After the Military, Finding Your What Is As Important as Finding Your Why

March, 1996. I was the lowest ranking guy in my platoon. My unit pushed south from our base in Hungary to Camp Angela, Bosnia. Being the lowest ranking guy in the platoon this didn’t always  mean that much, but this time, it meant I got the crap assignment. I was sent down early as a weapons guard to watch over our platoon’s extra equipment: radios, extra weapons, stuff like that. They gave me a case of MREs, a case of water, and said, “see you in a few days.”  It was me, some other guys with the same crap detail, and about a hundred of my new Bosnian friends still building the camp around me. I remember, very clearly, sitting on the steps of my tent, looking at this huge hill across the quarry from me, wondering: “What the hell am I doing here?”

In many ways, and in many different places, I’ve asked that question, and many of the veterans that I work with asked themselves that question. Looking out the door of a perfectly good airplane (although it wasn’t always perfectly good), pulling guard on some featureless expanse of desert, engaging in some futile exercise. The same questions: what and why.

I hear it from them after they get out of the military, too. “What’s my purpose? What am I supposed to do now?” As I’ve often said, finding meaning and purpose after leaving the military is significant to a successful transition Even those who have had a “successful” transition, though, can run up against this question: what is the purpose of my actions? What, really, is the problem I’m trying to solve? I may think that I’m trying to solve one problem…putting food on the table and shoes on my kids’ feet…but I might be trying to solve an entirely different problem.

Sometimes the “What” May Be Something You Don’t Like

We all have to do what we have to do. The problem you’re trying to solve right now, hopefully, won’t be the problem that will exist in the future, because once you solve it, it’s done! Often, however, the problem we are solving is not one that we might want, but its the one we need to do. That week in Bosnia, the “what” I was doing was solving a problem, one that my leadership had: they needed to send extra equipment down to Bosnia and it couldn’t be left unsecured. I was the solution to that problem. I didn’t want to be the solution to that problem, because it created a problem for me, but I was the solution nevertheless. Really the worst of it was that I was bored out of my mind, but that’s part of military life. After we leave the service, we may find a problem to solve that we may not enjoy; it doesn’t have to be that way forever, but we didn’t always love what we did in the military. We sucked it up then, we can suck it up now.

Sometimes There Doesn’t Have To Be an “What”

I’ve seen this at work in my own life; I enjoy problem solving. I’m good at it. I’m so good at it that, if there is no problem, I might just create a problem so I can solve it. If we’re used to operating in a chaotic environment, we might be a bit uncomfortable in an environment of peace…so we create chaos around us, so we can be comfortable. We don’t always have to find problems to solve, though. The problem we might need to solve, the “what” we are looking for, might be our incessant problem solving. Recognizing that not everything needs to be figured out, not everything needs to be fixed, can be the solution to the problem we didn’t know we had.

Maybe you think you know the “What” but are completely wrong

Leaving the military, I know that I was really anxious: I had to find a job. I had to find a job. There were job fairs I attended even before I dropped my retirement packet. I was leaning so far forward in the foxhole that I was falling out of it. I did lad a great job, working with an organization that was helping to house homeless veterans. To this day, I am grateful and appreciative of the time I spent with that organization; but the problem I was trying to solve (get a job) and the topic I wanted to focus on (veteran mental health) were nowhere near the same problem. I thought I knew the “what” I wanted to do: work with veterans. It turned out not to be the right “what.” It was in the ballpark, and gave me valuable and appreciated experience, but it was someone else’s “what” that I was trying to solve, not my own.

Find the “What” You Were Put On This Earth to Solve

Each of us has a unique set of experiences that gives us the ability to solve problems. To find our “what.” The thing we did in the service doesn’t need to be our “what,” and in fact it rarely is. It is possible, and even necessary, to reinvent ourselves after the service. My father was a payroll clerk and courier in Vietnam. He became a cop after he left the service. I’ve known snipers who were really good at working with roofing companies, because scanning a roof for damage is pretty close to scanning your sector for something out of place. Maybe the problem you can solve is the lack of steady and reliable crew leaders for a moving company. Maybe it’s in tech, or bioscience. Finding the problem you are uniquely qualified and able to solve can help you find that purpose and meaning we were talking about earlier.

Fall In Love With the “What,” Not The “How”

This is a trap that we all fall into: being in love with our solution. The “How” is the solution, how we solve the “What” of our problem. If we are so stuck on the “how,” we’re going to use our comfortable old hammer to beat on everything because we think it’s a nail. This goes along with the idea of carrying on with what you did when you were in the military; you enjoyed what you did (mostly) and your were good at it. Why not take that to your post military life and apply the same solution to the problems out here? That creates problems in and of itself, of course, because not all solutions match every problem.

When looking at “what next,” take some time to consider what exactly the “what” is; you will be much more satisfied with what you’re doing.

The Head Space and Timing Blog is supported by the Colorado Veterans Health and Wellness Agency, a 501(c)3 Nonprofit in Colorado Springs, Colorado. The goal of the CVHWA is to provide military culturally competent mental health counseling to veterans and their spouses, regardless of characterization of discharge, time of service, or era of service. Our vision is to assist veterans to identify and remove barriers to their mental, physical, emotional, and behavioral wellness. For questions or inquiries, contact us!

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1 thought on “After the Military, Finding Your What Is As Important as Finding Your Why

  1. Great article, Duane! It certainly fits for me! Finding my passion has taken a number of years because there is no perfect job. As a Veteran, I had the privilege to complete many assignments and finding what fulfills me takes patience and time. Life experience, mindfulness and gratitude for this time of exploration is a gift. The military gave us a variety of experiences that will help guide our way.

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