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Why you feel so uncertain about your military transition

Thirty years of studies and survey data point to a consistently challenging two-year period following transition out of the military. This two-year period is highlighted by chronic unemployment and poor employment retention.

Despite the existing military transition system’s best efforts, this one-size-fits-all system can’t provide you enough individual specificity or support to help you think through and carry out your own unique transition. And because this generalized program provides no individual framework, tools, or sustained support, you may end up feeling anxious, unsure, and even overwhelmed when trying to think of what you individually need to do to prepare for your unique military transition.

It’s almost as if you are on a roller coaster ride—and you are. Let me explain.

To give you some insight into this phenomenon, I am going to introduce you to the concept of the “Emotional Cycle of Change” which was created by psychologists Don Kelley and Daryl Conner. In their research, Kelley and Conner spell out the five stages we all go through when undergoing any life transition. Since you will, at some point, be leaving the military, you too will be subject to the five different stages.

At PreVeteran, one of our core principles is arming you with useful information so you can clearly understand the post-military environment before you enter it. The thought being, if you are aware of the environment, you can begin taking deliberate steps to overcome the challenges that will come your way.

Before we step through each of the five stages, it’s important to acknowledge that, whether you feel it directly now or not, leaving the military is a big life transition. The vast majority of you entered the military as individuals either right out of high school or college. Upon entry into the military ecosystem, part of your individuality was supplanted by a strong group ethos that put the unit’s mission above all else. From day one, the “team” principle was inculcated into your being and whether you spent four years or forty years in that environment, it left an indelible mark.

So naturally, as you end your military career and begin looking to the future, it’s very understandable—and very normal—to feel apprehension and uncertainty. Let’s go through an adaptation of the Kelley and Conner model step by step, using a military transition lens that will show you why you feel that way.

Stage 1 is “uninformed optimism.” This is when you are approaching the latter part of your military career, and begin allowing your mind to wander into the “what ifs.” In this stage, you are very excited about the prospect of not having to do another deployment or attend yet another mandatory training seminar.

While the euphoria is real, you may not be aware of the obstacles that lie in your way or the type and amount of work that lies ahead.

The operative phrase here is, “I’ve got this!”

Stage 2 is “informed pessimism.” This is the stage where reality begins to set in. Under the current Transition Assistance Program (TAP) model, this is where you’ve submitted your separation or retirement papers and are now actively engaged in trying to figure out what you are going to do, post-transition. In all likelihood, this means that you are sitting in front of a computer screen for hours on end typing questions into Google. Or, if you’ve listened to veteran advocates on social media, maybe you’ve created a LinkedIn account, attempted to network, sought out a mentor, or asked for informational interviews. Despite these actions, which feel like real progress, you aren’t quite sure what to write on your LinkedIn account, or what questions to ask a mentor or a knowledgeable individual in an informational interview.

In this stage, you begin running into problems, and the euphoria you once felt is beginning to erode a bit. Frustration grows, procrastination may set in, or you begin entertaining new ideas about life after the military. “Perhaps I should go back to school?” or “Maybe I should consider becoming an entrepreneur?” and once again you spend hours on end typing questions into Google which may or may not be helpful to you at all.

The operative phrase here is, “What have I gotten myself into?”

Stage 3 is what Kelley and Conner refer to as “hopeful realism.” While that wording makes it sound like a positive term, perhaps a better, more realistic term would be “the valley of despair.” This is where some hit rock bottom, feel overwhelmed, frustrated, defeated, and start getting very stressed and uncomfortable.

In this stage, you may have spent an inordinate amount of time spinning your wheels on a variety of activities suggested by others that have yielded no sure-fire results. In fact, you begin to feel less certain about how things are going to work out. Instead of feeling optimistic about your post-military life, you begin to think more about what you are going to lose, rather than thinking about what you can gain.

This is really the low point, where many simply slide down in the model and emotionally check out, throw their hands up in the air, and decide to either give up entirely or just hold on to what they have and hope for the best. Not surprisingly, this stage can really put a huge damper on your wishes, dreams, and aspirations.

The operative phrase here is, “I am not sure I am on the right path.”

Stage 4 follows naturally: “informed optimism.” After your roller coaster of ups and downs, this is where the rubber finally starts meeting the road. From the doldrums of Stage 3, you finally find a path you can sink your teeth into. Through the process, you find something that feels real and attainable. As a result, you begin making realistic, step-by-step progress toward your goals. With each step you take, your confidence grows.

The operative phrase here is, “I’m getting the hang of this.”

Stage 5 is “completion” or, at a higher level, complete confidence in your chosen path that leads to a deeper sense of fulfillment, happiness, and satisfaction. It’s what we all want in life. Sure, you are still going to get curve balls thrown at you from time to time but you are confident in your path and in what you’ve done, and you feel you can handle these small bumps in the road.

The operative phrase here is, “I’ve got this!”

PreVeteran is Here For You

Look, there is no sugar-coating it, your military transition is going to be a challenge. When you begin addressing your military transition, you should expect to go through the emotional cycle of change. The difference being, if you know what you are facing and what to expect, it won’t be such a surprise and, with the right framework, tools, and support, you will be able to work through these challenges and get to a successful individual pathway quicker and more confidently.

This is exactly why we created PreVeteran. Our entire business model centers around making you aware of the challenges you face and then helping you overcome them. To get things moving, do the following three things:

  1. Download our free “5-Step Guide to Finding the Job You Want, Post-Military”
  2. Subscribe to our PreVeteran YouTube channel
  3. Follow PreVeteran on LinkedIn


“Kelley and Conner’s Emotional Cycle of Change.” MindTools. Accessed October 20, 2020. https://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/kelley-conner-cycle.htm

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