Military 401: Understanding the Culture and Mindset of Today's Veteran

By Justin Constantine with Andrew Morton July 3, 2018
This article is excerpted from Chapter 1, "Military 401," of From We Will To At Will: A Handbook for Veteran Hiring, Transitioning, and Thriving in the Workplace (SHRM, 2018), by Justin Constantine with Andrew Morton.

We've titled this chapter of the book "Military 401" for a very specific reason. Many veteran-hiring resources focus on providing employers with lists of military service–related mottos, duty descriptions, and rank insignias. While these pieces of information are certainly valuable, we felt that it was necessary to move from this "Military 101" to the graduate 401 level by demystifying who veterans are and what they can and will bring to your organization.

For most veterans, our time in uniform is defined by both passion and purpose and there's a sobering reality that strikes us as we wear it for the final time, transitioning from the "we will" culture of the military to the "at will" reality of the civilian workforce. It's not the rank on the collar of the awards across the chest that defined that experience; rather, it's the collective sense of belonging and feeling of making a difference that some veterans worry they may never recapture. That's why picking the job that's right rather than one that's right now is so very important. Serving in an organization that understands and appreciates the challenges of assimilation and the inherent value veterans bring to the organization makes all the difference in the world.

Most service members who transition do so of their own accord, in their own time, and the overwhelming majority do so long before retirement. In fact, according to Department of Defense statistics, in 2015 only 17 percent of service members departed with a retirement pension. So, given that few reach that retirement milestone and most know they are leaving a part of them behind, the question remains: Why do service members leave the military?

Of course, the military is an extremely diverse organization, full of individuals who have unique perspectives on life, and each person makes decisions based on their own set of circumstances. 

Nevertheless, here are three reasons that many veterans cite:

  1. Stability over Service—Since September 11, 2001, roughly 2.7 million service members have been deployed to combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan combined. This does not account for the hundreds of thousands of other active duty, Reserve, and National Guard service members who've been forward deployed to other overseas duty stations and military posts in support of more than a decade and a half of continuous combat operations. The long-term effects of this "optempo" (operational tempo) have certainly had an impact on many who've served in our all-volunteer force during this unprecedented period. Perhaps, even more importantly, this pace of deployments has influenced military families: the adage is that recruiters enlist Soldiers, Marines, Sailors, and Airmen; recruiters reenlist families. So many veterans have had to make the choice between serving their country and managing the effects of multiple deployments on their families, and over recent years, several military careers have been cut short by the reality of needing to choose stability over service.
  2. Bureaucracy and Opportunity—Despite the fact that it is the best trained, best resourced, and most professional military in the world, there are certain constraints felt by the US Armed Forces. While there is a very specific career path for the professional development of both enlisted service members and officers alike—across all branches—the reality is that there is not a significant amount of individual flexibility, in either the timetables or the opportunities for advancement. In short, while high-achieving service members value their opportunity to serve their country, they feel at times that the built-in bureaucracy of the services stifles their professional growth.
  3. Time for a New Challenge—Beyond deployments, family considerations, and opportunities for career growth, there are veterans who quite simply find themselves looking for a new challenge. The very spirit that inspired them to join the military in the first place causes them to accept a new challenge outside of uniform. In fact, most service members what to do something very different from what they did in uniform when they transition, whether that's getting an MBA and starting a corporate career, teaching middle school, or starting their own business. These veterans have fulfilled their goal of serving their country and are ready for that next purpose-driven mission.

A quarter of a million veterans transition each year. They head to universities, trade schools, private companies, the government sector, and non-profits, and start their own businesses. All of their new career journeys are simultaneously unique and similar. Now that you have a better understanding of the reasons they've decided to transition from military service, it's time to take a closer look at who today's veteran workforce really is.

How do we educate and empower both the veteran and the organization to take advantage of opportunities and create hiring programs that are good business for everyone? We start by breaking down the barriers of communication and dispelling the myths and misperceptions these barriers have created. Then, we find common ground where businesses, hiring managers, and HR professionals see veterans for who they are: ordinary human beings who've earned and learned some remarkable skills through extraordinary circumstances, and who now aspire to bring those skills into the everyday workplace in a meaningful way. If you label veterans "heroes' based solely on our appreciation for their service in uniform, you effectively keep them at arm's length and are no closer to appreciating the everyday value they can bring to your organization. At the same time, if veterans continue to feel that they are misunderstood (as 70-90 percent indicated in a recent University of Southern California study) and their skill sets are underappreciated, then they too will perpetuate this continual cycle of misperception. Both parties have a responsibility to find common ground. While the divide in communication and understanding certainly exists, it's certainly not born of ill will, and that's news that should inspire veterans and organizations alike.  


Justin Constantine retired from the US Marine Corps at the rank of lieutenant colonel. He is now an inspirational speaker and veteran advocate. He speaks at numerous corporate, educational, and military institutions about leadership, the upside of change, teamwork, and overcoming adversity. Justin is also a partner at JobPath, a robust veteran employment platform that provides a variety of solutions to corporations, government agencies, and non-profit organizations that hire veterans.

Please visit the SHRMStore to order your copy of From We Will To At Will: A Handbook for Veteran Hiring, Transitioning, and Thriving in the Workplace by Justin Constantine with Andrew Morton



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