Category Archives: Veterans

Military to Civilian Transition Thoughts

I transitioned from active duty to civilian life in 2009, following five years of service in the US Army.    While our nation’s military continues to be at war in Afghanistan, budget pressures and draw down plans point to a likelihood that many veterans will make a similar transition in the coming years.  For those who are considering this path, here are some words of advice and things to think about.

What matters most to you and why?  I stole this directly from Stanford GSB application, but I feel it is a particularly important question for one to consider when making a career change.  Your job/career will be a major part of your life and identity for the foreseeable future, why not target a career, role, or company that you are passionate about?  Do not feel the need to just find a job, start by looking for the perfect job … one that fits what matters most to you.  Start the introspection process while you are still on active duty if possible.

Perhaps what matters most is the time you spend with your kids or family.  That is great, and hopefully you will then target a career that affords you a good work life balance, likely at the expense of higher pay or promotion opportunities.  Or maybe higher pay and career progression, or international opportunities, experience in certain roles or industries, or working towards a specific cause or solution is most important to you.

Once you have identified what matters most to you, use it as a prism though which to analyze career choices.  If your career choices do not match with what matters most, then you need to ask yourself why.  Are you being honest with yourself about what matters most or are you not focusing on what matters most?  We often try to justify that we’re just on a stepping stone towards being happy, but how long until you get there?  You’ll have the most opportunity to make major career changes when you are younger – it does not get easier with time.  Go for it now!

Career Management & Choices.  Most branches of the military use some form of career or assignment manager, but the old adage is that you are your best career manager.  In the civilian world, you are your only career manager, and there are infinite career paths to take.  This is both scary and exciting.

It scary because the first thing you’ll feel is overwhelmed by the potential choices and opportunities.  You won’t quite know where to start, and you’ll likely feel pressure to just find something and/or look at roles related specifically to jobs you did in the military (government or defense/security industry).  While everyone will have their own personal financial runway, to the extent you can take time to exercise the new found freedom of choice and align your career with what matters most to you, I recommend doing so.

You’ll also soon discover the wonderful freedom of being able to change jobs when you want (obviously subject to your ability to land a new role, but that’s now on you, not an assignments manager).  It will be more work than it was in the military to find a new role, but you have control and influence over your destiny.

Do I need to go to school?  I often get asked about the necessity for heading to school as a transition vehicle for service members.  My reply is often the same, “Well, it depends.  Why do you want to go to school?”  School is a great transition vehicle, but it is also a very expensive and time consuming one.

For those without a degree already, I would definitely recommend using your GI Bill to pursue your bachelors degree from a reputable university or a solid technical or apprenticeship type program.  Be smart in the program you choose though, a degree needs to provide you the skills or training you need to be a value added employee – it’s not a check-the-box effort.  Use your benefits wisely.

For those considering graduate school, make sure you give some thought to what you expect to get out of the experience.  Graduate school is a great opportunity, but is costly (particularly when you consider the opportunity cost of forgone salary).  Don’t pursue an expensive degree that does not move you towards a career you want.

Interviewing & Resumes.  You’ll also need to be comfortable with managing your resume and interviewing.  You need to sell yourself, something that many from the military are uncomfortable with.  This does not mean you need to forget about the importance of teamwork, but you do need to learn how to focus on your role in the team, the skills you developed, and the accomplishments you directly impacted.  You need to become a good story teller, not to mislead anyone but to succinctly connect the dots of your career choices and to articulate the value you bring to the organization. (Watch Steve Jobs’ Stanford Commencement Speech, he has great advice.)  Focus on how you can help reduce your would-be bosses’ pain points or help solve major challenges for the organization.

Reserves or National Guard?  You’ll also need to make a decision on whether to stay in the Reserves, National Guard, or Inactive Reserve (assuming you have completed 8 years of service, otherwise you are required to be in one until you hit 8 years total).  There is no right answer, choose what is best for you, your family, and your career path. Staying in the USAR or ARNG can bring much needed Tricare Reserve Select health insurance benefits, particularly if you are trying to start your own company or working for a company without a solid healthcare plan.  Continued service also keeps you in uniform and eligible for some level of retirement benefits.  Do not feel, however, that you need to stay in uniform to serve your country.  There are plenty of opportunities to do that as a civilian and your service in uniform to date is something you can always be proud of.

Networking.  Tied to the freedom of choice is the importance of networking.  There’s an old saying, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.”  There is some truth to that.  There is some value in the size of your network, but more important is the quality of your network.  You build a quality network by doing great work, taking advantage of networking opportunities having intelligent conversations with people (requires doing your homework), and being diligent in following up with people.  As you prepare to transition, get yourself a LinkedIn account (they are also currently offering veterans free upgraded membership).  Use the account to reach out to other veterans that may be working at companies or in roles that you think you may be interested in, and reach out to them to schedule a short call to discuss their company, role, and similar types of roles they can recommend.  You may also want to consider checking out RallyPoint, a new professional network site exclusively for veterans.  Service Academy graduates can also use the iSABRD.  Following up with people on these networks after you meet them, and always include a short note to remind them who you are unless they know you well.  You’ll find having folks submit your resume internally for a role will be far more successful then simply applying to a job, so build that network!

Mentors. These are important in the military, but they are particularly important in the civilian world.  Find experienced folks who will help mentor you.  Don’t chase big names or higher ranking individuals who are far removed from your career, focus on folks who are a few levels above of you.

Budget.  Spend some time reviewing your budget and retirement plan once you have settled in.  You may make a higher salary on the outside (or you may not), but you will not likely have similar retirement benefits or allowances.  Make sure you plan for your future accordingly.

These are just a few thoughts, and they reflect the opinion of just one person, so take it for what it is worth.  Feel free to reach out to me on LinkedIn if you have any questions.


Letter from General J.M. Wainwright, WWII Commander

Great letter from a WWII Commander.  Letter from General J.M. Wainwright, WWII Commander

My Kaleidoscope of Moments

Another great post from Joel Peterson, one of my professors from grad school. If you are active on LinkedIn, I recommend following him. He turns out a lot of high quality posts.

Waupaca, WI, 1994 – A Teacher Suggests Military Academies: One of my teachers (Joan Schultz) suggests I think about attending one of the military academies, as they seemed a good fit for someone who loved sports and was doing well in academics. I was intrigued and set it as a target. It was the first time I really focused on a long term goal.

Waupaca, WI, 2000 – The Medical Waiver: A month prior to high school graduation I had lost my spot at West Point because the medical waiver for my ACL reconstruction had not gone through. Two weeks later, the waiver was approved and I went on the waiting list. Two days before graduation, I was offered an appointment. I learned that things work themselves out in good time.

West Point, NY, 2000 – Stay or Resign?: A few months into my first academic year at West Point and I was considering leaving. No one would have called H3 an easy company with the likes of John MorrisJonathan HopkinsJoe Palen, and others. I had had a particularly difficult week and was leaning more towards resignation, but great classmates like Jason HolbrookAdam KingNathan StricklandRyan ClearyTim Hsia, and many others were there to help. I really learned what teamwork and a brotherhood was.

USAFA, CO, 2002 – Failure: After two poor jumps, I was booted from the USAF Free Fall School.  It was embarrassing and tough to handle the fact that I had failed out of the course, as exchange cadets were generally expected to easily pass both jump school and glider school while at USAFA. But things are always how you shape them – I also succeeded in twice surviving a jump and free fall from a perfectly good airplane.

West Point, NY, 2001 – 9/11: The world changed for everyone on 9/11, but particularly for those in the military. On 9/10, war was hard to picture, but 9/11 would be the start of our nation’s longest span of combat ever, which certainly shapes us all.

Fort Rucker, AL, 2004 – No Flying: After a lot of searching, I had finally found a great career path for me in the military … a MEDEVAC pilot (DUSTOFF). Shortly after arrival at Fort Rucker for flight school, I was medically disqualified due to a back condition that makes me prone to lower back pain (which I had entered West Point with). There was nothing I could do about it, except embrace whichever alternative path I chose.

Fort Huachuca, AZ, 2005 – Not Dennis: I had just returned from a morning run when I received word that my friend, classmate, and fellow B3 Bandit Dennis Zilinski had been killed by an IED in Iraq. The shit got real that day — our class was at war.

Pakistan, 2006 – Helping Others: In Pakistan to help deliver aid in the wake of a massive earthquake, we were warmly greeted by almost all Pakistanis I encountered. Many remarked that they never thought Americans cared. Let’s first look for ways to work together and help one another before we vilify a country, a race, or a religion.

Camp Taji, Iraq, 2007 – Not Always A Reason: On 23 June 2007, SGT William Brown of C/2-227 AVN was killed by mortar fire as he pre-flighted his MEDEVAC aircraft. He was the first and the only member of 2-227 Aviation, my unit, to be killed on our 15 month tour in Iraq. SGT Brown was a great soldier and a great person. Some things in life just cannot be explained.

Seoul, Korea, 2008 – Yoomi.  I met a girl, and fell in love.

Isaka Village, Tanna Island, Vanuatu, 2009 – We Define Our Happiness: The villagers of this island nation live in “rich poverty”. They have almost no money, but food grows abundantly and water is generally available. They could use more antibiotics and dental care, but health is good in many folks. I’ve never seen more cheerful kids. We define our own happiness.

These are the ones that come immediately to mind for me. What are your moments?


For Country & Corps

For Country & Corps

Memorial Day … it’s not just a day off, a day to BBQ, or a day to thank a veteran … it’s a day to honor and remember those who have made the ultimate sacrifice while serving in the armed forces. This weekend my thoughts are with Garrison Avery, Ben Britt, Camden Bock, Michael Cerrone, Ryan Dennison, David Fraser, Jason Holbrook, Paul Pena, Robert Seidel, Adam Synder, Daniel Whitten, Dennis “Dezil” Zilinski, David Hortman, Jacob Fritz, and the thousands of others who proceeded them. For country and corps – 2004 … well done, be thou at peace.

“It is foolish and wrong to mourn the men who died. Rather we should thank God that such men lived.” ~ General Patton

In Rain, an Omen of War

“New Cadet Wilson, it’s raining on your R-Day! Do you know what that means?”

“No ma’am!”

“It means your class is going to war! Let me see your war face!”


June 29, 2000, was Reception Day for the West Point Class of 2004, as I and many others reported for “Beast Barracks.” While the dot-com bubble had burst a few months earlier, the notion of going to war at that time seemed a bit ridiculous. As a kid I watched as the Berlin Wall fell and as Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf and the American military led a coalition that took “100 hours to kick the ass of the world’s fourth largest army.”1 Who the heck would we possibly fight?

Not only did it pour on my R-Day, but the rain continued relentlessly for much of the summer. It was such a formative part of my class’s experience, that we designed a storm cloud into our class crest as a symbol of the trials and tribulations we had to overcome to become commissioned officers. Little did I know that rain would come to symbolize for me something much deeper.

Just over a year later on Sept. 11 — a beautiful fall day ironically — the world and our lives changed forever. While my class had not yet committed to military service at this time (that occurs in your junior year), there was not a large exodus. We became more focused as cadets, particularly as operations began in Afghanistan and talk of Iraq began to percolate. We graduated in May 2004, excited and anxious for the challenges that came with joining an Army that was very much at war. But, like most of America, I did not yet fully appreciated what being at war meant.

While announcements of members of the Long Grey Line killed in action were made during midday meals, the wars still had failed to touch me personally. That changed in November 2005, when I returned from a morning work out session at Fort Huachuca in Arizona to an e-mail from a classmate, Duane, that began “I f***ing don’t know how to f***ing say it, and I don’t really even f***ing believe it. Dennis was killed in a roadside bomb yesterday.” I sat there numb, not really sure what to do or think. Dennis Zilinski, my good friend and fellow B-3 Bandit, was the first member of my class killed in combat. The wars became very real that day.

Less than a year later, in October 2006, I arrived at Camp Taji, north of Baghdad, as the intelligence officer for First Air Cavalry Brigade, First Cavalry Division. The situation in Iraq was dire — casualties were mounting for American forces, and levels of violence among the populace were at an all-time high. Within my first 90 days in country, four more classmates were killed in action. Our class total stood at eight.

I became numb to the news of another death. While by most measures my experience as a staff officer for an aviation unit in Iraq was safe and with amenities, it did not come without a toll. While the situation on the ground in Iraq vastly improved over the course of my tour due to a number of different factors, I was mentally and emotionally exhausted after 15 months when my unit returned home in December 2007.

I left active duty in the summer of 2009, upon the completion of my service obligation, and headed to graduate school. I soon realized how easily you detach from the events of Iraq and Afghanistan. I better understood the “rest of America’s” story and people’s seeming ambivalence toward the wars. The numbness began to wear off, and I was hit hard in July 2010 when my plebe-year roommate, Jason Holbrook, was killed by an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan. Of those who entered West Point that rainy summer of 2000, Jason was the 13th killed in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, the most of any class. 2 As we were told we would on our Reception Day, my class very much went to war.

For me, that storm cloud in our crest stands not for the trials and tribulations posed by the weather that first summer, but rather for those resulting from the loss of friends and comrades and the challenge of honoring the sacrifice those lost in combat have made.

The other day, as President Obama announced that all American forces would be out of Iraq by the end of the year, I could not help but feel mixed emotions. On one hand, I felt excitement hearing of the drawdown and hope that Iraqis can take their country in a positive direction. On the other hand, I felt sadness and wondered if it was all worth it. Was it worth 4,400 killed, 32,000 wounded, according to the Department of Defense, and more than $1 trillion? Is Iraq better off, America better off, or the world a safer place due to our efforts? Why was our military at war, but not the rest of America? Did I make a difference? Could I have done more?

As I begin life outside of the military, I am faced with a constant inner struggle. Having been in Iraq during “the surge” and studied at Stanford where we are challenged to “change the world,” the projects of the private sector often feel uninspiring. I went to West Point because I wanted to be a leader and have a significant impact, and the same holds true today. However, the experience of these wars has taught me that more important than the size of the impact is where you have it. While each passing rainstorm elicits some painful memories of fallen comrades, it also promotes an introspective review of my life choices. I need to do something Jason or Dennis would be proud of, something worthy of their sacrifice.

1. “100 hours to kick the ass of the world’s fourth largest army” quote comes from a speech by General Schwarzkopf to the corps of cadets in May 1991.
2. There are officially 12 members of the class of 2004 killed in Iraq. I include a 13th, Jacob N. Fritz, in the total because he was originally a member of the 2004 class, though he graduated with the class of 2005.

Jim Wilson is a 2004 graduate of the United States Military Academy and a graduate of the Stanford Graduate School of Business. He currently works as a program manager for Lab126, the Amazon subsidiary responsible for designing the Kindle e-reader. He served as a military intelligence officer for five years, with service in Iraq, Pakistan and South Korea. Follow him on Twitter at @wilsonj12.

As published in NY Times At War blog, 11 November 2011,