Military Transition Lessons Learned

Military Transition Lessons Learned With Sarah Maples

We had an opportunity to connect with Sarah Maples the Founder of “After the DD-214”, which provides information, resources, and personalized assistance to transitioning service members and veterans, and Sarah Maples LLC, a writing and editorial services company. A recovering secret squirrel, serving 7 years as an Air Force Intelligence Officer. Including deployments to Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia. After leaving the military in 2007, she began serving her fellow veterans and, in 2016, Sarah became the first woman to serve as National Security and Foreign Affairs Director for the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Washington, D.C., where she advocated on behalf of 1.7 million service members, veterans, and their families.

Her writing has appeared in national media outlets, including The Atlantic, ClearanceJobs, and Task & Purpose, and in the newly released anthology Our Best War Stories: Prize-winning Poetry and Prose from the COL Darren L. Wright Memorial Awards. She recently earned her graduate degree in Publishing from George Washington University. She also holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Fairleigh Dickinson University, a Master’s in Strategic Intelligence from American Military University, and a BA in German and Russian from Tulane University.

Sarah lives in Jacksonville, FL, where she is the immediate Past President of the Women In Defense First Coast Chapter. When she’s not writing or helping her fellow vets, she can usually be found on the beach, adding a stamp to her passport, or playing the role of awesome aunt to her niece and nephew.

When you transitioned in 2007 from the Air Force what were you most afraid of during your transition? And how did you work through those fears?

Honestly, when I transitioned, I don’t think I knew enough about what I would be facing during and after my transition to be scared. Like a lot of veterans, I kept pouring my heart and soul 100% into the military right up until I left the service, and only then did I start thinking about what post-military life would look like.

What did you do well during your transition? 

I think the only thing I did well during my transition was to get my financial house in order, which gave me some much-needed breathing room when it came to the job search.

What did you do poorly during the transition and more importantly what did you learn from that failure?

Oh, so many things! For starters, I had no idea what my skills and experience were worth on the outside. I listened to the TAP staff who told me that I would have to start at the bottom of whatever field I went into, which was so untrue. I left the service with 7+ years of intelligence and leadership experience. In my final assignment, I was an O-3 filling an O-5 billet as Associate Dean of a Middle East school at the Defense Language Institute. In that job, I managed 450 students, 125 staff, a multi-million dollar budget, facilities, training, etc. I may not have been able to come in at the tip-top of an organization, but I certainly didn’t need to start at the bottom. But that’s what I did. I lowballed my first salary request so badly that the HR person literally laughed at me and asked if it was a joke! From that failure, I learned so many things; not just what I was really worth, but also that I should have done my homework, I should have put the same effort into taking care of myself and my future that I had always taken of my airmen and my mission. It’s one of the things I work so hard to do with the veterans I help now–to both give them the resources to make better choices during their transition and also to empower them to be self-reliant and really understand their value, themselves, and the transition process so they can be as successful in the civilian and corporate worlds as they were in the military.

What do you miss most about the Military? And do you stay connected to the military family?

There are a lot of things I miss about the military. I miss having a clear mission that someone else defined for me–it’s so much more challenging to define and measure success when you have to determine the mission and metrics yourself. I also miss the culture and community–that work hard, play hard, laugh hard, curse hard, always-looking-for-your-limit way of life is much harder to replicate outside the military.

I still very connected to the military community, I’ve held numerous positions in the military veteran community, including VA School Certifying Official and Academic Advisor for student veterans at a Florida college, a Department of Veterans Affairs employee, and National Security and Foreign Affairs Director for the Veterans of Foreign Wars. Today, I stay connected by providing information, resources, and individualized assistance to veterans through After the DD-214, and I also write about veteran and transition-related topics for online outlets, such as ClearanceJobs. I also stay involved with organizations like Women In Defense and look for other opportunities to engage with service members and veterans.

What advice would you give to someone who desires to work in Your Field.

I don’t know that I have a single “field,” as much as I have some core areas that have to be present in my life, namely the military veteran community and the written word. As I mentioned, through After the DD-214, I provide veterans with information, resources, and individualized assistance to help them improve their military transition and optimize their post-military life. Through my freelance writing and editorial business, Sarah Maples LLC, I help individuals and organizations, especially veterans, defense industry members, and vet-owned businesses and organizations, achieve their individual, business, and brand goals by providing writing, editing, writing coaching, and writing strategy services. The key link between those two is that I’ve taken something I care about and turned it into a way to do it that helps others, provides income, and works for my desired lifestyle. I make this point because I think it is more important for veterans to figure out what they want in their lives and then figure out how to make it happen than it is to focus on a specific field. We spend so much time in the service meeting someone else’s requirements that it’s easy to lose sight of our own needs in the transition process. Too often we say “I could do that” or “I should do that” and really we should be focusing on asking “Do I want to do that?” and “Am I interested in that?” Because a lot of the external factors that drove us during our service don’t go with us when we leave and we have to find a new internal drive that can be hard to locate when we’re doing something for the wrong reasons.

Anything else you would like to say to a soon-to-be transitioning military member?

Don’t jump right into the post-military job search without doing your internal and external homework first. It’s a common mistake–one I call “carpet bombing”–to throw together a resume and start submitting it all over the place before the hard work of thinking through what you want your post-military life to look like. So many veterans make this mistake and they end up with an unhappy result. There are plenty of resources to take advantage of before they ever get to this step. Of course, I have to do a bit of shameless self-promotion and encourage veterans to check out, read through the resources there, and reach out to me if they are interested in personalized assistance.

Since leaving the military you have made a number of career changes; are there some tools/techniques you have used to successfully make those changes?

My network has been invaluable. Applying online for a job is fine, and I have gotten a job that way, but most opportunities come from other people. The more people who know your work, understand your brand and what you bring to the table, and what you are looking for, the more they can assist you in making your goals a reality. I got one job by having what I didn’t realize at the time was a key conversation with an individual in a lunchroom (!) and another when someone who believed in me asked for my resume and set up an appointment for me to talk to her husband about a job. In both cases, the job I ended up getting was higher up than the one I’d been considering or recommended for. Part of that was because I had a strong resume but part of it was it was that I’d already been doing things right before the job ever became an option. In the first instance, I had been volunteering at the organization, answering phones, and such. I replaced a person who always showed up in jeans and t-shirt, flip flops, and messy hair, but I always showed up in appropriate office attire and did the work better than was required. So when the hiring manager went around asking about me, my “brand” was that I went above and beyond, understood what was expected without having to be told, and consistently delivered excellent work. In the second instance, I had been doing some “additional duty” type work for another entity in the organization. I wasn’t super happy about the work, because I was overqualified for it, but I still did it 100%, and the person I did it for was so impressed that I did it “flawlessly” (her word) that she recommended me for what would turn out to be a wonderful, and wonderfully challenging, job. Bottom line: build your network before you need it and your brand before you think anyone is watching.

What caused you to see the need for your Companies and how can my readers best leverage your company? 

I have two company brands. I started After the DD-214 originally as a blog in 2013, after working for two years with student veterans. I realized there were so many things veterans didn’t know when they left the service and I wanted to be able to take what I knew about the GI Bill and other resources I’d helped my students use, and help other veterans with it. Over the past year, I’ve started to expand After the DD-214 from a blog into a brand because I wanted to be able to do more to help veterans navigate the transition process and live their best civilian lives. Your mid-career officers can benefit from After the DD-214 through the content, resources, and one-on-one assistance. For Sarah Maples LLC, it’s about helping people make their writing goals a reality. That can take many shapes. I’ve helped an award-winning veteran author by editing her most recent book (B.R.A.N.D. Before Your Resume, which I highly recommend to transitioning veterans), a veteran-owned business that develops content and marketing materials for a new business line, and veterans figure out how to improve their writing and leverage it. Nothing is more exciting to me than helping veterans achieve their goals, whether those be landing their dream job or publishing their first story!

I see that you are a Veteran Transition Mentor, Can you talk about some common mistakes that you frequently see in transitioning service members. 

There are so many–which is understandable because veterans are changing not just to a new job, but also to a new culture, lifestyle, industry, standard of measurement, etc. I mentioned a few mistakes already, but I’ll address resumes here because it is one area that causes significant stress and confusion during the transition process. Veterans often approach a resume like it’s their one and only opportunity to prove their value to all employers and they end up trying to put all the ammunition on the plane. That really isn’t what a resume is, nor does it work if you’re trying to use the same one for every employer. When I work with veterans, I compare a resume to a dating profile. It’s a snapshot of who you are tailored towards attracting a specific kind of person and giving them enough information that says “I’m what you’re looking for” that they decide it’s worth going on a first date with you. For the resume, this means highlighting enough of the required/preferred/desired skills and experience on your resume that a specific employer thinks it is worth inviting you for an interview. You can always tell them more about your value in the interview, just like you can spend a first date giving the other person more details about you. But you’re never going to get that opportunity if you aren’t clear about who you’re looking for in the first place and which skills and experience they are going to find most appealing and valuable.

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