A Conversation with Lonnie Wilson

Today’s conversation is with Lonnie Wilson, a fellow former military police officer, and current project manager on the civilian side. I asked him to talk to me about his decision to leave the military, the transition process, and where he is on his current journey. Without further introduction, let’s get started…

Q (Infamous Scribbler): First, can you sketch me a quick bio, tell me a little bit about yourself, especially as it relates to where you are right now in your career?

A (Lonnie Wilson): I enlisted in the Army Reserves in the summer 2005 and spent most of three years as both reservist and a ROTC Cadet through the Simultaneous Membership Program. I then entered the active duty Army in 2008 where I served as an officer in the Military Police Corps until late 2017.

I joined the Army for three reasons:

  1. Service to country. I wanted to do my part, regardless of the political motives behind the war in Iraq.
  2. Educational benefits. I had dropped out of college in the fall of 2004 and wanted assistance in returning to complete my Bachelor’s degree.
  3. Increased social mobility. I lived near an active duty Army base and viewed the Army, particularly the active duty Army, as a sure path towards increased social mobility for myself and for my family.

My original goal for my Army career was to complete company command and then decide whether or not I wanted to stay in for a 20 year retirement. I completed company command in 2015 and decided to PCS once more, which would allow me to complete a Master’s degree while in the Army. During my time at this duty station, I decided to leave the Army. I did not leave the Army because I hated it, but I do believe it was time for me to move on. I had little desire to progress in the Army and had become increasingly interested in finding a civilian career with meaning that I could potentially build a career around while I still felt “young”. I’ve put in about 9 years in active duty and need to serve either another 11 years in active duty or 8 years in the reserves to qualify for retirement. I left this second door open by remaining in the IRR, but have no intention of using it.

I used Alliance Careers to assist in my transition from an active duty Army officer to a civilian. I looked into several similar companies and chose Alliance because of the personalized feel their experience provided, as well as success stories from some of my colleagues. Alliance places junior military officers in corporate careers, typically in the fields of engineering, operations, and business to business (B2B) sales. Beginning about a year from my projected separation date, I participated in collaborative web training sessions with the team at Alliance. These classes were self-scheduled, typically required a read-ahead and often coincided with the recommended reading list. The team at Alliance also offered in-depth interview preparation with multiple mock interviews, both telephonic and in person. Alliance holds multiple hiring conferences each year for their candidates. The hiring conference experience could not have gone smoother. Alliance did an excellent job pairing me with companies that matched my interests and desired locations.

I began terminal leave in October and began working about two weeks later. I now work for a global concrete forming and shoring company. In other words, my company provides formwork, braces, scaffolding, etc., that support concrete during the construction of large building projects. My company also provides engineering support and rents the previously mentioned equipment to contractors. Every project is unique, but a typical project could be a parking garage or condos/apartment buildings, often more than 15 stories tall. My current position is that of a project manager and I intend to move into a sales role eventually.

Q: We originally met at the Captains Career Course. Talk to me about your decision to leave the Army for civilian life–what were some of the factors involved? What was the deciding factor?

A: There were many reasons why I wanted to leave the military. One was to give my family more stability and not move so often. Unfortunately I went through a divorce during my separation from the Army, so my reason of leaving the Army for family stability was ultimately unimportant. Another reason was that I noticed that some officers who stayed in for 20 years struggled to find meaningful employment while those who left mid-career often had an easier time finding a great career. I watched several of my peers transition to civilian careers and earn more money with greater job satisfaction, and knew I could do the same. I also questioned whether or not I would be competitive for promotion to Lieutenant Colonel if I stayed in. I did not want to waste some of the most productive years of my life in the Army, only to be sidelined in 5-6 years.

Unfortunately, I had become tired of the Army. Perhaps I was the proverbial “disgruntled captain”, but I was tired of people that hung around for “easy money” and tired of the military police corps; I freely admit that I was never passionate about law enforcement.

Last but not least, I wanted to leave the Army because I wanted a career that I was passionate about. Early on, I hoped that the Army would give me this career satisfaction, but it was not to be. I wanted to leave and become an expert in my field, whatever that field might be. This may seem like the least tangible of reasons, but it was probably the most important reason of why I left.

Q: During your transition from the military, what advice did you find helpful on the outside? What advice did you find less than helpful?

A: Alliance Careers did a wonderful job helping me to learn how to present myself in interviews and what to expect in the civilian sector. Advice that was less than helpful was from people who thought I should just “stay in” until retirement. I’m not sure I would have made it to retirement, and I really wasn’t enjoying being in the military anymore. I would not give anybody advice that basically says, “Just suck it up for another 12 years”.

The worst part of leaving the Army was defining success. It was difficult for me to “know” what I wanted to do as a civilian. What is success and what does success look like? In the Army it’s simple because it’s tied to a position and a rank. As a civilian it could literally be anything, money, fame, a simple life, a position, travel, possessions, family, hobbies, etc. There simply isn’t an answer that works across the board in the civilian sector. It’s up to the individual to decide, and then pursue that goal.

The issue of defining success is something that is vital to us all, whether we choose to stay in the Army of get out. We need to be mindful of how we position ourselves so that we can best achieve our goals.

I now feel connected to my roots through construction as I was a construction worker before college. I like the people I work with and found a forgotten, or perhaps sidelined, passion for construction (I had forgotten this), and there is the potential to make a lot of money. My last day of terminal leave passed without my realization. I do not miss the Army.

Q: Talk to me about your current job–what are some of the skillsets necessary to be successful?

A: Some of the job specific skillsets in my field are: The ability to read and understand blueprints, organization, attention to detail, the ability to manage a large number of complex problems at once, and people skills – selling a solution. I had most of these skills, although I had to brush up on blueprints.

Q: What, if any, of your military experience/training do you find helpful in your civilian career? What might you find to be less than helpful?

A: The military does a decent job of teaching leaders stress management. I learned the value in placing “the mission first,” and the ability to apply systematic approaches to problems (Troop Leading Procedures, Military Decision Making Process, etc.). I use basic organization skills honed during my time in the Army, such as creating and using execution matrixes to do routine things routinely every day.

Less than helpful: This is probably a really long list, but the one thing I’ve noticed a lot is that despite ‘never having enough people and constantly being overworked’, the Army has too many people for the work they put out. Civilians often do more work with less people. I understood that when I got out I would probably be working harder than I’ve ever worked in the Army, initially for less money, with less benefits.

This does not mean that getting out is a bad idea. Just like the Army you may need to pay your dues up front so that you are better off in 5-10 years. You can’t be afraid to start over.

Q: Where would you like to go next in your career? Life goals? 

A: I want to become the best project manager in the company and then become a sales rep. I want to create a training plan for future project managers so that they are able to become effective in less time.

Less than a year after divorce, my life goals are still in a state of flux. What I do know is that I want to provide for my children to the best of my ability, and that I want to simplify my life and be less materialistic. More than anything, I want to be mindful, to be happy in the present, to be healthy, and enjoy the outdoors every chance I get. If I can do these things, I will consider myself successful.

Q: What advice would you give to someone transitioning from the military? What advice would you give to someone interested in the same career?

A: If you’re not happy in the military, do not put off getting out because of money. My advice is to not waste your time “easing yourself out” through the National Guard or Reserves, either. Those organizations often take up more of your time than you realize, especially as an officer, and will hinder your ability to be effective in your new career.

Do make a plan! Set some money aside and be realistic about the cost of getting out. There will be higher taxes and health insurance is expensive! Look around you and see what your paycheck buys you. Does all that stuff make you happy? Learn to live with less before you get out if you think you are going to take a pay cut (and you probably will for the first year or so).

Don’t let mandatory job qualifications stand in the way of the career you really want. If you can’t figure out how to get in front of the right person and convince them that you are awesome and they should hire you, maybe the Army is a good fit for you for just a bit longer. You’ve got to be confident!

My advice to someone in a similar career field: Alliance helps place people in three career fields: Engineering, B2B Sales and Operations. I think that’s a pretty good way to approach the civilian job market, maybe with the addition of Entrepreneurship. There are pros and cons to each. My advice to people entering B2B sales is to do so with caution. It’s an “eat what you kill” environment, so make sure you understand the hunting and farming landscape and take a good assessment of your abilities before jumping in. I insisted on entering the environment as a project manager rather than a sales rep because I wanted a stable income while I was learning the ropes.

Q: Anything to add?

A: Happiness is something you create for yourself. Nobody can tell you what happiness is for you, and nobody can make you happy. You can’t make anyone else happy either, but you can share happiness, and that’s the best part of life.

Telling stories beyond facsimiles…

A few days ago, I received a free eBook for an honest review, part of the Read It & Reap program through the Shut Up and Read GoodReads group. Part of the reason I asked for the book, other than the fact that it sounded interesting, was that one of the main characters was billed as a female veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom. I cleared my mind, set my expectations to low, and started reading. (You can read my pretty favorable review of The Journeyman by Michael Alan Peck here.)

I finished reading, having enjoyed the story, but once again feeling like the author based his characterization of the Iraq veteran on what he watched on a few television shows or The Hurt Locker. Once again, I wondered if he had even bothered to seek out a female veteran to get her take on one of the main characters in the novel, one for whom her service was ostensibly a large part of the character. Once again, I thought: Why bother mentioning her service in the promotional material for the book, if you don’t spend a minute to do some research and get it right?

Here’s the deal: If you are billing one of your top character as a “veteran,” you are banking on a certain audiences interest in that aspect of the character. Thus, his or her veteran status becomes a selling point for your work. And there’s nothing wrong with that, because readers – and I count myself among them – are attracted to those aspects in which they are interested. Heck, that’s what book blurbs are there for.

However, if you don’t exert the time and effort to get the details right, then what you are writing is not a veteran, but a facsimile. And one of the problems I have with that, especially when it involves a main character or important supporting character, is that facsimiles add up. Right now, we have a lot of people writing and portraying facsimiles rather than real characters, and audiences, who probably haven’t served and whose vision of a “veteran” typically comes from news and entertainment media, incorporate these facsimiles into their  vision of who and what comprises a veteran.

A recent article on Task & Purpose explored some of the reasons that Hollywood gets things wrong, focussing on areas such as poor screenwriting, the fog of filmmaking, and physical limitations such as budget or poor communication in post-production. But I think the issue is wider. These errors, such as the wrong patch on a uniform, are easily overlooked. But situations such as getting every fundamental fact about service wrong, or relying on an easy stereotype for a military character, go deeper than just a female veteran wearing a crossed rifles branch insignia (The Unit, I’m looking at you.)

This reminds me of my experience with The Hurt Locker. I first heard of the movie by reading an article that detailed the director’s quest to correctly portray the explosions in the movie. I went to the movie focused on the explosions, and was not disappointed. Later on, watching it again, I realized the explosions were the only accurate thing about the movie. That and the scene in the grocery store. In other words – they got a few details right and wrote whatever they wanted to for the rest of it. WTF?

What is the solution to this problem? First, perhaps an acknowledgment that a problem exists, and that if you are a civilian writer, filmmaker, etc., it might help you avoid creating a facsimile and perpetuating a stereotype if you seek out a veteran, engage him or her in some conversation, and perhaps invite them to do a beta read of your work. We may be less than one percent of the population, but LinkedIn is a great place to start. Veteran-interest sites like Task & Purpose are another great place. Also, the military has what’s known as Public Affairs Officers. From my own experience, some of them are more user friendly than others, but it’s a good place to start. If you’re reading this and wondering where you can find someone to help you out, here’s a hint – drop a comment and I’ll be in touch.

This next part is directed at my fellow service members. Part of the solution will be for us to get our story out there. There are plenty of avenues. When I was part of the mil-blogging community (I guess I technically still am?) I joined several aggregation sites that served up military-interest blogs to anyone who was interested. If you have a chance, contact a site like Medium.com, Task & Purpose, etc., and see what you have to contribute. If writing is not your forte, then the Web is making it easier to communicate with those who are creating. Leave a review, or drop a line.

But most importantly, we need to take control of our own narratives. Right now, there are a lot of military people talking news and columns to each other, and a lot of civilians making entertainment for other civilians. I think we need to find some way to share the dialogue of the veteran with the news feed of the civilian, and to produce the screenplay of the veteran for the civilian audience. Only when we start interesting, marketing to, and engaging across that gap will we leave the facsimiles behind … and picking up a new book will be less of a crap shoot.

Peace.

Just hanging out in Baghdad … like ya do...

Just hanging out in Baghdad … like ya do…