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On this page: Diane Hudson Burns describes how to translate your military experience for the civilian world.

Translating Military Experience

"If a man does his best, what else is there?" --General George C. Patton

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Military Culture

As veterans, you lived and worked within a subculture of mainstream America.  You lived and worked on bases and installations: ships, submarines, and tents.  You ate MREs. 

Many of you moved a lot (some move every year for 20 years).

You deployed to various worldwide locations to protect our freedoms (leaving behind spouses and children). You shopped in PX/BXs and commissaries, and you frequently saw those you knew at the same medical clinics, schools, places of worship, and restaurants, on bases.

The world becomes small for service members, as you often reconnect in new worldwide locations.

Leaving this culture is difficult for some service members - you are not just leaving a job, but you are leaving a whole lifestyle.

Military Language

The military also has its own language. Understanding military acronyms, rank structures, service branches, jargon, and technical requirements is often equated to learning a foreign language. Even the different service branches use different terminology (for example, a Captain in the Army is a junior officer; and a Captain in the Navy is a very senior officer).

Qualify and Quantify Military Language

I know that as you leave the military (especially if retiring with 20 or more years of service), you are mostly likely more comfortable using military jargon, terms, and acronyms than civilian terms, and often you simply do not know the civilian equivalent.

Certain terms are easy to translate into "corporate speak". For example, translate such words as "Commanded" to "Supervised" or "Directed"; "Lt. Colonel" to "CEO" or "Executive Vice President,"; and "Battalion" to "250 personnel".

Try to qualify and quantify accomplishments as often as possible: "Directed an organization with 250 personnel, supervised 12 department managers, executed an operational budget of $3M, managed assets worth $70M, and significantly reduced a logistical backlog by 87%." A short quantitative statement is successful in describing years of leadership.

And for more complex translations, try this method: Strategic Planner, Strategic Planning & Policy Directorate, U.S. Pacific Command, Camp Smith / equivalent to Strategic Planner and Advisor to CEO & VPs regarding multinational issues. Or this: Deputy CIO for Data Management, Joint National Integration Center, Missile Defense Agency, Schriever Air Force Base / equivalent to Executive VP of Data Management / Technology of a large company advising the CIO.

Identify Your Skill Sets and Strengths

To make the military terminology translations and identify specific core competencies and skill sets valuable to corporate America, just requires a little digging through your career history.

From Infantry to Logistics Management

For example, an infantryman once told me that he had been in the Army for 23 years (E-9/Command Sergeant Major), and felt he had no skills or direct value to offer corporate America.

He said he operated tanks, weapons, and dug ditches.

However, after our discussion, we determined that this Command Sergeant Major directly supervised, trained, and evaluated 40 personnel, supporting over 2,000 troops in four countries, with an inventory list of 1,500 line items, and material assets valued at $65M (including large vehicles).

His functional areas of expertise included personnel management, logistics, and operations. As he moved up the ranks, to a level of senior management, he also gained considerable responsibility for strategic planning and tactical application.

This soldier accepted a management position with a major retailer as a logistics expert with oversight supervisory responsibility for several hundred employees, and multiple warehouses in a multi-state area (he doubled his salary, and banked his military retirement pay).

From Bomb Disposal to Pharmaceutical Sales

In a different example, an Army Major / Bomb Disposal expert, decided to move into pharmaceutical sales (as a Regional Manager) when he retired.

So, we worked together to translate "Bomb Disposal expert" into "sales and marketing". We identified his leadership skills, ability as a public speaker and briefer when "selling and marketing" new programs to convince management to revise and improve processes, very savvy negotiation abilities, and skill at writing and communicating effectively.

We also focused on his experience in leading large size programs and supervising dozens of personnel while managing multi-million dollar budgets. In the final resume, there is only one line referring to his extensive knowledge as a bomb disposal expert.

Translate Military Experience and Skills to Civilian Equivalents

In each of these examples, we translated not only individual military acronyms and terms, but also career experience and skill sets; we dug deep into each career history to identify those experiences and skills not directly related to the career field (perhaps you are designated as a recruiter for a year, an event planner, or trained in IT—you just never know), as well as those skill sets directly related to the career field.

And, of course, not every troop re-entering the civilian job market is a former Command Sergeant Major or a Major, but the training and responsibility you received in the military stand you in very good stead for the civilian world. (See my article on the Value of Military Experience for more details.) You just need to take the time to make the translation for yourself and for the job market.


About the author...

Job-Hunt's Job Search Expert for Veterans, Diane is a military transition job-search strategist and career coach. She designs and composes military conversion resumes and helps position service members for employment in corporate or Federal America. Diane holds eight industry credentials including Certified Leadership & Talent Management Coach and Federal Job Search Trainer & Counselor and owns Career Marketing Techniques.