For many service members and their families, the U.S. military is a one-stop shop: Work, school, shopping and social activities are often on base, and it is easy to build connections and make friends who become like family.
But what happens when military life ends? Starting over in a new place where you don’t instantly have something in common with your neighbors and coworkers can be tough—especially if your military career included multiple Permanent Change of Station moves.
Those who have successfully transitioned from military to civilian life say that it can be a challenge, but one of the main ways to make it work is to not hide away.
“It’s all about putting yourself out there,” said Mike Abrams, a lieutenant colonel in the Marine Corps reserves and founder and president of FourBlock. FourBlock is a non-profit that helps military personnel transitioning to civilian life find meaningful employment, but Abrams said at the heart of the mission is building relationships—and those relationships help transitioning service members make connections both in and out of the workplace.
“We’re working to bridge that military/civilian divide,” he said.
The military can be an insular group, and even though most service men and women were civilians at one point, years in the service can be isolating—making it challenging to maintain relationships with friends and family on the outside.
“I’ve moved 10 times,” said Carla Miller, a military spouse and senior manager and Career Connector for Hiring Our Heroes, a program of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation that connects the military community (servicemembers, their spouses and veterans) with companies for employment opportunities.
In Miller’s experience, service men and women sometimes struggle to transition after they “take the uniform off,” so to speak. Military life provides a mission and a purpose, and finding that similar feeling once service is over isn’t always seamless.
“I encourage people to volunteer, build your network at the local level,” Miller said. “Join a veteran’s group or seek out a veteran’s employee resource group at your job and if one doesn’t exist, start one.”
Brynt Parmeter, who retired as a colonel after serving more than 20 years in the U.S. Army, first spent time working in the technology field in California before becoming the Senior Director of Military Programs for Walmart two years ago.
“Transitioning to civilian life can be stressful,” Parmeter said. “You start to not know who you are outside of the uniform and you can get comfortable in military service.
“Your network is closed and tight.”
For him, and other veterans, branching out and meeting new people isn’t easy, as people have misconceptions about the military and it can be hard to find common ground.
Miller and Parmeter said the key is networking and being willing to take risks and starting up conversations with new people. Starting small—like joining your child’s school PTO or chatting up a neighbor—are some ways to get the ball rolling. Volunteering is a great way to meet people, Miller said, and it also provides the sense of purpose and helping-others aspect that the military provided.
Finding a new community inside of work is something that helps too, Parmeter said. Many companies have employee resource groups for veterans or service men and women, and that can be a great place to make new friends.
Melissa Stirling is the senior director for Military Programs for Hilton and runs its Operation: Opportunity program that places former military personnel within the company. Hilton has several groups for former military personnel and is serious about helping their employees who served make connections—and build their social networks.
“Our groups allow our employees to connect with each other within Hilton,” she said. “And the people who have been here for a while look out for the new people to form those social connections so no one feels alone.”