It took me a while to get an interview after separating from the Army. After a month traveling through Europe, I got down to asking everyone I knew out for coffee and submitting resumes to those job sites that are mostly a waste of everyone’s time. I reached out to every company that claimed to hire veterans and stayed up late combing LinkedIn for anyone who could make an introduction. I annoyed a lot of people and didn’t hear much of anything except thank you for your service for months.
As savings dwindled, I insisted on holding out for something I saw a future in. I turned down offers to be a production assistant, customer service rep at a tech company with an office in the Flatiron, and a barback at a fine dining steakhouse where my friend worked the theatre crowd. I was lucky and should have taken anything I could get, but was so afraid of getting stuck in dead end jobs that I couldn’t let myself take the first step toward figuring out what I might actually want to do.
Even before I folded my last uniform into a box and moved to New York, the Colonel whose signature I needed for my separation papers told me I’d make good money as a hazardous materials inspector thanks to a certification the unit made me get. Other than my high school guidance counselor’s career interest test suggesting I’d make a good fish hatchery manager, I couldn’t think of anything further from who I was. One Naval Academy grad from a Bay Area company everyone loved for a while told me, “no one will hire you until you go to business school. I won’t even think about hiring you because you don’t have anything I need yet.”
It hurt, but he did me the biggest favor anyone could have. Plenty of companies claim to hire veterans, but for what kind of jobs? I felt misled by all the public relations campaigns hiring engineers and people with MBAs who also happened to be veterans. The obsession with skills matching doesn’t help unless you want to do exactly what you did while wearing a uniform, which for many doesn’t exist. There is no equivalent to occupations like tank gunner, artillery crew member, or infantry squad leader.
I started rewording everything on my resume to sound more corporate, less interesting than it actually was. Leading patrols in Afghanistan got reduced to collaborative leadership. Negotiating flights home for over 500 soldiers and their equipment became a project management bullet. Listening to village elders who fought the Soviets express the fears and needs of their community in town hall style meetings turned into workshop facilitation. My resume looked like everyone else’s who’d never qualified a crew for tank gunnery or called an airstrike, except I hadn’t been interning and bouncing between entry level positions throughout my twenties. I’d been busy doing other things.
Other things don’t matter to hiring managers scanning profiles and resumes for keywords though. When I did start getting interviews from desperate startups, people seemed scared by my military experience rather than impressed by it. One interviewer asked me if I’d killed anyone before making me a verbal offer in a coffee shop in Brooklyn. I kept looking.
After a few years of working with folks who were as talented as they were patient with teaching me what I needed to know, I’ve finally got enough on my resume to omit my military experience completely. Since deleting the military from my resume, I’ve gotten more interviews and offers than ever. I hate to think about what that means. During my most recent interview at a technology company everyone hates but won’t delete from their phones, a recruiter extended a generous formal offer and asked, “You were in the military?” I still haven’t gone to business school.
Upon graduating from the United States Military Academy at West Point, Joe Stanek served in Afghanistan with the First Infantry Division. He received his MFA from Sarah Lawrence College and lives in Brooklyn where he's writing his first novel.