What they don't tell you about the transition...one veteran's (mis)adventures in the civilian world.
More than 90 percent of Americans have never served in the military. As a result, most base their understanding of those who have on Navy SEAL movies and those ridiculous USAA commercials. This
contributes to a general ignorance of the military community that manifests itself in unusual, sometimes annoying ways.
My boss was convinced I was suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
I had just returned from a year-long sabbatical in Kuwait, compliments of the United States Navy Reserve. During that time, I had helped oversee the safe delivery of more than 12 million tons of ammunition and explosives to two combat theaters of operation. I had led a watch team that coordinated security and counter-terror efforts to ensure the safety of more than 300 U.S. service personnel. And I had worked closely with the U.S. Naval Attaché to strengthen ties with the Kuwaitis, among our most critical allies in one of the most important regions to U.S. national security. It had been a very busy, highly rewarding year, in which I had been sharply focused, continually engaged, and completely committed the organization’s success.
The same could not be said of the situation to which I’d returned. Prior to deployment, I had been working in the corporate public affairs department of a large, Midwestern manufacturing company. I’d been hired the previous year, in the depths of The Great Recession, to serve as the speech writer to the Chairman and CEO. It had all sounded great at the time. The public affairs director had been completely enamored with my Harvard pedigree and was certain the CEO would be, too. Terrific. I was excited, because people I’d known who had been speech writers for Admirals and Generals had been privileged members of the Inner Circle. They’d enjoyed frequent, direct access to the boss and had all kinds of great things happen to their careers after leaving the job. It was one of those Positions of Special Trust that opened all kinds of interesting doors, reserved only for those who’d breathed the rarefied air of the executive office. The same had to be true of someone writing speeches for a Fortune 100 CEO, right?
Wrong. My first day on the job, I learned I wasn’t the speech writer, but a speech writer. Some twenty-something communications major was actually writing for the Chairman, and I was to be her backup. I’d been duped. Nevertheless, with the economy crumbling and mass layoffs happening everywhere, I had to be content just to have a job. And that job consisted chiefly of writing employee newsletters and articles for the company intranet. I never even met the CEO.
Boredom quickly set in. While my central challenge on active duty had been to figure out how to cram 200 hours’ worth of work into something that vaguely resembled a normal work week, here, my challenge was to figure out how to take 5 hours’ worth of work and inflate it to fill a 40-hour week. It was vitally important that I do so, because I absolutely did not want to be perceived as an employee with excess capacity. All kinds of bad things happened to such people. They were loaded down with menial tasks. They were susceptible to assignment to every special project that came through the door. Some simply had their positions eliminated and were dismissed.
I thus endeavored to fill as much of the day as possible with job-related activity. Since I worked in public affairs, I figured it made sense to research media outlets. I’d top off my coffee mug, wander up to the company’s corporate library, and then read all the national newspapers cover-to-cover. On a good day, my “research” would consume an entire morning. I was grateful for those days, because most others I was left to occupy myself counting the bricks on the building outside the window of my cubicle. All this led me to discover a very curious phenomenon: Pretending to work is far more stressful than actually working.
But pretend I did, for nine months. It was miserable. When orders came through to mobilize and deploy to Kuwait, I’m certain I would have swum there, just to get hell out of corporate public affairs. And I had absolutely no desire to return there -- ever. However, despite all the Skype interviewing and e-mail networking I could manage from my cinder-block room at Kuwait Naval Base, I was unable to line up a new gig during my year in the desert. As the deployment wound down, I had to face the most depressing of all possible outcomes: A return to corporate public affairs. It was easily the most profound professional failure I had experienced to that point in my life.
The backup speech writer role was considered essential and had been filled by someone as soon as I’d left. Fine with me. I’d had more than my fill of backup speech writing. Upon my return, I was told my new role would be that of spokesman and media advisor. I was to join the media group, whose job it was to prepare executives to talk to reporters. If those executives did not desire to interact with the media, my colleagues and I would do so on their behalves. There was nothing in my background to suggest I was qualified to do any of this, but it sounded mildly interesting. For a moment, I was hopeful.
Then I found out what my real job was. My new boss, the media director, had been tasked to oversee construction of the company’s long-planned visitors’ center. Rather than have an engineer or someone more suitably qualified manage the project, it was thought someone from corporate public affairs should. The tour guides who would ultimately staff the facility would come from that department. Brilliant. My boss would be required to track the activities of various contractors and subcontractors and make progress reports to the CEO. As such, she’d convinced the public affairs director she needed a personal assistant to manage deadlines and to-do lists and schedule all her meetings. I was to be that personal assistant.
I did not take the news well. While I had readily taken on countless tasks throughout my Navy career that were arguably beneath me, I had done so with a clear sense of purpose and out of loyalty to the service. None of that was present here. I felt not a twinge of loyalty to this organization, nor the people in it, and I’d be damned if I was going to be some low-level corporate manager’s personal assistant.
But I had no choice. I grumbled through the first couple weeks, doing exactly as I was told. I’m sure it was obvious to everyone in the department I was not pleased with my new duties, but I soldiered on. Then, one day, my boss came back from a meeting I’d scheduled completely irate. The purpose of the meeting had been for her to strategize on ways to incorporate sustainability messages into the visitors’ center with the group of hippies the company had hired to contemplate such things. I had set up the meeting, as instructed, but hadn’t set any agenda. I had no idea I was supposed to. Thus, both my boss and the hippies, thinking the other was going to lead the discussion, wound up having nothing to discuss. Everyone sat around awkwardly looking at each other for a period of time before deciding to reschedule the meeting. My boss had been embarrassed, and it was apparently all my fault.
I found the whole thing hilarious. My boss did not. She started chewing me out, which I absolutely did not appreciate. With my blood pressure rising, I waited until she’d finished and then told her, “You know what? You can schedule you own damn meetings from now on. I’m finished wasting my time with you.”
Her eyes went wide. After a brief pause, she chewed me out some more, telling me how many people in public affairs would kill to have my job and how grateful I should be to work for her. Then she shuffled off to her office.
The next day, I got called into my boss’s boss’s office. I assumed I’d been summoned over the previous day’s incident, and my intent was to explain it as a simple misunderstanding and then apologize profusely. It was quickly confirmed I had indeed been called in for that reason, but the conversation then took an unexpected turn.
“You know, Dan, you’ve been unusually irritable since you got back. You seem angry all the time. Lots of people have noticed.” Yup. Fair enough. I couldn’t argue with that.
She continued, “I talked it over with Bob, and we think it would be best if you saw Doctor Harvey.” Bob was the director of corporate public affairs, head of the entire department. Doctor Harvey was the staff psychologist.
“Something happened while you were deployed. It’s none of my business, but you just don’t seem yourself. I need you to see Doctor Harvey.” It became clear my seeing the shrink was more than a friendly suggestion. It was an order.
I couldn’t decide if I was more insulted or amused. You want me to see the shrink? Fine, I’ll see the shrink. I figured it couldn’t be any worse than scheduling meetings and getting yelled at by my boss.
Later that day, I wandered down to Doctor Harvey’s office. It was conveniently located on the same floor as public affairs, right next to the corporate medical office. I wasn’t sure why a large corporation required the full-time service of a psychologist, and I was curious as to how Doctor Harvey spent his day. I never noticed anyone going into or out of his office. Maybe he read the newspapers and counted bricks on buildings to pass the time just like I did.
I knocked on Doctor Harvey’s door and asked if I might have a brief word. I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to make an appointment or launch directly into the “healing” right then and there. Upon introducing myself, I noticed the beginnings of a smile creep across the corner of his mouth.
“Ah, yes. Dan. I heard you might be stopping by.” Doctor Harvey was only a couple years older than I, impeccably dressed, and, as far as I could judge, a good-looking guy. All the girls in corporate public affairs became giddy whenever he was around.
“You did?” I asked. So, the good doctor was already in on this.
“Yes. I understand you just returned from a deployment and may be having some trouble readjusting." It was embarrassing to be having this conversation, but I appreciated his forthrightness.
“Listen, Doc . . . It may be true I haven’t exactly made a smooth transition back to life in corporate public affairs, but I’ll guarantee you it has nothing to do with my deployment.” This was privileged communication, so I figured I’d lay it all out for him.
“Well, your boss is convinced you’re suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. To be clear, I had never been in combat. No one had ever shot at me. Aside from the general threats inherent to the region, I had been in absolutely zero danger while in Kuwait. I had spent every day of the deployment staring at screens in an air conditioned trailer while sipping Starbucks and eating Pepperidge Farm Milanos. The very suggestion I might be suffering from PTSD was beyond absurd.
My boss didn’t think so. She’d apparently watched some 60 Minutes special on the struggles of combat veterans to re-integrate back into society and felt 100 percent confident in her diagnosis. As far as she was concerned, I exhibited all the symptoms.
I explained to Doctor Harvey that whatever stress I was experiencing was due entirely to the absurdity of my situation in corporate public affairs, not my Navy sabbatical. If anything, the sense of purpose and meaning I’d derived from a year on active duty served to fortify me against the forces of mediocrity that completely surrounded me in the corporate setting. Had it not been for that experience, I would likely have been far worse off. That said, a year in the desert had brought into sharp focus just how poor the quality of leadership was in the company, and I was not inclined to just shut up and accept it. In that sense, perhaps the deployment made my current situation worse. I could see both sides of it.
Doctor Harvey and I wound up having a terrific conversation. He was entirely sympathetic to my situation, but very rightly pointed out that further entanglements with my boss would likely get me fired. And no matter how great my boredom or frustration, neither would invite the pain and anxiety that would unemployment, particularly in a down economy. He said it was obvious there was nothing wrong with me, but that I should stop in to vent whenever I felt the need. I could have done so every day, but chose to limit subsequent visits to once per week. Doctor Harvey was a professional and a true gentleman, and I will always be grateful for my interaction with him.
Things eventually cooled down with my boss. Not long after my initial discussion with Doctor Harvey, she felt compelled to offer me some words of encouragement.
“I know you’ve been seeing Doctor Harvey, Dan. And I want you to know I’m proud of you . . . for getting help.”
The suggestion I was suffering from PTSD was an insult to all veterans who unfortunately do. However, it did provide some fascinating insights on civilians’ perceptions of military members and what they experience down range. Among the many lessons learned from this episode:
Don’t be surprised by coworkers’ ignorance of the military, even when they profess to understand it. Just because one had a
cousin in the Marine Corps or saw Full Metal Jacket in no way suggests one can grasp the profundity of what it is to be a Marine. Or a Soldier. Or a Sailor. Or an Airman. Or a Coast Guardsman. As we all know, one can’t fully understand it until one has
lived it. And very few Americans have.
- Civilians will project whatever their personal concept of the military man or woman on you. They will observe you to reinforce existing stereotypes, good or bad, whether you want them to or
not. Consider this an opportunity. Conduct yourself in such a manner as to reinforce positive perceptions of professionalism, honesty, tenacity, and adaptability. Have a personal code, consistent
with those values instilled through military service, and live by it.
- I was once in a meeting with a software vendor who’d consistently over-promised and under-delivered. When presented with still another litany of excuses as to why, I firmly, yet
professionally, explained in clear, simple terms why such excuses were no longer acceptable and what the consequences would henceforth be if the vendor’s behavior didn’t change. At the conclusion
of the meeting, one of my coworkers commented, “I love it when Dan uses his ‘Navy voice.’” When I pressed her as to what, exactly, she meant by the remark, she explained that when I took
such a tone, it got people’s attention. She thought it incredibly effective and attributed it to my military service. I took a lot of pride in that comment. I still do.
- Regardless of whether you legitimately suffer from PTSD or are just pissed off at life in the corporate cubicle, get some help. Talk to someone. You’ll feel immediately better. Before you do, consider the following guidelines:
Don’t say to an acquaintance what you should only say to a friend.
Don’t say to a friend what you should only say to a spouse.
Don’t say to a spouse what you should only say to a shrink.
The author is a veteran who has had stints in various positions and industries in corporate. His advice to transitioning veterans: Lower your expectations.