You may not realize it now, but part of who you are is about to disappear. The day you take off your uniform, nothing changes and everything changes in an instant. You might think that the military is just like any other job, but after talking to veterans, I have learned and experienced in my own life that the military has changed you and given you a purpose. It is more than a career.

Let Freedom Ring

As I counted down the days to my final day on active duty, the only thing I was focused on was freedom. No more worrying about deploying. No more worrying about how to keep my husband and me together as we both served in the military. No more endless PowerPoints. I had the freedom to do what I want and the security of making my own choices.

Then I left. And I realized that along with freedom, I also found myself floundering with what to do with this newfound freedom. I could do anything I wanted. I could continue my career in engineering. I could follow a path to be a stay-at-home mom. Or I could even build my own business that would give me freedom and flexibility I had never experienced in the military. But after so much time not having a choice of where I was going to live or what I was going to do, leaving the military was really hard.

Unbeknownst to me, I had tied my purpose and my identity to being an officer in the U.S. military. When I took off my uniform for the last time, I lost not only a piece of my identity, but also that driving purpose of where I was going and why I was doing what I was doing. I guess it was easy to make the sacrifices that were being asked while I continued to serve because I could always tie it to being part of something bigger than myself. But then I left. And it was just me. No higher purpose. No calling greater than myself.

At least that is what I thought. I really struggled when leaving. I had this notion that my greatest accomplishments in my life were now in the past. And at 28, I had nothing more to accomplish.

And while obviously, I had a lot more life to live and there were great things in the future to come. But for a few months after leaving the service, I really struggled with a hopeless feeling and doubted if I made the right choice to leave. But hindsight is 20/20, and now almost ten years later, I am so glad I left the military. And while it took time and a lot of hard work, missteps, and even failures, I’m so glad I started my next adventure.

3 Steps to Help You As You Transition Out of the Military

And because of my experience, I want to share things you can do in your transition to help you move forward after military life.

1. Pause and do some self reflection.

First, if you haven’t left yet, take some time to focus on yourself. I highly recommend getting resources and advice from veterans who have already transitioned out of the military. While the Transition Assistance Program is a resource that can help you get advice from veterans and can help you dive deeper into the emotions you may feel when leaving, I really like the work Leader Transition Institute is doing to help veterans as they transition from military to civilian. They understand the challenges veterans face. I also think that Graciela Tiscanero-Sato’s book B.R.A.N.D. Before Your Resume is a great resource for veterans. She encourages veterans to take time to think and reflect on who they want to be and what they want to do. She also offers courses and coaching to help veterans in their journey.

2. Don’t try to be perfect.

Once you leave the military and begin the next phase of life, give yourself grace. Give yourself time to adjust to your new life outside of military service. When people experience change or loss, psychologists say it can take up to 12-18 months to adjust. In today’s society, especially in the military, you’re told to be fine and to push past the grieving stage. But it is okay to not feel okay. It is okay to want to talk to someone about the feelings you have. And it is also okay to not be happy where you are and to pivot into something new. All the emotions you are feeling are normal. And while your military training can push you to ignore those emotions and just keep moving forward, know that it is important to deal with your emotions. It can help you discover not only what to do next, but to help you thrive in your post-military career.

3. Make your own path.

Lastly, know that life is not a straight line. There are a lot of twists and turns along the way. The military has helped you prepare for this. Use the tools you learned in the military to navigate your life forward. Veterans make great employees because we know how to solve problems and can think outside the box to find a solution. If you are at a company that doesn’t value your out-of-the-box thinking or limits you. Consider finding a new career. There are great programs to help you find a career, like free mentorship through Veterati. Vets2Industry holds monthly virtual networking events to help connect veterans with companies. There are so many resources to help you find not only your next career – but the right career.

Whatever you do, take time to focus on yourself. Leaving the military can be challenging but it is not the end. It is just the beginning.

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Amanda is a military spouse and veteran who served in the Air Force for six years as a Civil Engineer including a deployment to Afghanistan. She traded in her combat boots for a diaper bag to stay home with her two boys and follow her husband’s military career. She published her first book in 2019 titled Women of the Military, sharing the stories of 28 military women. In 2019 she also launched her podcast also titled Women of the Military. In 2020, she was published as a collaborative author in Brave Women Strong Faith. And in 2021, she launched a YouTube channel to help young women answer their questions about military life, Girl’s Guide to the Military. You can learn more about Amanda at her blog Airman to Mom.