Back to the ‘Day Job’: A Reservist Reflects

As a captain in the Indiana Army National Guard, I’ve been on active duty since Jan. 2, 2003, and serving in Southwest Asia in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom since Feb. 12, 2003. I’ll be returning to my job as a manager for a chemical company this month. It’s been a long year, but in the past few weeks I’ve begun to think about going back to my civilian life and career.

Military duty has separated me from my work before, but the differences between then and now are vast. Then, I was 25 years old, single, working in an entry-level job, on duty for only five months, in the U.S., for training. Now I’m 37, married with two kids, in a more senior position, on duty for more than a year, in a foreign country, for a war.

In one major way, the separation has been the same. Active full-time military duty creates a time-warp effect. It’s hard to describe. Imagine walking out of your life one day and into a completely different, separate life the next. Both lives continue to move forward, but in different directions. I have a mental picture of how everything was when I left, and, in general, that’s how I expect it to be when I return. I hope to ease my readjustment to civilian life by observing the changes and proceeding slowly. These are the questions I ponder as I anticipate my transition back to the working world.

  • What will it be like to have a regular job again?

The Army isn’t my regular job. However, after being deployed, I have a renewed respect for the dedication it requires. I’ve enjoyed my service, but it’s time to resume my career. What will it be like to go to work at 7 or 8 a.m. and leave at 5 or 6 p.m., versus working or being on call 24-7 for possibly very hazardous duty? In Iraq, each day had an indefinite conclusion because each one built on the next. In the civilian world, when my workday is done, I’ll depart for my home and family. In Iraq, when the day was done, it never really ended, it just got dark, and I slept until I picked up the next day.

  • What skills will I need to relearn?

I was the project manager for my employer’s enterprise-software implementation in Indianapolis and Belgium. I was a “power user” of the system and learned new applications quickly. Now, I can’t recall as easily how to use the system. And, in the military, I haven’t had to worry about the financial implications of my decisions to the same extent as I do in the civilian world.

Additionally, I wonder what interpersonal skills I may have lost. In the service, missions are conducted with orders, and orders are orders. Work in civilian life is conducted through instructions. Will this affect my ability to manage successfully? Leadership is a critical skill in business as well as in the military. I’ve seen examples of both good and poor leadership in the service. I’m sure the lessons I’ve learned in Iraq will help me to be a better leader in the corporate world.

  • How critical will the missing year be to my career advancement?

We’ll see how it goes. I’ve learned skills that may prove invaluable in some future stressful business situation. They should help mitigate the loss of time. In addition, I’ll return with a fresh perspective without being a real outsider.

  • How will my co-workers react to my return?

I’ve had great support from my civilian employer and friends there since I was alerted through to the deployment of my unit “boots on ground” for an additional 365 days. Without that support, this deployment and separation could have turned out significantly differently. There may be some concerns about how I’ll react to certain stresses. There may be questions about my experiences in Iraq. The hardest to explain will be the time-warp effect and just how different Iraq is from the U.S.

  • How difficult will it be to balance work and family time?

For the past year, I haven’t had to worry about balancing my personal and professional lives. About the only thing I could do in my downtime while deployed was to keep in touch with my family. At home, I have a 17-month-old daughter whom I hardly know, a five-year-old son who’s grown like a weed, and I haven’t lived with my wife for 14 months. At work, I’ll have been away for nearly 15 months and the business climate has shifted. Reintegrating into both of these lives at the same time will be a challenge.

In summary, I’m keeping an open mind. I’ve had some briefings on what to think about when making this transition, and I have more to attend. I have expectations about every aspect of my life when I return, and some parts probably won’t live up to those expectations. My family, co-workers and employer have been very supportive, so I’m not as worried about being disappointed as much as I’m hoping I can live up to their expectations.

— Mr. Thorne is a captain in the Indiana Army National Guard. Prior to his deployment, he was a demand manager for the Chemicals Division at Reilly Industries Inc., a chemical company based in Indianapolis. He has a master’s degree in business administration from Indiana University.

By Jason Thorne

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