Transitioning from an active-duty servicemember into the civilian world can be a harrowing experience if one is unprepared. The Department of Defense (DoD) has recently made great strides at improving preparation for transition, as you will read below.
But it is always prudent to seek the wisdom of influencers who are currently navigating transition and examine what they did to ensure their success.
I recently had the good fortune to sit down with Dr. Larry Parker Jr., LtCol. USMC (Ret.), who spent 24 years in the United States Marine Corps (USMC). He is currently a program director and associate professor in the School of Business with American Military University.
Dr. Parker’s research interests include transportation and logistics, supply chain management and organization management. His time in the USMC included duty as a supply officer and inspector general, among many other leadership positions.
Wes: Dr. Parker, thank you so much for your time today. Can you start by telling us a little about your military background?
Dr. Parker: Sure. My father was in the U.S. Army and I moved all around. I believe it was my first year of college that I had a tutor who happened to be a Marine. That had a great deal of influence on me. I call it “my last rebellious act” when I decided to go into the Marines, instead of following my father into the Army.
After becoming commissioned, I started my military career as a supply officer and my first duty station was in Japan. My family loved it so much that we spent six years there. I learned a lot about logistics and supply chain management in the Far East, and then I came back and moved around to command positions on the East Coast and West Coast. In addition, I did a Pacific tour on ship and also a tour in Afghanistan.
After that, I was with Headquarters Marine Corps (HQMC) in various positions in Personnel and Reserve Affairs. I then left to serve as the senior logistician within the 1st Military Aircraft Wing in Japan for a year. That led me to my last positions within Marine Corps Forces Central Command, where our operational focus was the Middle East. My last position was Inspector General, also known as the eyes and ears of the general. 24 years as a whole!
Wes: It seems like most of your career was dealing with logistics and organizational management, which will really serve you well in the next stage of your life.
Dr. Parker: Indeed. I would say that before we recognized in the commercial market how interconnected the world is through global commerce, we got to see it in the military. Shipping things all over the world. I could see how things were connected, and how we got things to and from the US to the Far East.
Wes: You are currently going through the process of transitioning out of the military after 24 years. How does enlistees properly prepare for that transition? How soon should they start thinking about it?
Dr. Parker: They need to start planning two years in advance, minimum. The DoD has really improved its emphasis on transition readiness. They stress going to transition courses one year out.
But there is a lot to absorb the first time. I say two years. There are a number of universities that offer transfer credit evaluations for college credit and other factors that you really need to plan early for.
Having said that, I have watched some horror stories of individuals who didn’t prepare themselves well. They believed that they would just step out and there would be something waiting for them. I know of a Sergeant Major in the Army who didn’t take advantage of his education benefits and then start panicking because he didn’t prepare.
Wes: That’s a great segue into college, which is a huge benefit that active-duty servicemembers and veterans have available to them. Is there any path that’s preferable than any other?
Dr. Parker: For me, it’s really about planning where you want to land and what you want to do. In the military, we often talk about finding out what we want to do when we get out.
In transition programs, they have assessments that are supposed to point you toward your career strengths. If you already have something in mind that you want to do with your life, find out what the credentials are and then work backward.
So if the career you want requires a bachelor’s degree in X, start taking those steps that will get you to your end goal. Find out where you want to land and identify the requirements. Then, it becomes that much easier to fill it in with the institutions that offer it.
I had a general officer once who gave me some of the greatest advice I had ever received. She said the hardest part is starting.
It sounds too simple. Back then, I slept on it for a while. But once you start your registration and start your classes, it becomes much easier.
For younger servicemembers who may only be doing a short, four-year term, just get started. Your general studies will take some time anyway, and you will have plenty of time to shift your focus after you get started.
Wes: I hear you. My own daughter just started at APU in Environmental Studies, and getting her started was the biggest challenge.
Dr. Parker: Absolutely. But if you’ll remember, since you used tuition reimbursement at AMU, you got into a routine. Pick your classes, register, get reimbursed. And repeat the cycle.
Wes: Some of our best instructors can be our mistakes. Is there a time that you want to share that you made a mistake and what you did to correct it?
Dr. Parker: Sure. It’s funny and it’s tied to logistics, but I remember recognizing that just because you read of a new technique to make something more efficient doesn’t mean that it’s ready for deployment in every case. The story that I like to share is that of being the young, typical lieutenant that’s going to make a mistake as soon as the commanding officer is not around. I was that guy.
I remember having facilities upon facilities of new government equipment, and I had just read about these streamlined ways to make things faster. I had this old staff NCO who was stressing “Sir, just take your time; make sure everything is signed for before it goes out.”
I remember that he was going Temporary Assigned Duty (TAD) or as the Army calls it Temporary Duty (TDY) away for some training and I took it upon myself to say, “We’re going to become more efficient and we’re going to clear everything out of this warehouse” while he was gone. I knew it was going to go out of my warehouse to exactly where it was supposed to go.
At first, it appeared to be working. People are taking things out of my warehouse. I’m seeing success. Everything is moving fast, and then it comes time to go out and get signatures for everything that was out of my warehouse. This was well before in-transit visibility.
So, I go to the new facility and I’m walking around. By the way, I couldn’t have been more than two years into my job. I’m a brand-new 2nd Lieutenant.
I remember coming up to the form for a $70,000 piece of equipment and it’s the last item on my list. My heart sinks because it’s nowhere to be found. I’m running around asking everybody, and I can’t sleep for days. My staff NCO gets back the next day.
He comes back, looks at me and smiles. We get in the car and drove past the building that we thought where that equipment was supposed to be. We went to the other organization that I was dealing with, went in and found the piece of equipment in the very back with a blanket on it.
He saved the day. I thought I was going to be fired as a supply officer.
The upside is that I learned something from it. You can’t short-change a process. Some things are done for a reason. Even in the era of in-transit visibility, there is a process that sometimes has to be honored, even in the most rudimentary manner.
Wes: That’s great. We all had our Army infantry jokes about the new lieutenant getting lost in the field while doing land navigation. Good to see that the stereotype is alive and well. [laughs] But the good news is that there is a light at the end of your story. A learning moment. Some procedures are there for a reason.
Dr. Parker: Exactly. But there was another benefit of doing it the old way. And that is it taught me patience and discipline to do a process. In my case, you saw the meeting of the young guy who wanted innovation and the old guy who knew that, especially in that last tactical mile, only so much can be done differently.
Wes: So, looking at your resume, you’re a Ph.D., 24 years in the USMC, an educator. At that level, where it seems like you’ve maxed out, how do you continue to develop as a leader? It seems like you’re at that peak. How do you identify skills that need improvement?
Dr. Parker: I try my best to be a practitioner. I always try to stay involved in logistics. The biggest thing is to never stop learning.
In fact, reading for me is huge. It’s a skill that doesn’t get enough credit. I say it’s a skill because you have to read it and digest it. I am always learning. In the outside world, I like to mentor small business owners in procedure and process.
Wes: What book are you reading right now?
I’m reading three: Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us by Seth Godin, The Dip: A Little Book That Teaches You When to Quit (and When to Stick) also by Godin, and Crush It!: Why NOW Is the Time to Cash In on Your Passion by Gary Vaynerchuk.
Wes: I love Seth Godin. There is a great book by him called Purple Cow about how to stand out in your marketing. The idea is that as you’re driving down the highway and seeing dozens of black, white and brown cows, once you see that purple cow, you’re going to take notice.
So, what does the future hold for you? Continuing in education?
Dr. Parker: I’ve always had an entrepreneurial drive and I love motivation. I love helping other people realize their potential.
As I transition, I want to continue to teach and I have some entrepreneurial ideas to explore as well. I do have a passion for helping others. I am definitely open to speaking opportunities.
Wes: I think you would have some amazing insights to share with an audience. Dr. Parker, thank you again for your time. I’m excited to see what you do as a civilian!
Dr. Parker: Thanks, Wes, it was my pleasure.
By Wes O’Donnell
Managing Editor, InMilitary.com. Veteran, U.S. Army & U.S. Air Force