There is a long-standing joke at West Point that when wearing civilian clothes, cadets can spot each other a mile away. I tested this theory multiple times as a cadet, and it proved true every time. In the civilian world, this same “joke” remains accurate. Here in the nation’s capital, I can spot a Marine and a soldier a mile away. Here’s how one generally dresses: First, he has what we refer to at West Point as a “pizza pocket haircut,” known in the vernacular as a high and tight. If it is the summertime, he is wearing socks with leather sandals, a belt in his cargo shorts, and a short-sleeved collared shirt. Oakleys are the sunglasses of choice.
Now, if the Marine or soldier is still on active duty, then this summer uniform is acceptable. Service members are allowed some leeway with their dress; they have more important things to deal with other than ensuring that they have good fashion sense. (Don’t let my friends, soldiers, or noncommissioned officers hear me say that.) But, if the Marine or soldier is no longer on active duty, then it is time to upgrade the look and attire.
How does this relate to the business world, one might ask. Well, as much as I love my fellow veterans and warfighters, I should not be able to spot you amid a crowd simply based on how you are styled. The haircut is generally the first indicator. Grow your hair out. Please!
When meeting with fellow veterans, it’s perfectly fine to swap stories and talk about the good old days, but don’t look like undercover soldiers. Let your resume and personality represent your experience, not your haircut. Growing your hair out does not mean that you have to conform, but it does say, particularly to employers, that you have embraced the next phase in your life.
Another good tip to remember is not to buy all of your suits from the PX. I love the PX and grew up going to and hanging out at them my entire life. The PX sells quality clothes. There is nothing wrong with owning a suit or two from there, but think of it like this: If your peers are getting out of the service at the same time as you, where do you think they are getting their suits? The PX. We had the same issue at West Point. We all purchased our first suits from the Cadet Store, aka the C Store. The suits were of good quality, but there were only so many selections, and many of us owned the same generic “was just discharged from the military” suit.
When purchasing a suit that you intend to wear to job interviews or business networking events, select one from a cost-efficient civilian store that represents your personality and professionalism. Employers respond well to an individual who has put time and energy into his or her appearance. It speaks more about you as a viable candidate than you may even realize.
The bottom line is when it comes to representing yourself in the civilian workforce environment, let your veteran experience be a surprise, not something that people can laze a target on a mile away.
Terron Sims, II, is a West Point graduate and veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom. He is a Veteran and Military Family (VMF) policy expert and is on the Board of Principals for the Truman National Security Project.