Veterans Administration (VA) education benefits like the Post-9/11 GI Bill and Vocational Rehabilitation are available to qualified service members who served honorably in the armed forces. While it may be tempting to set these aside for your children or spouse, using these hard-earned benefits as part of your transition plan from service warrants consideration, regardless of seniority or even your post-military career path.
Grounded /ˈɡroundid/ (adj): mentally and emotionally stable
Over the course of your military career, how many times did someone tell you to run something to ground? It’s a phrase that implies getting to the source…the bottom line…the ground truth. But what about you? When have you ever taken the time to run yourself to ground? An electrical circuit, by definition, is not complete without a return path to its source. Ground faults, or disruptions in this return path, are common causes for circuit malfunctions – corrosion, loose connections, or deteriorated wiring are often to blame. Many parallels exist in your being. We hear about it all the time, right? She has a screw loose. That guy got so mad he blew a circuit breaker. She is wired differently than the rest of us. He’s amped up. The list goes on…But when you think about all of these catchy phrases and metaphors, each has a kernel of truth. We are full of circuitry in our bodies and minds, and as you leave the military, your path back to ground is susceptible to faults and interruptions, just like electrical circuits. Taking some time to downshift and shed the emotional, physical, and intellectual stress of military service before launching directly into a second career is worthy of your consideration.
I wrote about the decision to use my Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits to attend IYRS School of Technology & Trades (founded as the International Yacht Restoration School) in Newport, RI as part of my transition plan from service. You can read that story here. I started school while on terminal leave in September 2018, and for the next five months I studied total boat systems and achieved certification through the American Boat and Yacht Council as a Marine Electrician, Marine Systems Technician, and Marine Diesel Technician. After I posted that story on my LinkedIn account, friends and former colleagues chipped in with their own experiences. Some had attended Emergency Medical Tech training and volunteered with their local fire departments, others had pursued continuing education opportunities, and others were considering similar courses of action. A number of them, however, wished they had done something of the kind before they jumped directly from one career into another.
As I reach the end of my six-month trade school experience, I would like to share some of my observations. Some are philosophical, some are personal, and some are practical, but I hope by sharing I can help others at least open up to the idea of using hard earned benefits to find a path to ground.
I can say unequivocally that the five months spent on the IYRS campus before heading out for a 1-month externship at a local boatyard was exactly what I needed. I found the experience to be a series of challenging yet enjoyable learning opportunities in an environment that maintained a degree of structure, but one without all of the regulations and rules associated with the military. Yes, I was still accountable to the school and the Veterans Administration (the source of my funding). Yes, there were exams for which I had to prepare (and they weren’t easy). Yes, there were days when I felt overwhelmed (it’s a 9-month program smashed into 6 months). Yes, I still carried over the same sense of responsibility that has governed my entire adult life (that won’t change). However, the program was one of my choosing, and I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it. I let my hair grow longer than it has ever been. I grew a beard. Most enjoyable to me, however, was that I got my hands dirty and bloody while learning by doing.
During my last week on-campus an alum from the previous class stopped by – a retired Army colonel and probably the single biggest influence other than my wife on my decision to go down this path. I had seen Jon a number of times throughout the fall and winter, but this time we took a few moments to discuss exactly what I am writing about in this blog post. He looked at me and said, “you look different…and I am not talking about your long hair and beard…you look more relaxed.” “I am,” I replied. He went on to tell me that when he first met me almost exactly a year ago at an open house event on the campus, I was practically vibrating with stress. It’s true. I was pretty amped up, and not in a good way.
Throughout the final few weeks of school a feeling of all-encompassing calm washed over me. Everything was going to be OK. All of my fears about transition had turned out to be nothing more than manifestations of an overactive, burned-out imagination. I had experienced some big wins…not the Tom Brady kind of big wins…but the kind that give you satisfaction from within. I had passed all my cert exams. I had assembled an awesome tool kit, and I knew how to use everything in it. I and my bench partner were able to get a small diesel running that had eluded the previous three classes. We brought to life a 25-year old outboard motor. We rewired a big Westerbeke generator that had been a mess when the instructors gave it to us. At least for me, these were immensely gratifying moments, not just from applying what I had learned and achieving mechanical success, but for achieving a state of catharsis…a purgation of the stress, anxiety, and uncertainty that marked the majority of my service, coupled with an influx of satisfaction that comes from working with your hands and mind.
“None of the fears I had to step through to get to this point turned out to be real.”
“None of the fears I had to step through to get to this point turned out to be real.”
I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to provide for my family. That turned out to be a lie. Between my military pension and the VA education benefits, we were just fine. Sure, we had to reign in discretionary spending, but I really believed the bottom would fall out after I had received my last active duty paycheck. It was simply fear of the unknown coupled with a deep sense of responsibility as a provider, a husband, and a father that clouded my vision. In hindsight it would have been much worse for all had I let money be the sole driver of my decision process.
I was afraid that by using my VA education benefits instead of passing them on to my children I was denying them a future. The thought never occurred to me that those benefits were designed for my health and well-being, and that my path to ground was an important pillar of our family’s adjustment to civilian life, not just my own. That said, using them for my own purpose was a huge paradigm shift. I always maintained that GI Bill benefits were for young people, not guys like me who had degrees and experience. They are for everybody, and they are there available to you for good reasons. By the way, if you need to contact the VA Education Benefits call center in Oklahoma City, do it during the third week of the month. That is when they are least flooded with calls and the time you spend in the call queue will be drastically reduced.
My fears about being the one weird, old guy in a class full of recent high school grads were misplaced, too. My class at IYRS was evenly split between young and old and it was a great group. The oldest guy in our class was 73 and the youngest was 18. There were 9 guys under 30 and 9 guys over 30. A couple of the older guys were career changers, but most of us were simply looking for some formal training and knowledge. The young guys (and one gal) were a pretty talented group, and a number of them had real-world experience in the marine trades that proved to be very beneficial for those of us with none whatsoever. They also helped me broaden my musical horizons. There were veterans in every program, too, and just having them on campus was comforting. In my class alone we had a retired Coast Guard Chief Petty Officer, and three others. Two had served in the Army and one in the Coast Guard.
My final fear also turned out to be misguided. I thought the decision to go to trade school was synonymous with quitting…with pitching out of the fight. Downshifting, taking time to regroup, eschewing corporate employment – all of these carried a pejorative context in my mind. Suffering through the stress of high-energy, high demand jobs becomes a norm when you do it long enough. It’s what you are supposed to do, right? It carries momentum, and a warped sense of pride. After a while, it’s easy to equate professional achievement with the amount of responsibility you carry or the amount of pain you can endure. I know I felt a need to “keep the press on” for fear of being left behind. But all of that is simply not true, and freeing yourself from those shackles is, well, liberating!
One final thought…I realized after attending a Career Fair in Washington, DC (the month before I started terminal leave} that we in the military are a unique bunch – motivated, experienced, disciplined, and reliable. But, those same attributes that make us desirable employees also make us easy targets for big corporations looking to fill their ranks. We are eager to continue proving ourselves, eager for the same sense of fulfillment we got from positions of leadership in the service, and unwilling to fail in any aspects of our lives. All the big companies were at the hiring event – Nike, Facebook, Google, General Dynamics, Amazon, JP Morgan, etc., and all were looking to hire vets. But in the end, I also realized that I didn’t have to take whatever was offered…that I was in control, and there was no need to walk out one door in a uniform and immediately walk through another in a business suit. By taking a corporate job simply to keep the paychecks flowing, I was solving a problem for company “X” without first addressing my own needs.
A job in corporate America or in public service might be the correct answer for you in the long run, and I do not doubt for a moment that your contributions are needed to advance America’s proud tradition of innovation, entrepreneurship, and global leadership. However, I also encourage you to ease into that decision after first finding your path back to ground. It’s a decision you will never regret, and trade school is wonderful option for gaining not only life skills, but unique experiences, fresh perspective, and much-needed catharsis.
Glenn Robbins is a member of the Fall 2018 class of the Marine Systems program at IYRS School of Technology & Trades. Mr. Robbins served in the United States Navy for 26 years in total, first as a Naval Flight Officer, followed by more senior staff positions including four years as an executive speechwriter for the Commander of all U.S. Naval Forces in Europe and Africa.