Former Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Casey knows what it’s like to experience a difficult transition out of the military.
He describes it with a story about a crossword puzzle he did after leaving the Army’s top post in 2011, in which a seven-letter word with the clue “Army head” was not “general,” but, instead, “latrine.”
“That’s kind of what it’s like,” Casey joked with student veterans assembled for his keynote presentation at the Student Veterans of America national conference in San Antonio.
“Every time you transition, it’s hard,” he told Military Times in an interview. “It’s like learning a new language.”
But veterans, he said, are well poised to succeed. “A little perseverance, and they’ll be fine.”
Casey, now an SVA board member who describes himself as the “grumpy general” of the group who asks tough questions, shared his six keys for success with student veterans at the conference.
Don’t sell yourself short
“This is probably the biggest challenge I see for people making the transition from military to civilian life,” he said.
When Casey was a graduate student at the University of Denver, he remembers feeling like the “dumbest sucker on the face of the Earth.” But, he came to realize, he already knew how to do the hard part. And the same is true for today’s student veterans, he said, reminding them that they’ve been to war and accomplished things that, in many cases, exceed the life experience of their civilian peers.
“Power through,” he said. “This is not the hardest thing you have done or will ever do.”
Learn to ask for help
It may feel awkward to ask for help after growing accustomed to military life, but many people and organizations out there want to help, Casey said.
“Take advantage of it. It’s not a sign of weakness.”
Build and use your network
“Every place I go I think we’re generally lousy networkers — people who come out of the military,” Casey said, speculating that’s because former service members are used to having their unit be their network.
Casey mentioned tools like LinkedIn, Rally Point and other networking sites as possible tools.
“Build that network,” he said. “Use it to get help and then give back. Use it to help others. That’s what vets are all about.”
“I noticed the gym wasn’t very crowded this morning,” Casey joked with the audience, before stressing the importance of exercise for physical, mental and emotional health. Even when he was in a combat zone, Casey made a point to exercise four to five times a week, he said, and recommended that student veterans start establishing workout habits now that will continue throughout their life.
“Use your benefits and follow through,” he said. “You owe it to the people coming behind you and you owe it to the country. So persevere and finish up.”
Casey said anyone who makes success sound easy isn’t telling the truth.
“Nobody — nobody — if they’re honest with you succeeds all the time,” he said. He gave the example of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs who was pushed out of the company before he came back and changed the world.
“You don’t hit home runs every time,” Casey said. But the key is being bold enough to act.