Q&A: Retiring From the Army During COVID-19

Q&A: Retiring From the Army During COVID-19

by Amy Bernard, Major, USMC (Ret), George W. Bush Institute Military Service Initiative Senior Program Manager
George W. Bush Institute

U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Robin Johnson retired after 21 years of service. While a successful retirement is typically celebrated with a ceremony, a new normal set in as she navigated her military-to-civilian transition during COVID-19. We asked Robin to discuss her experiences and share advice for other transitioning servicemembers.

Tell us about your time in the military.

I grew up in a rural Ohio community and longed for diversity and exposure to different cultures. After hearing my grandparent’s military stories, I realized the U.S. Army was the most progressive and diverse employer with opportunities to travel the world. I enlisted in the Ohio National Guard at 17, enrolled in Ohio State University, and was commissioned as an active duty Quartermaster (Logistics) officer.

By request, my first assignment was to Korea. I fell in love with the people and culture. My second assignment was at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. in the 101st Airborne Division. There I met my husband, an Apache helicopter pilot. After we both completed an eight month deployment in Afghanistan we got married and soon after we deployed to Iraq.

After our fourth deployment, we transitioned to Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas. and we both attended the Command and General Staff College. During this time, we both completed our MBA’s and had our daughter, Annabelle. In 2013, while my husband was deployed, I gave birth to our son. The challenge of dual-military life with small children was felt, and was only made bearable with the support of family and friends.

In 2014, I was selected to serve as the Special Assistant to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Martin E. Dempsey. I coordinated Soldier and Family Readiness policy issues with the Joint Staff Directorates, Combatant Commands, Office of the Secretary of Defense, and the White House. I also coordinated and executed all official and diplomatic travel and engagements for the Chairman’s spouse— that included over 50 trips.

I then served in the Office of the Secretary of the Army. While there I made recommendations on how to effectively reintegrate veterans and military families into civilian communities. I concluded my 20 plus year career as the Employment Director for the U.S. Army’s Soldier For Life Program.

Tell us about your transition plans from military-to-civilian life.

I plan to enroll in Georgetown or Cornell’s diversity and inclusion professional certificate program. After being part of the Army’s gender integration efforts and a participant in the Women in The Army pilot program, I am convinced that inclusive cultures give organizations a competitive advantage.

I also believe comedy and IMPROV techniques can reduce pain and promote physical and mental wellness. I currently perform stand-up comedy and volunteer with the Armed Services Arts Partnership. I want to spend some of my transition developing ways to integrate various types of comedy into corporate team building and hospital treatments.

 How’s your transition been going and how’s COVID-19 impacted your plans?

I severely underestimated the emotional and physical toll that transition takes on a person. Even though I was retiring on my terms, it still felt like an amicable divorce.

The disappointment of retiring during COVID-19 set in the day my separation paperwork (DD-214) was delivered. After 21 years of service, I received an email with no ceremony or “congratulations.” It simply stated, “See attached.” I had low expectations for my retirement, but was surprised by the business-like exchange. There are many retiring from the armed services who should prepare for minimal celebration due to COVID-19 and social distancing.

Every veteran’s experience is different. In my case, I was struggling with the anxiety of finding employment and the opinions of others telling me what I should do.

I also had very little experience with rejection. As I was rejected for jobs I applied for, my self-doubt increased. I had potential employers not wanting to hire me because I’m a veteran, military spouse, or the fear that I could be recalled due to COVID-19.

Fortunately, I was accepted to participate in the Armed Services Arts Partnership’s storytelling and stand-up comedy boot camps. That experience helped me navigate the emotions and anxiety of transition.

Many companies are on a hiring freeze, so the number of jobs available are limited. Companies moving forward in the hiring process are only doing virtual interviews and are slow rolling decisions on candidates. Additionally, while organizations and companies are continuing with virtual hiring fairs and interviews, nothing can replicate the in-person experience.

I also hadn’t anticipated that the civilian-military divide was as great as it was. Despite my work consulting employers, I was having trouble connecting to hiring managers, and, to be honest, I wasn’t interviewing well. I spent more time than expected translating my skills and experience to civilian jargon. 

As a transitioning military member and from your experience with Soldier For Life, what should veteran organizations and communities do to help veterans transition? 

If the veteran’s termination of service is voluntary, be candid with them on the current employment landscape and help them weigh the benefits of remaining in the military. I wouldn’t recommend transitioning out of the military unless you’ve financially prepared and have a solid plan for higher education or employment. 

Connect the veteran to state and local resources. This will help them get information on how that state is handling COVID-19 and if there are any travel advisories in place.

Veteran and Military Service Organizations should help employers think about childcare. Veterans and their spouses can be highly productive employees through remote work or flexible schedules. Additionally, organizations that provide free or reduced costs for internet and home office equipment may also be valuable. 

What advice do you have for transitioning veterans?

It can be overwhelming and confusing. Take time to figure out what you need most— mentoring, resume writing, LinkedIn profile updates, networking, up-skilling, education etc. Then build a list of the resources available at your transition location and where you want to transition to. A few places to start:

  • Soldier For Life’s podcast has episodes diving into the most common concerns and questions during transition.
  • National Resource Directory is a searchable database of resources vetted for servicemembers, veterans, family members, and caregivers.
  • Connect to the state work force agency and American Job Center closest to where you will transition for state and local specific resources. Also, use this resource to determine if you are eligible for unemployment compensation.
  • Network with people located where you want to move to, not where you transition from.
  • Create a one-page resume, even for executive level positions, and be prepared to expound on any topic that you were not able to address in detail.
  • Maximize the websites you are job searching on by completing your profile and setting alerts for jobs within the desired industry.
  • Don’t procrastinate on filing your VA claim. The sooner you get your disability rating, the sooner you can leverage the points for veteran preference for government jobs.
  • Don’t eye roll at financial resources. I attended an extremely helpful virtual course with David Piatek, hosted by USO Pathfinder.
  • Use this time to ace behavior based interviews—look at YouTube for videos that coach you on how to do this. Also, write out your responses to frequently asked interview questions and rehearse.
  • Set daily goals and hold yourself accountable.
  • Make sure you are exercising and taking care of your mental health.
  • Participate in career preparation virtual events. I’ve been following the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Hiring our Heroes Program, Corporate Gray, and RecruitMilitary.

Interviews may be done virtually. Here are some tips:

  • Have a quiet space in your home.
  • The background should be professional and neat. Use a virtual background if you need to hide a bed or laundry.
  • Familiarize yourself with Zoom, Skype, and Google Meet. If you want to share product samples during the interview, have them ready to screen share.
  • Do a test call with a friend to ensure audio/video work, your camera settings show a headshot view of you, and lighting is adequate. Prop up your computer camera to be eye level and rehearse talking while looking into the camera instead of looking down at the person on screen.
  • Be engaging during the conversation, whether virtual or in person. Rehearse acting natural and comfortable while answering questions so that you present yourself with a steady confidence.
  • If you have children at home, see if another adult can watch them during that time or invest in a good headset and use the mute button.
  • Just because your interview is virtual, that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t look your best. I still interview in a full suit.

Manage your expectations. If you don’t have a strong healthcare, IT, cyber, or engineering background, you may need to up-skill to be competitive against the millions of Americans looking for work. And don’t get discouraged. Finding employment is hard work. If you are fierce about it, you will find a job. Don’t stress if it’s not your dream or forever job. It’s OK to accept a feasible option versus the best option.

If you receive a job offer, ask questions about telework, health coverage, and sick leave. And do your research on what similar companies are offering.

Remember, job loss is survivable. Even if you don’t get employment immediately, look at where you can volunteer and get valuable job experience. I’ve tripled my volunteer hours with the Women’s Mentorship Network, Armed Services Arts Partnership, and The All Glory Project and it’s really helped keep my skills sharp.


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