How To Write About Your Combat Experience In Your Resume

Staff Sgt. Douglas Avery, answers a list of questions for potential Army recruits in the United States.
U.S. Army photo by Maj. Jeffrey Parker

When it comes to transitioning out of the military and into the private sector, combat veterans possess a wealth of knowledge and battlefield experience that separates them from their civilian peers. Unfortunately, sometimes that’s not enough on its own You have to be able to express it in a way your civilian peers will understand.

Which is a lot harder than it sounds. Most civilian employers have only a tangential understanding of what military service or combat entails, informed by pop culture, films, books, and occasionally second-hand knowledge.

To find out how best to make that experience translatable in the civilian sector, Task & Purpose spoke with Ben Vinograd and John Thompson of Conditions Set, a nonprofit that helps veterans and service members with their job applications.

Related: The most common mistakes veterans make on their resumes.

We asked Vinograd, the chief executive officer of Conditions Set, and Thompson, a former Marine officer and the nonprofit’s president, about the one thing that no hiring manager wants to see on a resume.

A detailed account of your combat experience.

American service members have been at war for a long time now. They’ve seen combat and have had their leadership skills tested in a brutal crucible, so it makes sense that it’s something they’d want to highlight.

Unfortunately, that type of experience doesn’t always translate well to the civilian job market.

“Hiring managers who are looking for resumes of people who are directly involved in combat do not want to see too many references to the combat mission,” Vinograd explained.

However, this doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t include that information, just that there are right and wrong ways to do it. It’s all about knowing your audience and tailoring the language to fit with the position and the company you’re applying to.

“Sometimes you get resumes where there are bullets, where they say ‘received combat action ribbon for direct combat with the enemy,’ and another bullet saying ‘responsible for the KIA of 13 Taliban,’” said Thompson. “We generally recommend that it’s probably a good idea to either completely delete this or to rephrase it in softer language, because unfortunately there’s a preconceived notion that if you’re in combat you have PTSD or might have emotional problems or something like that.”

While frustrating, it’s important to remember that the hiring manager reviewing your resume may have little to no experience with the military at large, and combat in particular.

“It's just kind of how the culture is, everyone sees movies, and everything like that and it’s obviously not the case, but in order to be cautious we recommend you tamper down that language,” Thompson explained, adding that if you’re applying to a security firm or government contracting company, you can probably keep that information in there.

Now, how do you make combat experience translatable?

First, you need to recognize that the language you might be used to using doesn’t translate well to the job you’re applying for, said Thompson.

For example, don’t write patrol.

“Instead of saying patrol, call that a project, because essentially that’s a project,” continued Thompson. “There’s a lot of planning that goes ahead of that, a lot of managing and impromptu decision making that goes into that.”

Another thing you can do is to tweak the language you use for individual units.

“If you’re a squad leader, and you’re responsible for a squad, then that’s a team,” added Thompson. “Basically, everything’s a team. Doesn't matter how big your team is. If you’re a squad leader, then you led a team of 13 individuals, if you’re a platoon commander, then you led a team of 42 or so individuals.”

The reason you do this is to make the language more relatable to a civilian audience by using terminology that’s standard within the corporate environment.

Another way to help you translate your military experience is to provide your billet, and then explain what that position was in terms that relate to the job you’re applying for.

“In the majority of cases, we have the transitioning service member include what their official titles were, then just use the first bullet underneath it to be the more general description of what that actually means,” said Vinograd. “Whatever it is, they can then use that bullet to kind of put it in context.”

However, Vinograd stressed that you shouldn’t feel compelled to completely mask or hide your military background or experience. Instead you should try to find a way to make it relatable to someone who hasn’t served.

“There’s no need to completely erase your military vocabulary, it’s just picking and choosing when you provide the military vocabulary and when you provide the translation,” explained Vinograd.

In the end, your military background and your experiences in combat or overseas are what separates you from your civilian peers; just be sure you explain it in a way your prospective employer can relate to.

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