My transition from military to civilian life was difficult, and even after more than eight years, it still seems to be a work in progress. I was fortunate to have a job lined up and waiting for me when I separated from the Air Force; an old friend from my pre-enlistment college days was working as a teacher, and knowing that I was going to need a job while I went back to college, helped me to secure a position as an instructional assistant for special education.
Prior to separation, I was required to attend a mandatory series of briefings called the Transition Assistance Program, or TAP. While intended to provide information to separating servicemembers to ease the transition from military to civilian life, I found TAP to be essentially pointless and a waste of my time. Administered by the Department of Labor, TAP focused exclusively on resume writing and job hunting, with a primary focus on funneling servicemembers into civilian government jobs. No information was provided on how to use the GI Bill, how to request transcripts for training received in the military, or how to compose good essays for college applications. When I posed these questions to the people running TAP, they were unable to answer them. When I finished the program, I was no better prepared for my plan to go to school on the GI Bill than when I started.
When I left Turkey, where I had been stationed for just over a year before I separated, I flew to Los Angeles Air Force Base to complete my outprocessing. Naturally, this wouldn’t go smoothly, either. The base, it turned out, was geographically separated; while maps showed it as being located adjacent to Los Angeles International Airport, this was actually only true for the operational buildings, and the housing and temporary lodging facilities were located several miles away. I was taken at first to the operational side of the base by the airport shuttle I had chartered, only to discover that I was nowhere near where I needed to be, and it took several hours to correct the error, while the other passengers in the shuttle were delivered to their destinations across the greater Los Angeles area.
Taking a bus to the operational side of the base the next morning, I found the office for my outprocessing easily enough. I had all of my paperwork in order, so the appointment went pretty quickly. Once it was over, I met up with an old friend who lived about an hour or two from Los Angeles, and who was kind enough to drive me around for the day. I bought myself a new cell phone, and we went to my dad’s house in Moreno Valley. I stayed there for a few days, until I found myself a place to live.
As it was September, the school year was already a month old by this point. I had a fair amount of paperwork to complete before I could start working at the job I’d lined up, but that was nothing new to me. It took nearly a month, but soon I was working again, now as an instructional assistant for special education at the high school level. The kids were amused by the fact that, having grown accustomed to much warmer weather in the middle east, I spent the first few months at work wearing heavy sweaters and jackets, while they still wore t-shirts and jeans, but I eventually adjusted to the change in climate.
My ultimate goal, of course, was to return to school, finish my bachelor’s degree, and, at that point, complete a teaching credential. With the school year already underway, I expected a delay in registering for classes, but anticipated being able to begin in the spring semester. I did not expect that I would have to fight with the admissions office over my residency status. Yes, I hadn’t been physically in the state in several years, but I’d been on active military service during that time. Indeed, I was still paying California income taxes. It was an unnecessary, uphill battle, and by the time I had convinced the school that I really was a state resident and didn’t need to be charged out-of-state tuition, spring semester was nearly over.
When I finally started classes once more in the summer of 2008, I discovered that I was only a handful of classes away from completing an associate’s degree in journalism, which I’d started before I enlisted. I signed up for those classes, and by December, I walked in the graduation ceremony at Fullerton College, having finally finished that degree. Immediately afterward, I began work on a new degree, this time in history, with the intent on transferring to California State University, Fullerton, where I would earn a bachelor’s degree in that field.
Three semesters passed, and I continued working as an instructional assistant. After my first year, all of the full-time aides were unceremoniously laid off by the district, then re-hired as part-timers, in a bid by the school district to cut costs by eliminating our benefits. Our union sued, and while we didn’t get our hours back, we did get our benefits restored. This actually worked to my advantage, as it allowed me extra time where I could sign up for classes that would have otherwise conflicted with my work schedule, and without losing my medical benefits. This was of extra concern for me, as I’d become extremely sick during the months that the union was fighting for the restoration of our benefits, and was only able to seek medical help through the on-campus medical clinic. I’d caught a severe strain of the flu that year, and developed a severe cough and walking pneumonia that led to me losing my voice for several weeks.
My experiences working in the special education field also altered my career plans. Originally, I had planned simply to get a credential in social sciences, to go with my history degree. I quickly learned, however, that not only was getting a job as a history teacher… shall we say, problematic… but I actually did enjoy working in the special education field, which was a somewhat less problematic field in which to find a job. I focused on finishing my history degree, with the only change being the subject in which I now intended to later get my teaching credential.
For two years, I went to work, I went to school, and I went home. I had a handful of friends, but never really seemed to connect with them. That changed when I transferred to Cal State Fullerton. Soon after I started classes, I became involved with the Student Veterans Association. I soon found myself surrounded by people who were all going through the same things as me. We all had problems with how the VA was handling our GI Bill claims; the same conflicts with professors and other students; the same worries about balancing work and school. Our backgrounds were diverse, but we all shared a common bond as veterans. It didn’t matter if we had been in the Air Force, Army, Navy, Marines, or Coast Guard; we were all in it together, and had each others’ backs.
I think, more than anything, my involvement with the Student Veterans Association at Cal State Fullerton helped make my transition to civilian life an easier one. I made more friends in the SVA than I had anywhere else, and have had a stronger bond with them than any other friends. I shared an apartment with one of the veterans I met through SVA, and through her met the love of my life. Shortly after moving into a two-room apartment with my friend Claire, a Coast Guard veteran, I met Megan, who had been Claire’s friend since high school. We became friends, and after a couple of years, I decided to ask her out. We started dating, and soon our friendship became a deeper bond. Three years later, we were married. Meeting Megan is, unquestionably, the best thing that’s ever happened in my life, and if not for my involvement in SVA, that might not have ever happened.
Although my involvement with SVA has helped make the transition to civilian life easier, it remains a struggle at times. After joining the group, I finally filed a disability claim with the VA, and later filed another claim for other problems I didn’t want to face yet when I filed the first claim. I still get frustrated sometimes with some aspects of the civilian world, and having a friendly ear to turn to when the frustrations get to be overwhelming has been a godsend.
Many things that civilians either take for granted or don’t even notice are almost unbearable to me now. Fireworks, once a beloved part of Fourth of July and New Year’s celebrations, cause me to tense up so severely that I practically jump out of my skin when one goes off unexpectedly… and sometimes even when I know that it’s coming, if it’s loud or close enough. Being stuck in large crowds can send me into a panic that I have to struggle to control, because my mind can’t help but bring up every possible worst-case scenario–and with a background in antiterrorism as well as chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) defense, I can think of quite a few. Don’t even get me started about having my back exposed in public…
Despite these problems (for which I’ve been getting some help from the VA, now that my disability claims were filed), I remain immensely proud of my military service, and given a choice, I would do it all over again. I fear ending up like one of the thousands of homeless vets I see on the streets from time to time–doubly so, now that I have more than just my own welfare to consider–but I try to put that fear at the back of my mind. Asking for help when I need it has never been easy for me, but it’s easier now that I have an incredible group of people–both family and friends–who are there for me when I need them the most. From big things like helping to fix my car when it breaks down, to smaller things like sending me notes about new job openings that I might be interested in, or even just someone to lend an ear and share a drink when needed. They’ve got my back, and I’ve got theirs. We’re in it together. We’re veterans.