Successful Vets Talk Struggles, Triumphs of Transition

By Katie Lange
DoD News, Defense Media Activity

When it comes to the military transition, the thought of moving into a completely new career with a different structure and people who might not understand your experiences can be daunting.  A lot of service members come out of the military unsure of what they plan to do next, whether they’ve been in for three years or 30. But if you get the right help and use the skills you’ve built in the military, you can be a success.

That was the case for Army veterans Rick Buchholz, Paul Thompson and Jason Schenkel, who weren’t really sure what they wanted to do once they got out. They spent a collective 64 years in the Army, much of which was served in different units at the Recruiting Command. They transitioned out at separate times, but their lives have since been intertwined. They’ve all landed in the trucking industry, recruiting veterans and other qualified workers into the fold.

Retired Army First Sgt. Paul Thompson

Retired Army First Sgt. Paul Thompson

So how did they make that successful transition, and what advice do they have for vets trying to do the same? Here are some of their thoughts.

On how they ended up in the trucking industry:

For all three men, finding stability was a huge factor.

Paul: Upon retirement in 2014 after 21 years of service, Paul said he tried unsuccessfully to start a small business, so he began applying for jobs in the transportation industry. That’s when he came across a driver recruiting position at YRC Freight.
“Growing up as recruiters in the Army and talking about nontangible products and selling them, I figured, ‘You know what? This is the perfect fit.’” All he had to do was learn the industry jargon, which came pretty easily.

Rick: Rick, who transitioned out 10 years ago after a 20-year Army career, had a similar experience.
“I knew I had the core values and the skill set to be successful wherever I went, but I just didn’t know exactly where I was going to go. I knew I needed something solid that was going to give me that same feeling of security that the Army gave me.”
Rick just happened to be from Omaha, Nebraska, where Werner Enterprises is based. He found a field recruiting position there that fit him perfectly and offered that much-needed stability. A decade later, he and the many folks who work under him work to hire about 1,800 student drivers a year, many of whom are military veterans or their spouses.

Retired Army First Sgt. Jason Schenkel

Retired Army First Sgt. Jason Schenkel

Jason:  Through Transition Assistance Program classes, Jason applied for a human resources position at a company, but didn’t get it. Instead, the person who did took notice of Jason’s resume and decided there was a better opportunity for him.
Holland was looking for someone with military experience, because they were really ramping up their veterans-friendly hiring practices. So, me applying for another position actually opened up the door for the one I’m currently in.”
He said by putting himself in the right place at the right time, he was able to land a job in an economically stable industry.

On how their Army experience prepared them for their new careers:

Jason:  The 23-year Army vet spent 16 of those years in the Recruiting Command. He said it prepped him for public speaking and how to engage business owners, community leaders and politicians, as well as schools and colleges. It was a unique way of growing and learning about marketing and public relations.
“It was very helpful, having that recruiting experience, when it came time to transition to civilian life because I had already worked and was grounded with civilians trying to recruit for the Army. I knew the language, culture and atmosphere.”

Paul: “You had to sell yourself, and you had to sell the Army,” Paul said of his relatable experience. “You learned how to really get into the mindset of selling who you were – your experience in the military – and then putting that down to a kid who had no idea what they were getting themselves involved in.”

On how the GI Bill and higher education opportunities helped: 

Retired Army First Sgt. Rick Buchholz

Retired Army First Sgt. Rick Buchholz

Rick: After starting his new career, Rick took advantage of the GI bill, working on his degree in hotels on business trips and at home on weekends. “I just studied. I earned a bachelor’s degree in logistics management, and I got my graduate degree in managerial communication while I was recruiting on the road.”

Paul: He gave his GI Bill to his wife and kids and, as a disabled vet, got help from the Vocational Rehab program, through which he’s currently finishing his master’s degree.

Jason: He also transferred his GI Bill to his family and hasn’t used any of his own benefits yet, having just retired from the Army in October; however, he’s looking into taking a few certification programs – a military opportunity that’s been a great perk.
“One of the requirements of my position was to have an HR certification, and I didn’t have it. But during the interview, I basically said, ‘If this is something you want me to have, I do have the ability to get that done, and it wouldn’t cost the company anything.’ That was a selling point I used,” he said – something newly transitioning need to know. “Companies spend a lot of money on professional development, so if they could save a buck, it could help you get in the door.”

On what they believe is the toughest part of the military transition:

There were a few major factors: Moving, commitment, and the emotional attachment.

Paul: He said many military folks don’t want to leave where their military careers ended because they’re settled – but they have to if it means going where the jobs are.
“If they would just take the time to use what they learned in Soldier For Life-Transition Assistance Program classes and move to where the careers are, we would definitely see an increase in the amount of veteran employment across the nation, and they won’t be underemployed or underpaid.”
Paul said he also believes many don’t give SFL-TAP classes enough credit.
“If you give it the time and you commit to the transition process, you are going to be able to set yourself up, resume- and networking-wise.”

Jason: For this long-time soldier, the toughest part wasn’t touched on in transition classes – the emotional aspect of separation.
“If I were to get out and retire and get a GS position working for a government organization, I’m still around military people, retirees, contractors and those who know the lingo and, at some point in time, we may share some sort of experience. But me – not only am I the only guy in the HR department, but I’m the only military veteran. … I [no longer] have that patch on my shoulder or uniform that I can associate with. I don’t have people who can share experiences, deployments and lingo.”
He said that’s part of why he, Rick and Paul have become close.
“We still have that brotherhood. A lot of times it’s just a way to reach out to one another and vent or talk about personal things or what’s going on in the world or military.”

Resources for vets:

These three men were shining examples of soldiers while they were in the military, and they’re a shining example of the success you can have out of it, too. So when you’re looking to transition, always remember that the skills you’ve learned through your military career can be some of your best assets.

If you’re a vet looking for help in finding your next career, be sure to use one of the many Transition Assistance Programs available to you, including the Hiring Our Heroes program.

Good luck!

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