Retired General David Petraeus on Transitioning to Civilian Life

Gen. David Petraeus
Gen. David Petraeus, commander, Multi-National Force - Iraq, briefs reporters at the Pentagon April 26, on his view of the current military situation in Iraq. (DoD/R.D. Ward)

The following is an interview conducted by Liz McLean with retired General David Petraeus. Liz had the opportunity to ask Petraeus about issues related to transitioning from the military to the civilian world. His answers shed light on best practices for all service members whether they plan on separating within a few months or retiring within a number of years.

Liz: As you grew in rank, was there a point that you started to think about the transition to civilian life? If so, when was it, and what were your biggest fears?

Petraeus: I did not spend much time thinking about transition to civilian life over the years. Periodically, I thought that one pursuit or another might be intellectually stimulating and rewarding; however, I did not do any serious thinking about what I might actually do in civilian life until after I left government. I then undertook a five-month process to determine what opportunities existed, to evaluate each of the opportunities, and to negotiate the specifics of those opportunities I ultimately decided to pursue. In fact, I have been very fortunate to develop a wonderful portfolio of business, academic, speaking, and veterans support endeavors, and I have enjoyed the new pursuits enormously. 

Liz: In your opinion, from what you have seen over the years, how do you feel the military prepares members for their exit to the civilian world (ranging from a young enlisted to a Senior Officer)? If you could aid in assisting the programs—what would you change? What do you think is still working currently?

Petraeus: I think that the military is doing a better job of helping its members prepare for the transition to civilian life, having expanded the transition course and pursued other initiatives to ease the move to "civvy street." Having said that, there is undoubtedly more that could be done, including getting those preparing for transition to think farther ahead and not wait until their final weeks to explore opportunities that might be available to them. Just helping those in uniform take advantage of the various online sites that help make job opportunities known, that help mentor new veterans, and that offer various elements of advice would be helpful, too. Those are the initiatives I would pursue if still in uniform.

Liz: What words of wisdom would you give to a service member seeking to better set themselves up for success while transitioning? What would you say to lessen their fears?

Petraeus: My words of wisdom are actually statements of the obvious, I'm afraid! The key is, of course, to think ahead and recognize that the best opportunities will happen where a firm invests in the education and development of new employees, veterans included. In that regard, we veterans need to have a degree of humility about what might be needed for us to become value-added in pursuits that might be fairly technical and, at least, very different in the expertise required from what we have done in uniform. That's OK; it is reality. And, with time, the attributes, experiences, and qualities we bring from our time in uniform will make themselves felt. But, development, education, mentoring, and assistance will be essential if we are to succeed in many civilian endeavors.

Liz : What jobs or assignments prepared you best for civilian life?

Petraeus: Various positions in the military prepare us in different ways for jobs in the civilian world. Some develop or reinforce leadership skills, other provide directly-transferable technical capabilities. It is likely, however, that many in uniform will perform tasks in the military (e.g. tank crewmen, machine gunner, etc.) that are not directly transferable to jobs in civilian life – though many of the tasks performed required in those fields require the ability to master various skills – and that ability will help in civilian life too. So, the idea is to develop in a general sense, and to capitalize on those general skills, attributes, and abilities when pursuing what likely will be considerably different jobs in civilian life. In my view, in fact, military service provides a wonderful foundation on which to build for the rest of one's life.

Liz: What are your views on experience versus education? (I receive this question a lot from young enlisted making the transition). I was big (and still am) on educating yourself, but for some it is almost a badge of honor to not need it. 

Petraeus: I think both education and experience are needed. One without the other seldom is sufficient, at least if one hopes to progress in a particular field. 

Liz: How do internal military politics differ from civilian politics? How did the political experience or lack thereof that you gained in the Army affect your approach to politics in the civilian sector?

Petraeus: I don't know that it is politics that are the dynamic; rather, it is all about relationships and understanding the responsibility one has to be forthright and capable of speaking truth to power in a way that is not "in your face" – i.e., that is constructive and respectful and positive in tone, rather than confrontational, disrespectful, and negative.

Liz: What do you think about the grass is greener concept of civilian life to the military work life concept? Do you think one is necessarily easier than the other? 

Petraeus: The reality is that one has to truly commit fully to succeed in uniform and to also succeed in civilian pursuits. Life is a competitive endeavor, whether that life is in uniform or in the civilian world.

Liz: What would you say to employers who are questioning why they should hire military members? Why should they hire them, and what should they do to retain them?

Petraeus: Employers should hire veterans because it is the right thing to do given what veterans have done for our country. And, as importantly, it is the smart thing to do in a business sense because veterans bring a wealth of very valuable capabilities, skills, attributes, and experiences.

Liz: How can the civilian populace better help fight the stigma of PTSD, and can employers help to bring these individuals into their organizations without fear? 

Petraeus: War changes everyone, albeit in many cases it produces a greater appreciation of the blessings of life. But it also obviously results in terrible losses and wounded warriors, some with unseen wounds. Employers just need to have frank conversations with the veterans they considering for employment, as veterans need to have frank conversations with prospective employers. And they all need to understand the environment, context, and so on of employment so that those with physical and unseen wounds can work through the issues they present.

Liz: Is there anything else you want current service members to know to motivate them in the service? On their transition out? 

Petraeus: There is no greater privilege than serving a cause larger than self in uniform, and doing it with others who feel the same way. Having said that, there are innumerable pursuits in the civilian world that are incredibly rewarding, stimulating, and important to our country. Indeed, our nation's economy is the foundation of our national power, and those in the civilian world obviously are the ones who construct that foundation! Veterans engaged in such efforts take great pride in having contributed to the security that makes our economic endeavors possible – and to then contributing to the country's economic growth, especially at a time when our economic growth has been so impressive and is poised for further expansion.

The reality is that military members are given advice day in and day out about what they should or should not do as they ready for their transition, but rarely do they receive the advice from someone who has succeeded so well in both the military and civilian side. General Petraeus has seen many service members come and go throughout his career, and has been involved at the highest levels of America's government. His tips and humble transparency are words that hopefully will instill both confidence and growth. General Petraeus' legacy of mentorship will last a lifetime.

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