Transitioning From the Military to the Civilian Workforce

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A civilian is an individual who does not belong to any of the categories of combatants under international humanitarian law. Civilians enjoy protection from the dangers of military operations unless they themselves take direct part in hostilities, but even then they lose this protection for the duration of their participation (API Arts. 45.1, 51.3). The distinction between combatants and civilians is sometimes less straightforward in internal armed conflicts. The Additional Protocols to the Geneva Conventions opened up the definition of combatant to include members of national liberation movements and other such organized armed groups, and clarified that they too retain civilian status in so far as they do not engage directly in hostilities.

But the distinction between civilians and armed non-state groups is still not fully clarified, in part because of States’ reluctance to recognize these entities and afford them legal status. For this reason, the ICRC is currently conducting research and expert reflection on three issues: (1) who qualifies as a combatant for the purpose of applying the laws of war; (2) what conduct amounts to direct participation in hostilities and suspends civilian protection; and (3) what the modalities should be of such loss of civilian protection.

Another key aspect of the transition from military to civilian life is how you relate to your family, friends and coworkers. While communicating in the military may have been natural, it is important to work through ways of speaking and listening that make sense for civilians. It will likely take some time to learn how to communicate differently. Similarly, your rank will not play the same role in civilian relationships, so be sure to remove it from your name and titles when you go to a new job.

Finding a job in the civilian workforce can be one of the most difficult aspects of the transition for many veterans, but it is also one of the most exciting parts. The key is to find a way to translate your skills from the military into civilian workplace skills, and there are many resources to help you with this.

While it is true that some positions, particularly entry level clerical jobs, are harder to fill for former servicemembers than others, the trend is toward a greater acceptance of their value as employees. For example, civilians are now being recruited into more traditional police roles, such as nonhazardous patrol duties and crime scene investigations (CSI), allowing departments to free up sworn officers for hazardous duty.

In addition, there is growing recognition of the need to train civilians in emergency management and civil protection to provide assistance during and after an armed conflict. These skills are becoming increasingly important in the face of the resurgence of global violent extremism and other asymmetrical threats.

When evaluating a job offer, it is essential to remember that after taxes and benefits are deducted from your paycheck, the salary you will receive will be significantly lower than the headline number quoted in an interview. Understanding five key differences between civilian pay and LES can help you pick the right job for you and ensure that you will be financially secure once you are out of the military.