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Into the Vast Unknown: My Recipe for Separating from the Military

Into the Vast Unknown: My Recipe for Separating from the Military

by Christopher DeJesus, NASA Johnson Space Center

What is the best way to help future military members prepare for separation? There are a million success stories out there, thousands of “How to” books, and countless articles suggesting their method is the best way in helping future military members to prepare for separation. Everyone claims that their exact formula will produce success. These ways may work for some, however, I think everybody’s situation is completely unique.

That being said, I am in no way suggesting that their way won’t work, that their suggestions aren’t sound, and that their advice isn’t solid. It’s also important to consider everyone’s individual definition of what “success” actually means and not how society defines it.

Do you define success by your salary, job satisfaction, what you are doing, etc.? That has to be taken in account when receiving advice on what to do. There is no one way to actually do this, life is far too complicated and unpredictable for a cookie cutter approach.

 So, what makes mine different? Nothing. Absolutely nothing! I would like to say that in a very slow manner...absolutely nothing! I am one success story in a sea of success stories, with every story written completely different. No matter what your position, rank, or job is in the military, you are leaving this safe and comforting blanket that you are so often dependent on. It’s a scary idea you are leaving something that you dedicated so much to.

All I can do is tell my side of the story of what worked for me, what I did that was successful and/or beneficial to me and my family. There were some real-world realizations and reservations in my transition, there was just plain luck, there were people who completely questioned, doubted, and laughed at my plan, and then there were right time, right place type situations. That being said, three things contributed to my success: Education, Reputation, and Networking (ERN). Cue the acronym machine!

Here’s a quick summary of my background. I joined the Air Force in 2007 and became a Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE) Specialist. I was first assigned to Fairchild AFB where I completed my initial training and became a certified SERE Specialist and instructed there for four years. I was then transferred to Andrews AFB, right outside of DC, working with the Presidential Airlift Group for the entire DC and surrounding areas, where I became a Program Manager and eventually deployed to Afghanistan. Upon my return, I separated in 2016, nine years after I raised my hand and swore to protect this country. I was then hired by the State Department as a contractor teaching Personnel Recovery to diplomats and others traveling overseas, doing that for about two years.

Luckily, for me, I was able to meet an amazing NASA Group Lead through one of my classes at the State Department. Thankfully, after a brief conversation, she put her neck out there for me and took a chance on a kid from Alaska. This quickly led to my dream job working at NASA with her forcing the hands of the hiring managers to just give me a chance.

So, why the separation? I initially did not put too much focus into school. It was an afterthought once I joined the military; I thought I was going to do 20 years. My focus was solely on my job and how well I did it. However, in 2011, once I transferred to the DC area, I started finding interest in schooling. I found a degree that really worked for me, was flexible and VERY interesting. Something I actually wanted to learn about, not just force myself because I wanted to be paid more down the road, or do what others were doing.

I found my niche in learning about space. My interest was immediately piqued and I started to fall in love with learning anything I could about the vast unknown. I always had an interest in learning these things since I was a child, however, never really had the confidence nor the discipline to really get into the weeds of it. That entailed relearning basic and then complex math, physics, engineering, space systems, spacecraft, etc. (I was NEVER good at math in High School, this was my Everest).

I was hooked! I loved everything about space and I really wanted to pursue my lifelong dream of one day working for NASA. But, how? That in itself was something I thought was impossible and had no idea how I was going to accomplish this. That being said, I was never one to shy from the impossible and readily accepted the challenge head on.

Here’s a major realization when I was separating from the military. It is a VERY competitive world out there. I kept hearing all the time that military members possess certain skills that employers are always seeking and would swoop you up in a second. I had an excel worksheet and at the peak of me applying, I had applied to over 300+ jobs, with only four actually taking interest, and one asking for an interview.

That’s an astounding 0.003% success rate. I took all the classes available, resume builders, USAJobs navigator, mock interviews, company programs, etc. and I was still not getting anywhere. I had job hunters tell me my goals and aspirations were way out of reach, that someone with my background and my rank couldn’t do as well as I wanted to, that I needed to lower my expectations; I rejected that rationale immediately and hung up on that person.

I had some military members look down on me, essentially shunning me, not even considering me as a person or fellow member of the Armed Forces because of my rank and job title. This was pretty eye opening for me and something I ensured I would never do to others in my position.

So, I shifted everything to school and focusing my future plans on getting out and somehow making my way to NASA, with a few detours on the way of course. Education was central in my pursuit for working at NASA and my goals wouldn’t be possible without it. This provided me the catalyst to move in that direction and start opening doors to eventually work there. I spent hours upon hours, days and days away from friends and family, sitting staring at a computer screen, computing math problems on a dry erase board, and feeling like I needed to bash my head against the desk questioning why I am doing this.

I used up all of my Tuition Assistance (TA) every single year; all $4,500 of it (it’s free money people). I was constantly taking a class trying to finish my degree before my separation. Fortunately for me, my timing was pretty good and I was able to graduate February 2016, two months before my separation date. I left the military with an associates, bachelor in science, and dozens and dozens of certifications, and am currently working on my masters using the GI bill.

Get your education, certifications, any training available, etc., done before you separate. And, if that isn’t possible, keep working on it even after you separate. Just ensure it is in something you truly enjoy. Don’t waste your time getting a degree that you don’t enjoy; your lack of interest and enjoyment will only surface once you start utilizing that degree.

This moves into my second major contribution. Reputation. Your reputation follows you no matter where you go. I have learned very quickly that the world is a very small place and it’s not a matter of IF you’ll see someone again, it’s WHEN. Your reputation starts the moment you walk through a door. The way you present yourself, shake people’s hands, how you address others, and your overall work ethic. People remember others from very specific memories.

You never want to be remembered for something negatively. That being said, I made it a priority to ensure I had a good reputation following me. One mistake or slip up can really put a damper on your reputation, and it can take years to repair that, if it’s repairable at all. Hard work, dedication, doing the right thing, and being unselfish are all good ingredients for a good reputation.

Even if I messed up, which was inevitable, I was able to own up to that. I chose to learn from it and admit my faults and wrong doings. People are pretty understanding when you mess up. Where I think people are less sympathetic is when one tries to hide or not declare their faults and blunders.

I was about a month and a half out and I still didn’t have a job. I really started to get scared. My silent confidence started waning and the realization that I may be unemployed really started sinking in. Being a single income family, this was not a good path to be on. Once again, I had help. My old boss retired a couple of years before I got out and happened to be a curriculum manager for the State Department. I was still in contact with him and over a conversation one day, I discussed my anxieties that I was going to be unemployed pretty soon.

Well, he happened to know of a new position opening that would be a perfect transition from military to civilian life. Previously working for him and seeing what I was capable of, he personally went down to the office and put up one hell of an argument for me to get hired. Eventually, they invited me there for an interview, I got hired about three weeks from my separation, which put me in a position to eventually meet the right person willing to take a chance on me and lead me to my goal of working at NASA. Funny the way that works, right?

This leads to my third and my most influential contribution, networking. There is no way around it, you must be able to network. Most people need help on the way to accomplishing their goals. They rarely do it all by themselves. All of my opportunities have come from me knowing people in very specific positions or authority. I made it a precedence to reach out to as many people as I could.

Being an instructor was an irreplaceable chance to talk and connect with a lot of people. Here’s my warning though. BE GENUINE! People have the wonderful ability to see right through the BS and they also have the ability to see when someone is actually being themselves. Listen to people, share thoughts and feelings, be interested in them, joke with them, and see if maybe you can offer them something as well. A simple conversation and showing you care can be all it takes.

People for the most part want to help others and want to assist them in reaching their goals and aspirations. Don’t just focus your attention on the powerful and influential. I’ve always thought that I can learn something from everyone I have EVER interacted with. No matter what position, age, influence, I was able to learn something from my students, coworkers, and others I dealt with.

There is an immense amount of knowledge out there, you just have to be willing to capture it. Everyone can offer you something, just like you can offer everyone something as well. You never know when the one person that at first didn’t hold a high position, was younger, etc. finds themselves eventually in those positions of influence. If you were to ignore these people originally, or look down on them, I highly suggest you correct your approach and refer back to my point on reputation. They will remember. People will remember others who helped them, showed them respect, and actually took a moment out of their day to interact with them. Till this day, I still have people randomly contacting me that somehow remember me from years ago.

Some of my best professional relationships that I have established with people were discovered simply in a conversation or by reaching out to them. You never know when that one person can be the one who opens a single door to something you have dreamed of since you were a child. This takes courage. This takes the ability to be able to talk to folks, to get outside of your comfort zone, and actually interact.

There is a lot of social media sites, such as LinkedIn, that can be beneficial. However, I have NEVER in my personal experience actually benefited from talking through the internet. Human to human interaction cannot be replaced by the internet. There is nothing more valuable than actually sitting down with someone and just interacting, holding a modest and humble conversation.

Does all of this give me the leg up above everyone else? Unequivocally not. This just happened to be what helped me. You can call it dumb luck, divine intervention, fate, or whatever label you choose, but there were things I had no control over and then there are things I controlled that directly dictated my path through life. I can always point back to three things that have been a constant for me. Education, reputation, and networking. However you choose to do it is on you.

This is your life, not mine. You write your own success story however you feel fit, don’t let anyone else define success for you. Just take advantage of the opportunities that are presented to you, because they will be presented, but only for a very short time. Take life in strides, be humble and modest, enjoy the little moments, be adjustable, prepare for the inevitable setbacks, show respect to people, and never allow someone to say that it is impossible or you can’t do it.

Prove them wrong and prove to yourself that you are more than capable of doing whatever you set your mind to. Exactly two years after my terminal leave began, January 29, 2016, I started my first day at Johnson Space Center in Houston, TX on January 29, 2018. Two years exactly after I wore my uniform for the last time and took that big leap into the vast unknown of life after the military.

I wish you the best in your separation and thank you for your service!