Veteran’s Perspective: My Transition

By Juan G. Ayala, retired U.S. Marine Corps Major General.

Director, Office of Military and Veteran Affairs and Operations Lead, COVID 19 Response Team for the City of San Antonio, Texas.

I retired from the Marine Corps in 2015 after 36 years of service. I had not applied for a job in over three decades and never crafted a resume. The “executive” transition class I attended before leaving the service pumped us with information regarding future employment such as “employers will be knocking down your doors,” and “you will make unbelievable amounts of money.”

We believed. As seasoned veterans, we had accumulated decades of successful leadership experience serving around the world in challenging and hazardous assignments. Back in Texas I scoured online sites, joined boards, attended bourbon tastings, lunches, networked with former colleagues, and rewrote my resume countless times. Reality soon sunk in. Landing a job would not be easy—regardless of retired rank. Rejection had common themes. “Overqualified, but thank you for your service”, and my favorite—”generals don’t want to work.” Translation: Younger personnel with longer working lives and willingness to start at the bottom are desired, and all our combat awards and command time don’t mean much to civilian employers. Months passed.

At a board meeting, I met a veteran who told me he was searching for an assistant in the Office of Military Affairs, City of San Antonio. I forwarded my resume and waited. Weeks later, I received a call telling me to prepare for something new to me—a phone interview. That interview led to others to include one with the City Manager. Even though I thoroughly prepared for these interviews, grew my hair, and sported new suits, these interviews were still harrowing. A room full of inquisitive civilians was not like walking into a room full of uniforms. I thought I had blown every interview. A month later, I was offered the job.

I accepted without negotiating my salary—did we negotiate our salaries in the military?

Before my first day, I was offered the Director’s position. The person who had asked me to apply had left the position that day.

Awkwardly dressed in a suit I arrived at the office early. No one was around except a cleaning lady who asked me who I was and then remarked, “no one really gets here until later.”

My transition was not difficult. However, good habits die hard. I still press my clothes, shine my shoes, work out, and try to keep the “middle-age spread” from my “shrinking” trousers. I am privileged to serve my community.

I tell the countless veterans I encounter to be flexible, don’t expect to start at the top, be willing to do tasks not in the job description, expect rejection, empty your own trash cans, and make your own coffee. Your young boss deserves to be there, and there is nothing wrong with folks that never joined the military. Most civilians continue to ask me if I was higher in rank than a Sergeant.

Finally, I will always be a Marine. However, whenever I have a bad day at work, I think of my new motto–“I joined the City, the City didn’t join me!”

Juan G. Ayala is a native of El Paso, Texas and a retired U.S. Marine Corps Major General. During his 36-year military career, he served throughout the U.S. and around the world. He is the former Inspector General of the Marine Corps, and his service includes four combat tours in support of the Global War on Terror, humanitarian operations in Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union and Africa, counterdrug operations along the U.S. Southwest Border, and Cuban/Haitian migrant operations in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. His last assignment was at the Pentagon where he commanded all 24 Marine Corps installations and bases. He is currently the Director, Office of Military and Veteran Affairs and Operations Lead, COVID-19 Response Team for the City of San Antonio, Texas.

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