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Military professionals: The transition to civilian careers

The following sharing of an experience and perspectives on that experience are offered as thousands of military professionals in the United States and Canada transition to civilian careers.

The intent is to provide some insight relative to a real life scenario and experience. Hopefully, the share will be of some value as transitioning military professionals evaluate the market and develop and pursue their transition strategies and execute their initial positions in their following careers. It should be noted that the author did all possible on becoming established in his following career to promote the employment of veterans.

Region and Park Managers 2nd Region

The Region—an Example of the Benefit of Military Experience to Civilian Applications

Article by: Tom Rozman

An Army lieutenant colonel recently retired had been selected to assume a region manager position in a state parks division of a Central Atlantic state.  The position was analogous to a battalion/brigade command in many respects.

The colonel had served for the previous 11 months as the Training Coordinator/Officer of the state parks division.  In this role he had been responsible for all of the parks division’s professional development and police training to include supporting law enforcement academy interface, weapons training, and policy development and necessary certifications such water, waste water operators.  As well and given the breadth of recreation, conservation, retail, overnight accommodation, conference center, maintenance and capital project, law enforcement, interpretive programming and other functional operations in the three parks regions, the expanded training and professional development requirement of this position was extensive.  But, the position was a superb preparation for assumption of a region manager’s position.  However, the colonel’s most valuable preparation came from his Army education and experience.

The colonel’s last position in the Army had been as the Director of the Collective Training Directorate, Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Training, U. S. Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC).  This was a full colonel’s position that oversaw a range of existing programs and developments oriented on the Army’s collective training system primarily focused on combat units.  Some of the programs were the Army’s National Training Centers that incorporated state of the art force on force training capabilities like MILES (Multiple Integrated Laser Engagement System), dedicated opposing force troops trained to operate using likely threat tactical systems and geographic reservations with vast maneuver areas and the Combined Arms Training Strategy (CATS), a program oriented on optimizing and prioritizing scarce mission training resources across the force.

Prior to assignment as the director, the colonel had been the Directorate’s Concepts and Strategies Division Chief and the acting director.  With assignment as director, he presided over the operations of a 27 military and civilian employee directorate staff comprised of six divisions each led by a lieutenant colonel level division chief.  He was programmed to remain the director for the coming year.

However, the post fall of the Berlin Wall situation and end of the first Iraq War had been followed by an ongoing 33% reduction of the force. The economy was in a down turn–the opportunity to transition to a civilian position from a career and family economic standpoint was seen as an increasing necessity.  After over a year of negotiating the civilian job market place, the training position in the state parks division was offered.  The colonel made the decision to retire early and transition to the state service.

From a relevancy standpoint to later state employment, the assignment as the Director of the Collective Training Directorate had been preceded by an over 27 year experience with the Army.  That experience included three years (36 months) combined as a platoon leader for five infantry, mechanized, and infantry battalion medical platoons, an infantry detachment officer-in-charge, a mechanized infantry company commander, and an acting forward deployed mechanized battalion commander.

Two and a half years were spent as the executive officer (second in command) of a mechanized infantry company, a mechanized battalion headquarters and headquarters company, an armored brigade headquarters and headquarters company, and a mechanized battalion.  The colonel had also served for over eleven years as a battalion, brigade, division and Department of the Army staff and general staff officer to include aide-de-camp for two different general officers.  These organizations ranged from leadership of platoons of 35-45 soldiers, detachments of 46-69 soldiers, a combat company of 187-220 soldiers, a combat battalion of some 800 soldiers and staffs supporting organizations of 800, 5,500, 19,000 and 1.3M soldiers.   In the staff roles, the responsibilities rested primarily on plans, operations and training work.

The colonel had also served as an assistant professor with exercised instructor privileges for 1-2 semester credit hour practicums and 3 semester credit hour standard courses.  He had simultaneously exercised these privileges for three and a half years at a large state university, a smaller state college and a private college.  Among the courses taught were a military history, instructional methods and a leadership/management course.

The 27 year three month Army experience had also involved five years of resident undergraduate education to the award of a Bachelor of Science Degree in Engineering.  It also included three years of post-graduate education that led to award of several other certificates one being an MBA. Another certificate was the equivalent of an MPA focused on planning for large size ground formation operations, Army programmatics, and security operations—the U. S. Army Staff College.

Most significantly in the preceding experience relative to the director’s position had been the three years of assignment to the Department of the Army Armored Family of Vehicles Task Force where one of the areas of responsibility had been the necessary research and analysis to develop a training concept for the entire Armored Force 1995 and beyond.  Much of this work carried over to the work that would be done at the TRADOC directorate.

In the event, on entering the state’s service, the colonel’s 27 years and three months of preceding Army experience and education proved uniquely applicable to the civilian positions he would assume.  The state park division’s training and professional development and system needs and later the role of region manager, as noted something comparable to a battalion/brigade command experience, made direct use of the colonel’s knowledge, skills and abilities which in the event were proven a perfect fit to the position needs.

In the case of the training officer position, every facet of some nineteen and a half years of training development, hands on trainer, and instructor experience proved applicable and relevant to the state parks’ system and needs.  Interface with the the state’s Department of Criminal Justice Services, supporting law enforcement academy and internal weapons training and qualification and police policy upgrade development aligned very well with the military experience, that applied experience greatly augmenting the park division’s capabilities.  This proved especially the case when the training officer assumed the entire occupational safety and health program requirement, previously undeveloped in the division.  In this latter case the colonel had earlier in career served as the safety and nuclear, chemical and biological officer for three Army companies—again, relevant previous experience.

The colonel’s extensive past military experience not only proved immediately applicable to the training operations of the parks division but doubly so as a parks region manager.  At the time, the division, among other parts of its organization, was organized into three field regions—the 1st  (Coastal ), the 2nd (Piedmont), and 3rd (Mountain).  The regions in many ways as noted earlier were comparable to a battalion/brigade type of command.  The analogy bearing out not only with the levels and type of facilities, fleet operations, maintenance operations and security and armed operations but also with a uniformed staff.

The 2nd Region as an example maintained a small headquarters at the division offices and 9 park staffs later increased to 10 then 12.  The park staffs were organized on three levels with managers, senior managers and managers principle—these manager ranks increased as the park level of resources and responsibility increased.  The staffs maintained a year round cadre that ranged from some four to five staff in the smaller parks up to 16 or more staff in the larger parks.  In the Region 2 case, its largest park, 8,000 acres and closest to the state capital, also hosted the division’s logistics center and its staff.

The region enjoyed a year round staff of some 47-50 employees at the time.  This cadre expanded with park seasonal employees from Memorial Day to Labor Day to some 216 state employees and was further augmented by an additional 12-15 concession staff employees.  As noted with the building of three new park staffs, this establishment was increasing.

This combined staff supported the operation of a region comprising over 39,000 acres of real property.  Distributed across the nine then ten staffed and three unstaffed parks were 300 buildings and structures to include nine shop complexes with fueling stations, eight campground complexes, three conference centers, three conference facilities, three cabin complexes, six restaurants, nine retail stores, two museums, two swimming pools, five beach complexes and boat and canoe liveries, seven dock facilities, a fleet of some 50 vehicles and other rolling stock,  300 miles of roads and trails, four dammed lakes, two Civil War battlefields, and two Civil War fortifications.  Securing and policing this establishment were 27 governor commissioned armed conservation officers.  Some thirty staff, along with their families, were resident in the parks in park residencies.  In effect, these constituted a small park garrison that operated and secured the park.

Additionally, the region was responsible to provide security to other agency real property.  Specifically, the region was responsible for in region recently acquired significant division of natural heritage properties such as Buffalo Mountain.

Essentially, the region comprised a hotel restaurant management operation in the woods with an extensive outdoor recreation and historic component.  Interpretive programs were also part of the park offering.  The parks were an extremely popular venue for a large public from within and outside the state, many traveling from as far away as Canada to take advantage of the unique and beautiful park settings.  The park campgrounds were especially frequented by military families from the 22 military installations located in the state who found the parks a wholesome, affordable and attractive family experience.  The two battlefield parks were equally popular with the Civil War reenactment community where reenactment events of three days with some 6.000 re-enactors were held with 5,000-6,000 or more spectators also attending.  The latter were major operations in their own right requiring significant coordination and partnership with the supporting not for profit corporation, state police, the department of transportation and local governments.

The parks were hosts to large attendance on weekends like the 4th of July where extended families gathered in what were traditional multi-generational family gatherings.  The water recreation on adjacent rivers, lakes, beaches and pools drew large attendance from the public during the hotter months and required a functioning and qualified lifeguard staff and first responder capability.

This extensive region operation had a significant ongoing daily policing, and grounds and facilities maintenance requirement.  The park staffs were trained and organized to conduct most local repair projects and in some cases were capable of construction to include deck and dock construction and repair and framing of  buildings such as park residences. Major construction projects were usually awarded to contractors who were subject to park oversight. but on numerous occasions park teams were organized to handle significant maintenance reserve and construction project work.

The parks as a jurisdiction were responsible for all traffic penal and conservation law within the jurisdiction and all parks had an armed officer police establishment of  two to five officers to maintain 24 hour police capability.  The parks maintained active liaison and agreements with local state police units, adjacent town and county police and county sheriffs to augment security operations during high volume public visitation.  These arrangements were necessary to address developing gang activity and drug related activity in some parks, especially those in proximity to the interstate system.  In one case a task force of 16 augmenting region staff was formed to reinforce one potentially gang threatened park during a holiday weekend when intelligence indicated there would be issues.  The operation was successful.  The park remained open with no incidents—but the park did close earlier than it had in past years.

It must be noted that the region geographic footprint extended some 160 miles north to south and 120 miles east to west.  This was a huge expanse of territory that required an optimized communications system to operate the region effectively.  In the latter case, many practices that had applied in the military context transferred very well to the region situation.

The colonel’s previous experience and education were uniquely aligned to these operations.  He had conducted armed security operations to include riot control.  He was expert in planning, organizing and executing such operations to include the   application of weapons and equipment.  He had been responsible for major fleet maintenance, facilities maintenance and facilities operations that housed as many as 700, and communications and food service operations for up to 800 personnel.  He had organized and conducted extensive camping operations and support for same.  He had supervised petroleum resupply and storage.   He was a skilled instructor.  He had developed and managed program budgets—the park region’s base operating budget, less salaries, maintenance reserve projects, and capital project budgets was $2.5M in 1993-5 dollars. Every function and skill necessary to oversee the operations of the park region had been part of the colonel’s military experience.  Overall budget ranged in the $5-6M range.

The colonel’s immediate supervisor, a veteran, was an accepting colleague and professional to work with as were most other division staff.  But there were some who harbored biases regarding veterans and the colonel found it politic to minimize any military affect.  He made every effort to integrate socially.  But he made no effort to fail to apply the skills and abilities developed through Army service that applied to the region manager position.  He did so even if there appeared to be some ill feeling by some colleague though, if such appeared to be the case, he made the effort to bring the colleague onboard.  But, doing the right thing was the priority.

Over the 2 ½ years the colonel was in the region manager role before the three regions were reorganized into six smaller state park districts, the skills and abilities brought forward from Army service proved directly applicable to the region role and successful region operations.  The region functioned at and beyond standard on all measures and came in exactly on budget during end of fiscal year reconciliations.

In this example, the crossover from battalion/brigade level command and staff function was an almost exact fit.  In the colonel’s case, even the engineering undergraduate study was applicable as a number of significant projects developed during his tenure as manager.  MBA graduate education became relevant in a major private/public partnership project that expanded a 6 acre battlefield park into a full service 275 acre staffed park with complete facilities and presented the Governor with a major public event that show cased the administration with a major private/public partnership success story that included the two electric power companies operating in the state.

The colonel’s background was also applied for tough jobs like the review of the then division’s design and construction office that was in the beginning stages of administering a $92M general obligation bond organized into some 300 capital projects along with $2.5M in annual maintenance reserve and other projects.  The recommendations of this review led to a reorganization of the design and construction office and the real property offices, at the time three different offices of the department and the division. For greater program and project management, efficiency and capability, the three offices were consolidated into a single design and construction and real property office.

The colonel’s experience proved uniquely applicable to the park region manager role.  It demonstrated a successful transition of a soldier to a civilian situation.  It clearly demonstrated the crossover of the military education and skill set to the civilian environment.  The colonel proved fully effective in the region manager role which, as noted, was directly parallel to an army battalion/brigade type of organization.  The experience underscored the value added and competence the veteran can bring to the civilian job situation.

The above is true for the majority of veterans leaving service in good standing in a large sample of civilian situations.  While there are civil hiring practices and biases that sometimes are not veteran friendly, by and large the civilian employer will do much better with a veteran hire than a civilian hire…though the veteran must be conscious of how he or she projects within the employing organizations culture.  Bottom line, successful transition is doable by the veteran and the following career can prove very rewarding and one that makes a significant contribution.