Funny title got your attention, huh? It will all come together in a minute. Last night, riding into DC in a taxi and anticipating the pending radio interview, I thought of a great way to illustrate the nature of military transition, from the perspective of the individual service member: through role reversal. Here’s what I mean.
One of my all-time favorite movies is “Hair.” The story is set against the backdrop of the Vietnam War and war protests here in the States. In one scene, a hippie named Berger impersonates a military service member to get onto the base where his friend Claude is stationed. He does this as a goof, in the hopes of swapping places temporarily so Claude can escape with his girlfriend for the afternoon. Clearly, Berger has no grasp at all of what is going on behind the gate, as troops prepare to deploy.
What follows is a quick and painful glimpse into Berger’s dawning awareness that, not only is there a serious situation unfolding on base but, in the midst of it, he is being yelled at for his uniform not being buttoned down, his rucksack not being ready, not properly standing at attention or responding with purpose and speed. All Berger can do in response is the best he can based on his civilian experience…but that doesn’t cut it. The dressing-down occurs in English, but the words and meaning are foreign. He is completely disoriented. Lost. Can you conjure this image in your mind?
Veterans leaving a career of military service and going immediately into a civilian organization can (not always) experience a similarly dramatic feeling of disorientation. For example, the words they hear are different and the manner in which they are spoken, the underlying rationale of why things are done the way they are is not obvious. The stakes can be high, especially if we’re talking about a former officer embarking on a civilian leadership role, in which exposure is high and real-time learning occurs in a public setting. If all this weren’t enough, no one wears a uniform so it is impossible to determine who’s who!
How does the former service member respond to this new world? Naturally, by doing his or her best based on previous experience: in the military. Just as, in “Hair,” Berger must literally put on the uniform (which is a costume, for him), transitioning service members must take theirs off. Literally and figuratively, but let’s stick with figuratively for now (!). The process of mentally and emotionally taking off the uniform is at the heart of why military transition can be so tough for some.
I developed a model a few years ago, to illustrate the transition process, called The Military Transition Framework™. One of the three stages in the Framework is called “Detaching,” and describes an internal process of shifting out of the military identity. It is a highly personal experience and looks/feels different to every individual. The common thread is the sense of having lost something dear (sense of identity) in place of something strange and unknown (being a civilian).
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this, especially if you are a former service member who made or is making the transition to the civilian workplace. If you’d like more information about the Framework, it is fully described in my new book, “Field Tested: Recruiting, Managing & Retaining Veterans.”