“I was a glorified tank mechanic,” said Hurst, who now spends his days mining for archival footage, editing video segments and writing new scripts when Mother Nature changes course. “And now, here I am, an associate producer at The Weather Channel. I can see why people don’t think they go hand in hand, but in a way they do. I don’t care who you are. If you’ve spent two or four or 20 years in the military, you’re going to be highly disciplined and well organized. You’re going to be cool and calm under pressure and able to multi-task. Those skills have helped me tremendously in the news room.”
On Veterans Day, America pauses to honor the selflessness and sacrifice of those who have served. But this year in particular, it’s important to consider what comes next for veterans like Hurst. Transitioning from military to civilian life is never easy. In addition to the physical and emotional consequences of more than a decade of war, veterans also must also endure a massive career change and contend against the prevailing stereotype for where they fit into civilian society.
All too often, veterans are pigeon-holed into careers that are technical or operational in nature. On a recent Forbes list of the “10 Best Jobs For Veterans,” the top three included a tractor trailer truck driver, industrial engineer technician, and a telecommunications repairman. It makes sense that veterans would be drawn to these jobs. Like Hurst, many spent their time in the service driving and operating heavy machinery, managing tools and making repairs.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the overall unemployment rate for veterans is slightly lower than U.S. unemployment overall. However, for veterans who have served since September 2001, the unemployment rate is two points higher—7.2 percent. There are plenty of reasons why it is challenging for recent veterans to find meaningful work. Nearly thirty percent of post-9/11 veterans reported having a service-related disability, making it even more challenging to find work in a recession-era economy. And even as the U.S. market for employment has improved, veterans with a disability are nearly twice as likely to end up working in the public sector—partly because it is a world they understand, and partly because other worlds are still relatively unknown and unmarketed to them.
But the reality is, the U.S. military is in the midst of shrinking to its smallest since before World War II; the Army alone plans to cut more than 40,000 soldiers from its ranks over the next two years. What careers will those soldiers pursue? What doors will be open to them?
Mark Mansfield thinks more should pursue work in creative fields. During Desert Storm, Mansfield served as a member of the opposition force that led training for NATO troops at the National Training Center. Today, he is Vice President for Business Development at Tongal, a crowdsourcing video production house that serves clients like Johnson & Johnson, a company who’s CEO is also a veteran.
“Every single day I lean on the tenets I learned in the military,” Mansfield says. “In business, it’s relatively easy to put off solving a difficult problem. In the military, the stakes are often higher and choosing an easier path is not an option. ‘I don’t want to be cold or wet anymore.’ ‘I don’t want the enemy that’s on that hill to shoot me.’ That sense of intensity toward mission completion and goal achievement has been invaluable to me.”
Part of the problem with transitioning from military to civilian life, he says, is that it’s rare for enlisted soldiers to think about life after the military, and even if they do, their expectations limit what is possible in the future.
Those future plans can even include a career in the fashion industry. Sisters and fellow graduates of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, Ashley Jung and Paige Della Valle launched their jewelry line, Stella Valle, in 2009 with great designs but little else.
“Our entire network was military,” Jung says. “We knew generals, but we didn’t have any connections in the fashion industry. We’d approach major fashion magazines and mention we went to West Point and served in the Army, and sometimes it went in one ear and out the other. They didn’t understand it.”
During her tenure as a commissioned U.S. Army officer deployed to Afghanistan, Jung led convoys, gathered intelligence and acted as a Public Affairs officer for her Brigade Commander and his team. Meanwhile, Della Valle had endured multiple surgeries to her shoulder while at West Point and a month before graduation, learned that she wouldn’t receive a commission. They left the military at the same time, and began working nights and weekends on their business.
The sisters began a long journey of discipline and persistence, growing their business from nothing to an annual revenue of $50,000, which in turn landed them on a 2013 episode of ABC’s Shark Tank. Stella Valle earned a $150,000 deal with the show’s iconic venture capitalists, Mark Cuban and Laurie Greiner, and today generates more than $4.8 million in annual retail sales. Jung and Della Valle were recently inducted into the Council of Fashion Designers of America, a community of the world’s fashion elite, overseen by President Diane von Furstenberg—an honor they attribute to their relentless appetite for planning.
“That’s something the military teaches,” Della Valle says. “You can’t go out there without a plan.”
Veterans of the War on Terror are National Book Award winners, poets, performers, graphic designers, product engineers and artists. And in a way, we shouldn’t be surprised.
In other countries where service is not a choice, but a prerequisite of citizenship, leaving the military to become a fashion designer or television producer might seem as natural a choice as becoming a truck driver or police officer. In this country, with its all-volunteer military, that kind of shift can be harder to imagine—for both veterans and civilians. But far from the war-hardened stereotype, many are looking for a place to put their creativity and keen sense of strategy to work—whether that’s on a stage, in a control room, on Madison Avenue or down the runway.
Mansfield, now fully engaged on the business battlefield, encourages newly transitioning veterans not to put limits on the future of their careers.
“Of my peers, I’m the only one that’s chosen a career in a creative business. That’s not because I was smart or talented, it was because I had different expectations of myself,” said Mansfield. “My advice to a soldier would be to find what you’re interested in or passionate about, then learn as much as you can about that. Don’t expect success overnight, or in a year, or in five years. Make choices for the long haul.”
Claire is a former Army-brat and freelance writer based in Nashville, Tennessee. You can find her on Twitter: @clairecgibson.