Veterans understand the potential of another man or woman making the transition from military to civilian life.
During her 25 and a half years in the Air Force, Lt. Col. Terri Wilcox worked as a human resources manager, oversaw curriculum development at squadron officers school and did a command tour overseeing airmen and officers. She also did stints at Prince Sultan Air Base in Al Kharj, Saudi Arabia charged with casualty reporting and accountability, at Joint Forces Staff College National Defense University and Special Operations Command US Joint Forces Command. While in the service, she earned a master’s degree in public administration and human resource management.
When she retired she moved with her husband to his hometown of Montrose in western Colorado. There, she applied to be executive director of a local transit authority and was brought in to an organization experiencing some turmoil after the sudden departure of her predecessor. The chairman of the board of the transit authority had been in the military.
“He and his board of directors hired me and it wasn’t for my knowledge of transit, although in the military you know a tiny bit about a lot of different things because you do a little bit of everything,” Wilcox told me. “He hired me because he needed someone to bring their team together. He knew that a military person had the training and had the wherewithal and the strength to lead a team. And I did that for them.”
Civilians with little knowledge of the military might not understand the depth and breadth of skills gained during a career in the Air Force, Navy, Marines or Army. And former servicemembers may not themselves understand what they know.
“You don’t know what you can do and how your skills translate into a civilian job,” said Kathryn Wirkus, who served 27 years in the Air Force, helping develop training programs and taking part in humanitarian work. When she retired in 2006, she first found work for the state of Colorado advising fellow vets on their benefits. She later worked as a community outreach officer for a member of Congress.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the national unemployment rate was 20.4 percent among young veterans of the conflicts since 9/11. That compared with 15 percent of nonveterans in that category.
Welcome Home Montrose, the grassroots support organization for vets I write about in “Home of the Brave”, tried to address the difficult transition former fighters face on many fronts, including employment. Welcome Home Montrose brought wounded vets to town to take up unpaid internships. One vet shadowed a high school teacher, another helped the city plan events and a third was placed at a farm. The idea was to give them a low-stress opportunity to explore their options and abilities.
Wilcox, who later moved to a job as human resources director for the city of Montrose, said her own experience can be instructive for others making the transition that she did.
“When I first got out of the military I felt like I could contribute to the community,” she said. “But at first I tended to come off a little formal and standoffish. I had to learn to remember to come in to work and say good morning and smile and do a little bit of small talk. Because in the military, it’s not that nobody talked to each other. We did. But we were always focused on mission. Even in meetings, we had a lot of camaraderie and team work, but it was all about the mission. And I get a kick out of it sometimes when folks tell me, ‘Hey, Terri, you know, you’re coming to a small town now, the pace is a lot slower, you’re going to have to take a deep breath and slow down a little bit.’
”In actuality, when I got hired for the two jobs I’ve had since I’ve been here, the All Points Transit and now the city, they needed someone who can focus on getting the mission done, AND smile and say good morning. My military background has led me to this. The training. The level of trust. All of the military bearing. All of that has prepared me to be a productive member of society. From military to civilian, it definitely is a transition.
"I would offer to those that are getting out: 'Take a deep breath. You can do it.'”