Four Military Veterans Share What It Was Really Like to Transition to Civilian Life – and Civilian Jobs

Though their journeys to Zebra Nation were very different, they all had help from Hiring Our Heroes.

Hiring Our Heroes
by Todd Virgil
May 09, 2022

Months before you leave military service, you’re sent to a series of briefings with transition counselors and veteran resource groups. They share tips for managing your finances and time and offer to connect you with any number of people who can help you on your job-hunting journey. Yet, the shift from military to civilian life is not as simple as filling out self-discovery questionnaires, following step-by-step guides, or even setting meetings with corporate recruiters. You need people in your corner who already know you, understand your worth, and can personally guide you through this unbelievable period of change. No amount of training can prepare you for the transition to civilian life.

Fortunately, there are now programs like Hiring Our Heroes that can help you align the training and skillsets you received in the military with a new job that continues to give you purpose and stability. But don’t take it from me.

Quincy Taylor, Damien Guss, Grant Valenstein, and Tristen Davidson all joined Zebra full time in 2021 via the Hiring for Heroes program. They know as well as any veteran how hard it can be to separate from the military – and how easy it can be to find a place where you belong. So, if you’re looking for a little guidance or inspiration for your own transition to civilian life, you’ve come to the right place.

Todd: Tell us a little bit about your military service.

Quincy: I was an Aviation Supply Specialist in the United States Marine Corps for 20 years, responsible for managing the logistics aeronautical material. I deployed aboard the USS Bataan in 2001 in support of Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF), then again in 2003 in support of OEF and Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF). I deployed to Iraq in 2007 in support of (OIF), and to Afghanistan in 2012 in support of OEF. I have been stationed in Okinawa Japan, North Carolina, California, Virginia and as a recruiter in Louisiana. I ultimately retired as a Gunnery Sergeant.

Damien: I also recently retired from the United States Marine Corps as a Chief Warrant Officer Three after 21 years of service. During my time in the Marine Corps, I worked as an Aviation Supply Operations Officer, which is also known as Military Occupational Specialty (MOS) 6604. The MOS role and responsibility involved supply and logistics functions of aeronautical material. This included accounting, purchasing, transportation, deployment, and management of aircraft material while still being responsible for military training. Some of the locations I was stationed include South Carolina, California, Virginia, Texas, and Japan. Also, I deployed in support of OIF & OEF in 2003, 2004, and 2013.

Tristen: I served in the United States Air Force for six years as a 3D0X3, which is a Cyber Surety Technician. During my time I was able to obtain the rank of Staff Sergeant and travel to Texas, Mississippi, Colorado, and Saudi Arabia for a deployment.

Grant: I was a Submarine Lieutenant in the Navy.  I attended the United States Naval Academy, graduated in 2015, and served six-and-a-half years in the Navy. I served on the USS Minnesota in Groton, Connecticut for two-and-a-half years, completing 400+ days at sea, a EUCOM deployment, and many local operational missions. Following my time on the USS Minnesota, I spent two years in San Diego, CA as the Pre-Deployment Training Officer and Navigation Department Officer. While there I served as an instructor to prepare submarine crews for PACOM deployments.

Todd: Why did you decide to participate in the Hiring Our Heroes program?

Tristen: I believed it was a good opportunity to network and would give me a better chance of getting a job before I even left the military.

Quincy: Same here. I decided to participate in the corporate fellowship program that Hiring for Heroes offers because I learned it was a workforce development program in which transitioning service members could work with employers on the possibility of starting a meaningful career.

Damien: My experience was a little different. A peer of mine in 2019 was retiring out of the military and told me about this great program he was going to be participating in. After talking to him and seeing him join a great company after his Cohort – which is like an internship – I decided to look into the program. The Hiring Our Heroes program was such a wonderful program to help transitioning service members, veterans, and military spouses get into the workforce.

Grant: Like Damien, I heard about the program by word of mouth. But it was actually a friend who was a Marine Corps Officer who told me about it. To my knowledge, not many Submariners are aware of it. I was very unfamiliar with the program but felt the leap from the military to my interests outside of the military was going to take some sort of divine assistance.  Stumbling upon the Hiring Our Heroes program may have been just that. I found the program gave me the confidence and experience I was looking for to interview for different positions and different jobs. 

Todd: What has the Hiring Our Heroes program offered you that you felt you would have missed had you simply used more traditional job hunting/placement tools?

Damien: The benefits the program offered were almost endless in the sense of transitioning into the workforce. My experience with the traditional job hunting and placement tools were helpful, but the level of networking and hearing others’ experiences was priceless. Group thinking and sitting in virtual webinars with industry leaders was eye opening as well.

Quincy: I second that. I learned what steps to take for a successful transition in the civilian workforce and how to leverage my military skills for employment. I think I would have missed that with a more traditional job hunting/placement.

Grant: I have researched and attempted many avenues for seeking a job outside of the Navy.  In my opinion, the greatest part of the Hiring Our Heroes program is that it gives the military member the ability to choose the right path for them leaving the military. Many other job search programs outside of the military seem more like a “pipeline” created for one specific industry or skill set. 

Tristen: It is different in the sense that you aren’t really “hunting” with Hiring Our Heroes. I had to provide a resume like other job search programs, but for me, it felt like the companies were hunting for me and wanting me to work for them versus me trying to get them to hire me. I went in with the mindset of wanting to learn more and not just go for the guaranteed job and, in the end, Zebra was my choice for that reason.

Todd: Was this your first job-seeking experience out of the service?

Tristen: If you count working for fast food chains when I was a kid, then no. However, it is my first job experience for the career field I’m in now. And Zebra is the first company I’ve worked for since leaving the service. I actually interned with Zebra for four months before coming on as a full-time employee.

Damien: This wasn’t my first job-seeking experience out of the service, either. Before the program, I had a lot of recruiters reaching out to me. But, like Tristen, Zebra is the first company I have worked for since leaving the service and it has been a fun ride.

Quincy: Same here.

Grant: Before going through Hiring Our Heroes and interning with Zebra, I attended multiple seminars, networked through LinkedIn and other media platforms, and spoke with job hunting orgs like the others. And though Zebra is my first job as a paid employee since leaving the Navy, it’s not my first job. In an effort to learn more about my interests and desired path into a civilian career, I volunteered in a program management role for a nonprofit organization and as an event planner for my local church.

Todd: What are you doing now for Zebra?

Grant: I’m a Senior Consultant for Change Management on multiple projects, assisting with and developing deliverables that promote change within the project. (Well right now, I am learning to do this as I integrate myself into Zebra.) And though my job looks different depending on the timeline and type of project, a typical day would involve project meetings followed by creating documents and decks to promote healthy change and progression in the project. Once the project is implemented, my daily tasks are to lead and assist training to sustain the change integrated by the project.

Quincy: I’m now a Project Manager so, like Grant, there is no typical day. I’m mostly responsible for hosting or joining meetings on projects and ensuring that the teams are completing the tasks in scope to achieve the project goals.

Damien: I’m currently a Global Distribution Center (DC) Process Standard Architect, and like everyone else, my typical day really does depend on the project I am working on. I like to review industry standards, talk to the Zebra DC teams regarding upcoming projects and discuss key performance indicators (KPI). My overall responsibility is to lead Zebra forward with improvements in the DCs and standardize processes globally. This is very much aligned with what I did in the military.

Tristen: I, too, am in a role that aligns pretty well with my prior service experience. I’m an Information Security Engineer, which means I’m responsible for developing/fixing the standard operating procedures we use every day within the Security Operations Center. Most of my day involves learning about the different security toolsets that Zebra utilizes and writing short breakdowns on how to do certain tasks.

Todd: It sounds like for you, Damien and Tristen, that your military skills translated well into the private sector.

Tristen: They did. I believe being put into an IT career field in the military set me up for success because IT careers are in demand and the skillset you gain from the military and certifications are transferable. It also prepared me by allowing me to become a leader with a good foundation of knowledge within IT. It gave me the ability to learn and grow as a person far more than I would have if I hadn’t joined.

Damien: I agree that I had a bit of an advantage in that my job skills were transferrable. The experiences, knowledge, and mentorship I developed during my time in the Marine Corps helped me grow into the professional I am today. Plus, the military taught me how to plan for the worst, focus, lead, and teach. However, I feel that – in any new job or company – we all need additional training. In the military, we were always training and learning daily. This is what kept us sharp and ahead of whatever obstacles may arise.

Todd: Grant and Quincy, what about you? Did you see any carryover in your skillsets even though you are on different career paths now? Or did you need a lot of training to get up to speed?

Grant: It is truly apples to oranges comparing Nuclear Submarines to Change Management. But I have found that the best change managers have a lot of experience in the field, so additional mentorship, studies, and participation in projects is required for me to be like those who have this experience. That said, the Navy actually helped me prepare in many ways. In short, I know how to handle adversity and remain flexible. Even when you don’t have the training, skills, resources, or time, composure and positivity are necessary to keep moving forward to achieve a desired result. And given that I am not an expert at change management (yet), these things are important.

Quincy: Additional training was absolutely required for me too. Though a few tangible skills did translate over from my military service, the Marine Corps best helped prepare me for this role and a company such as Zebra by instilling soft skills such as timeliness, time management, communication, and teamwork. Also, I was able to bring intangible traits such as integrity, self-confidence, and a strong work ethic with me to Zebra.

Todd: Have you found the transition to civilian life – or perhaps a career in the private sector – challenging?

Quincy: I personally have not struggled, but I know many who have.

Damien: I am one of those people who think everything is challenging when it’s new. But once you strive to learn and ask for help, it becomes easier. Luckily Zebra and Hiring Our Heroes has helped me transition easier.

Tristen: If I’m being honest, I have found the transition challenging. But it has given me the opportunity to learn so much about how cybersecurity is done without the tight constraints the military puts on us. The private sector is free to explore different toolsets from vendors that will make life easier for cybersecurity teams and make their organizations’ security posture even better.

Grant: It has been challenging for me, too, but not in a lot of the ways I thought it would be. The Change Management team and other Zebra employees have been extremely understanding in how overwhelming this transition can be. In a way, that has eased the challenge. However, there is a huge learning curve in something so different and new. Although it may be a challenge, I am excited to take it on and feel even more capable of doing so being at Zebra.

Todd: I know you are all involved with Zebra VETZ, our Veterans Inclusion Network. How has that influenced your transition to civilian life?

Quincy: I feel like that’s a trick question, Todd, considering you are a big part of my VETZ experience. But I must say that my weekly meetings with you and my other VETZ buddies – John Wirthlin and Kevin Kovarik – have influenced my transition by giving me insight on how working in a corporate environment works.

Tristen: Quincy nailed it. The VETZ community is a great part of Zebra, and it made the transition to Zebra far easier than it would have been. Being able to talk to people that are or have been in the same boat as you can really help you get through the difficult parts of your transition.

Grant: Agreed. I received direct mentorship from members of VETZ, which was very helpful during my internship and to making the transition as a full-time employee.

Damien: The amount of information and helpful people within the Zebra VETZ community has been a key factor in helping all of us feel welcome at the company.

Todd: What advice would you give to other veterans or service members preparing to transition to civilian life? What has helped you find your purpose and the right career path that may also benefit them?

Quincy: Personally, I don’t know if I have found my purpose yet. I am still learning if this is the right career path for me. But I did learn that it’s so important to start working on your transition as early as possible and get involved with any programs that help with the transition process. My biggest advice to other service members and veterans: do not close any doors for yourselves! Be willing to at least learn about other opportunities, whether they align with their career goal or not.

Damien: I agree 100%. Prepare ahead of your last day. And when I say prepare, I mean you must seek advice, have a plan, and be willing to change with your environment. Finding the right career path has been fairly easy for me. Some things I wanted were to work for a company that shared my values and a role that I found to be interesting and fun. I interviewed with about 30 companies and Zebra was the right fit for me.

Tristen: Based on my experience, I say give yourself at least one full year to prepare for your transition, and don’t rush it! And make LinkedIn your new best friend. Even if you’re not a social media person like me, networking is the most important aspect to finding a job. I hate not knowing things. So, in general I find purpose by wanting to know more and more as I progress through my career. There is always something to get better at and there is always something that I can learn. And, whatever you do, don’t stress the finish line. Just figure out what your next step is and go from there.

Grant: I think there is an inherent fear of the unknown with leaving the military. Whether its financial security for your loved ones, or landing a job you truly love, it can be easy to be overwhelmed by your fears and settle for “safe.”  The best advice I could give is to have confidence in your abilities you worked hard to develop, and don’t be afraid to reach for the job/industry you want to be in. Regardless of how far that leap may look to you, if it’s your true passion and joy then you are the person that company is looking for. Skills can be learned, passion and joy cannot. Love what you do, the rest will fall into place.

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