Veteran Life Lessons Beyond the Uniform

The recent headlines are creating quite a backlash. CNN labeled the Ryan-Murray bipartisanauthor budget deal as Congress double-crossing retirees. Military.com called it a controversial cap imposed on cost-of-living adjustments for “working age” military retirees. Then, after forwarding it for Presidential approval, Senator Ryan started back-peddling, saying that “any changes to cost-of-living adjustments should not apply to medically disabled retirees.”  The projected COLA cut for nearly 800,000 military retirees would save the government $6 billion over 10 years and consequentially shave $83,000 from a typical enlisted members’ retirement after twenty years of serving their nation. Senator Jeanne Shaheen is speaking up in opposition and pushing the Military Retirement Restoration Act, saying that “there are plenty of other ways that we can find budgetary savings rather than cutting retirement benefits for the men and women who have served our nation in uniform.”

One has to wonder about the tally on time and money in these maneuvers. Such behavior would likely be labeled as poor decision making and an embarrassment in Corporate America. The Military Officers Association of America, among others, is encouraging veterans  to write their congressmen and reject the COLA cuts. Moreover, these developments are yet another wake-up call that — clearly — “big government” is not the pillar of financial security for military retirees (or anyone else!). A host of organizations are cropping up in support of entrepreneurship, and for good reason. Military veterans have all the assets to do very well as entrepreneurs: unwavering commitment, exemplary leadership, translatable skills, and resiliency in spite of obstacles.

Over the past couple of months, I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know a fellow U.S. Air Force veteran and founder MeinAfricaof Transitioning Veteran dot com. With nearly one million veterans set to transition into civilian life over the next five years (some as military retirees), Steve Maieli’s mission and insight will no doubt be of help to countless veterans. He’s written extensively about the separation process and military benefits, to include regular contributions to Military Times, Air Force TimesArmy Times, Navy Times and Marine Corps Times — in addition to providing a wealth of resourcefulness on his own blog. From treasuring family relationships to answering the call of duty, Steve Maieli has made it his mission to pass on veteran lessons for living and serving well. Here’s our Q&A chat of the story behind Steve’s initiatives:

Tell us a little about your military service. What branch did you join and why? How long did you serve and in what capacity?

I’m a veteran of the U.S. Air Force, I served from 1999-2003. I served in the 3rd Security 2flagForces, stationed at Elmendorf AFB in Alaska. My only big deployment sent me to Saudi Arabia for 4 months in the summer of 2001, just before 9/11. I decided to join the Air Force for two reasons:

1) The Discovery show “Wings,” which was all about military aircraft, caught my attention. As a teenager watching that show with my Dad was ‘father and son time.’ Together we sat side-by-side watching this show every week, and I thought “being around these aircraft would be the greatest experience of my life.” I was hooked to knowing everything about the military.

2) My father is a Vietnam veteran. With his guidance and help, my Dad was right there to give every bit of information he could share with me about serving in uniform. So I knew, what better way to start my new adventure as a young, independent teen, than to follow in my father’s footsteps and join the Air Force just like he did — before he could get drafted into some other branch.

What were the hardest parts of re-entering the civilian workforce? Is there anything in particular you miss about being an Active Duty member?

The toughest part about transitioning back into civilian life was just simply doing it. I didn’t have the wisdom then that I have now. Thinking about what I was going to do when I got home really never crossed my mind. So, returning home and having to start from scratch took a bit longer than I had planned. I would find myself struggling to stay positive and keep the hope that eventually everything would work out. After a matter of 8 months, I finally landed a job and began school; once my mind was focused, I never turned back.

I miss a lot of things about the military, especially the little things. You learn quickly to enjoy the little things like the biscuits and gravy from the Chow Hall. You won’t find real country style biscuits and gravy here in New York where I come from. But something I really miss, to be honest, is the camaraderie. There isn’t much of that in the civilian sector. In the military, you are given an opportunity to work side-by-side with men and women from all over the U.S. and overseas. The bonds you share with one another are truly something you just don’t see in the civilian sector, and I feel that’s the reason we’re the strongest military in the world.

You founded an organization to help other veterans transition. What prompted the idea? Would say that you’ve always had an entrepreneurial side just waiting for opportunity?

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Never in my life did I think I would be in a situation where I am helping so many veterans out there, let alone write for the Military Times. It started with an idea after a friend and I separated from the military, feeling that we didn’t get much out of meeting with a separations counselor. We returned home with a book that had information in it, but like most of us young adults, I just tossed the book aside and hopped on the internet for information. After I realized I had a huge collection of great websites to help us veterans, I decided to put my own website together. Today, it’s still the original website I created, but I’m hoping to revamp it soon.  I always had a creative mind, and for once I decided to put an idea to work. Now, I literally have thousands of visitors reading my blog and using the resources I’ve organized into a simple format on Transitioning Veteran Wiki.

Being an Entrepreneur — if that’s what people want to call me — is an incredible and honorable title. I never thought I would be in this position, but I couldn’t be happier. I love what I’m doing and am now ready to bring more ideas to life, to further help fellow veterans, and prove to myself I can do it.

What do you love about operating “Transitioning Veteran” and what do you find most challenging? What lessons could you pass onto other veterans trying to create an organization to help others?

I love the interaction I have with people from all over who are looking for help with transitioning. I also love the challenge of trying to make this a better resource to help all in the military community. Most challenging for me is being a small fish in a big pond. Drawing attention to what you’re doing is not that easy, especially without the funds to get out and market your product. Yet, TransitioningVeteran.com is getting much more attention than when I first started back in 2008. There are still so many veterans and organizations that still don’t know what the site holds for them. It’s not a website solely for our veterans and dependents; it is a website for Federal, State, For- and Non-Profit organizations — all of whom also have great information and/or support for veterans.

For fellow veterans looking to help others, I would say: being yourself and being open are important. Share a little about yourself and what you’ve dealt with in life, yet overcame. Sharing like that can get a struggling veteran to open up and understand that there is help out there, and they don’t have to go far to get it. If you’re starting up an organization, it takes time. But if you’re passionate, people will see it and be there to support you.

Along with sharing resources, you’re obviously an astute researcher and writer. You contribute to the Military Times on a regular basis. What are the gaps between military service and community service; what issues should veterans be prepared to face?

One of the biggest issues veterans need to be prepared to face, is that once they enter the civilian world, they no longer can sit and wait for someone to direct them. When we separate from the military, we are on our own, and if there was ever a time to motivate yourself, it is when you separate. Veterans will return home and one of the biggest mistakes veterans make, is simply not ask for help — or  not asking questions to learn what all is out there to help them. As a veteran who experienced this myself, I learned it’s up to you to map out your life and strive to achieve goals that you’ve set for yourself. The civilian world will leave you behind, so be prepared to create a game plan way ahead of leaving the military. Be ready to hit the ground running.

Your blog often provides personal reflections of your experiences. One that particularly struck a chord with us is about those you’ve looked up to in life. You called the post “Inspired By Many” and you spoke of several mentors, including your grandmother.  Knowing that we spotlight life’s most difficult journeys, please share how that time of loss continues to affect you in a profound way.

In that post I spoke about two very important figures who were part of my life. Sadly, both my gram copygrandmother and my first dog (Duke) suffered from cancer. One may think “how can a dog be a mentor or have an affect on someone?” Well, for me this dog meant the world to me. I adopted Duke as a puppy when I was just entering 9th grade. For the next 4 yrs as a young teenager, it was on me to train him and take care of him, and boy did I learn a lot about raising a pup. The summer of 1999 was the summer I left for the Air Force, and at that point Duke was 4 years old. While serving in uniform, I got the bad news that Duke was diagnosed with Cancer in his leg and it needed to be removed. When I separated from the service in 2003, I returned home to see Duke for the first time since his cancer diagnosis. It was heart breaking to see my dog still waging his tail, while standing on three legs. However, it wasn’t long before Duke showed me the strength that truly continues to inspire me til this day.

He proved to me, that no cancer was going to hold him back. It was absolutely incredible to watch him push forward, never letting the cancer keep him down. Then, when Duke was 7 years old, I had to put him down due to a stroke. It was one of the hardest things for me, but it also taught me so much. Through Duke I learned to push on in life, no matter what challenge you face.

My Grandmother was another huge inspiration to me. Although I was at a young age when she passed away and didn’t get much time with her, she was the strongest lady I’ve ever known. I remember the times I would visit her when all she could do was sit in her chair because she was suffering with bone cancer.  She would constantly be in pain because medications that often help today weren’t so available back then. Yet, when her grandkids came to visit, you wouldn’t believe she was suffering with so much pain. My grandmother fought the pain by smiling and showing her love for her grandchildren. Those days of spending time with her while watching wrestling on television, and hearing her scream in Italian at the wrestlers are treasured moments that I will never forget. The way she fought through bone cancer and found a way to always smile for her grandkids continues to inspire me to never lose my smile.

Both of them are a huge inspiration to me, and I frequently remind myself of how strong they were. Nothing got in their way of enjoying life and the people around them. That is how I want to live my life, thanks to my Grandmother and my dog Duke.  I will never forget the profound way they affected my life.

We created “Bratland” to promote understanding for the issues facing military families, while spotlighting the lives of military brats. Does your organization also address issues that family members face alongside their “transitioning veteran” – what’s the top concern and what do you recommend?

 Yes, and I believe the biggest concern is that civilians often don’t understand what families go through while living the military life-style. I have seen it with my own eyes; families break apart because of the separations during deployment. It’s not easy for any family to deal with the deployments of today. What was once 6-month deployments, has now turned into one year deployments. We already know being absent from the family can cause numerous problems to erupt. More services need to be provided for military families, within and outside the military. The issues they face aren’t given enough of a spotlight, and we owe it to those military families.

Let’s close slightly off-topic. If your wife were engaged in this e-chat, what would she say about her veteran husband’s whimsical side? Tell us something about you that wouldn’t turn up in a Google search.

She may talk about my creative side, a side that comes up with off the wall ideas. I’ve realized that I want to be one of those guys who doesn’t take the traditional route in life. To be one who does something he truly enjoys and is passionate about. I’m always thinking of what else can I come up with next. Like the entrepreneur, Elon Musk, who’s CEO of Tesla … and other big companies leading the world to a better tomorrow. I was always one to think of wacky stuff, but never confident enough to do anything with those thoughts, until very recently. TransitioningVeteran.com was just an idea. Then, one day I said, “I need to share this with the military community because it could be my time to prove myself.  Maybe I can bring an idea to life, while also helping others who are in the situation I was.” Now, it is actually happening and I’m ready to bring more ideas to life — no matter how wacky they may be.

CLICK HERE to get in touch with Steve Maieli.
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