples that can be translated into the civilian working world. It might be difficult to explain it the first time, but don’t give up. Try and describe it in various ways to different people to see what works best. Also, let your potential employer know that you can be counted on. Don’t be modest.

Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. There is no one path to success in civilian life, and you shouldn’t waste time waiting for any one opportunity. If you’re trying to go to college, apply to multiple colleges. If you’re using job boards, use multiple job boards. If you have a good interview with one potential employer, keep talking to others. Start talking to different veteran’s organizations, such as the Travis Manion Foundation and the local VFW. Talk to others who have already gone through this process. Ask for their help. Spread your wings a little bit and see what opportunities emerge for you.

This coming Veteran’s Day, you will have a chance to hear me interviewed live on the radio. Talk Radio 1210 WPHT will be broadcasting from the lobby of Penn Mutual’s headquarters bright and early that morning. I’ll be joining some other Penn Mutual associates who’ve been invited to speak about their experiences as veterans. This special event will be covered on Penn Mutual’s Facebook page as well. Please join me.

Leave a Reply