Editor’s Note: This article was written by Charlie Bailey, Army veteran and Senior Director, Site Development & Operations, USO Pathfinder Program.
Following the unforeseen development of medical issues associated with injuries sustained in Mosul, Iraq, I quickly found myself being medically retired during the summer of 2016. It was not part of the plan. With 16 years in the Army leading specialized and multi-functional teams in the infantry and military intelligence branches, combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, and multiple graduate-level degrees, I assumed that my family’s transition from military to civilian life would come naturally. I was wrong. Despite everything we had been through during my time in uniform, this was undoubtedly one of the most emotionally challenging and turbulent things that we had ever been through. For the first time in 16 years, we were alone. Furthermore, we had no idea how to navigate the civilian landscape in search of the opportunities and resources that would be necessary to ensure we landed softly on the outside.
First, I was very fortunate to have a personal network of former friends and colleagues that I had remained connected to, and that network was my lifeline. I reached out to multiple organizations hoping that they would provide a very personalized level of support that would be tailored to my situation and skillset. Unfortunately, it quickly became apparent that most of those organizations had neither the ability nor the bandwidth to deliver what they initially offered. What I needed was a personal connection to people who were genuinely interested in ensuring my family transitioned successfully.
Second, I was on a ticking timeline. While I realized that I needed to take advantage of everything the government was offering while I was still on active duty, my access to that support and those services would end the day that I took off my uniform. As is typically the case, there were resources available on the installation to help us find our way in the local community. Unfortunately, I was not aware of any organization that was willing to work with me and my spouse or had the ability to help us identify opportunities and resources regardless of our destination. Although the government programs and resources I had access to were valuable, they did not have the capacity to work with my wife and I on a personal level or to connect us to opportunities and resources that would support us in all aspects of our transition.
Furthermore, it was not just about me and a new job. Transitioning out of the military involves significantly more than that and it’s a family ordeal. Consider the fact that many (if not most) people transitioning out of the military are not actually landing in the local community; they are landing in some other part of the continental United States. I understand this aspect of the challenge very well: We were living in Hawaii when I transitioned; with a large family and the high cost of living, I knew that remaining on Oahu was not an option. As a result, we were forced to identify where we would land and what opportunities and resources were present in that community.
Additionally, my wife and children would be permanently departing from the ultimate gated community where everyone lived separate but similar lives and spoke the same language. They would need to make their way in the civilian world, living outside of an installation and next door to people who had no concept of or connection to the life they had lived previously. The challenge of transition was much larger than simply finding employment; we all needed support.
My wife had mastered life in the military environment and her closest friends were also military spouses. While we had transitioned from one installation to another throughout my career, she had developed an innate ability to identify where everything was located at each new assignment and how to quickly develop a new social support system for both herself and our children. She had never done this in the civilian world and had no idea where to begin. My children were forced move from one school to another at the mid-year point, leaving the friends they had bonded with behind and forced to find new social circles. Regardless of age, this is no easy task, and I can only credit the resilience they had all developed throughout our time in the military for helping them confront the challenge directly.
Finally, I needed to find employment in the continental United States and had no idea where to turn. I was fortunate to have developed a network of friends, colleagues and mentors throughout my time in the military that I had managed to maintain contact with. After countless hours searching and applying for jobs in industries I was not entirely sure I wanted to be a part of, that network became my lifeline. I found the USO through a connection on social media and the rest is history. My first day of terminal leave was my first day with the USO and I have been there ever since. In fact, my first day on the job was the day the USO’s PathfinderSM Program began. Unfortunately, the network that I had access to is not something readily available to most service or family members that separate from the military. As a result, the sense of isolation that many of them experience during the transition lifecycle can be overwhelming.
Although I was not able to personally benefit from it, the USO’s PathfinderSM Program helps service and family members develop action plans for their transition that considers everything outlined above, and I consider myself blessed to be a part of it. In fact, the timing of my transition could not have been better as I now serve as the program’s senior director of site development and operations. In that role, I have an opportunity to help shape the only program out there that has both the willingness and ability to holistically support military service members and their families throughout the transition life cycle. While the USO has historically played a very different role in its support to the military, I am thankful that it has responded to such a critical need as it is uniquely positioned to ensure that every family separating from service has the support needed to ensure a successful transition.