The code on Army-civilian-army-student life transition

Some feel there’s a cultural divide between Military and Civilian circles. Guest writer, Jesse Hughes, who served in the US Army Light Infantry until 2002, talks about some of this ‘anthropological’ experience facing members in transition.

His posts on the journey from soldier to civilian citizen in the workplace are excerpts from a current, larger writing project.

Jesse Hughes, MilSuccessNet guest blogger

See what YOU would do in these first scenarios. Would you let your inner voice shout out what you feel or like Jesse, apply polite polish of understanding to negotiate that long corridor between military moves and new habits in civilian life?

My Time among Civilians: An Introduction

I was raised an Army brat and knew that the Army was where I wanted to be from before I could remember. ROTC through college secured that plan and I headed into the Infantry. But plans change and life throws curves, sometimes just the right kind of curves.

I met the girl of my dreams and so, after 4 years of active duty in the light Infantry, I left the service in the summer of 2002. After exiting the service I got a master’s degree and a “real job.” That’s when I started walking among civilians.

I learned their language, their customs, and their ways. I lived as one of them, married one of them, and started a family. We decided to raise our children as civilians.

An old friend from the Army encouraged me to put on a uniform again after 8 years with the civilians . I returned to active duty, this time as a reservist. I thought I was returning to my people, to my tribe, only to find that they had moved on without me. Now I am back among the civilians and still serve in the Army Reserves. I’ve got a foot in each world, existing in both, but a native of neither.

This blog stream is for those Ronin (Feudal Japanese term for professional warriors without a master) who embark on their own journeys into unfamiliar territory, among foreigners and family. The path you chose will be your own, but know that you do not walk alone. There are others who blaze their own trails and the network you build with them will aid you in your own adventure.

It’s tough to speak the same language, dress the same, and share similar customs as those around you and yet still feel like a stranger in your own land. The truth is that you’ve changed, and so has the rest of the world. They say you can’t step into the same stream twice; don’t expect it to be like it was when you left home.

Signing on to school

So, no kidding…
There I was… on terminal leave, just married, and preparing to start school. I hadn’t checked email in a couple of weeks. I had barely created an email account before leaving active duty, and nothing in the Infantry was communicated via email. You actually SPOKE to people, face to face, or by phone if necessary. Wow, so simple.

Taking the time to WALK to someone’s office to have a conversation was replaced with emailing everyone, and cc’ing the rest, with some ridiculously long note that was more about covering your butt than about conveying information. I had no notion of this cultural difference when I arrived at graduate school.

Two days before classes started I went to the Incoming Student Coordination Office to check in. Makes sense, right?

You report to your new assignment because that’s the responsible thing to do, right?

Introduce yourself, receive guidance, etc. Yeah, that would have been too easy.

I met the head coordinator and simply waved, smiled and said, “I’m just checking in to say ‘hi’ and to see if there’s anything you need from me before classes start.”

Here’s the response, nearly verbatim: “I don’t have time to tell you all the things that I already sent in an email.” He followed this with 15 minutes of description of what was in the emails; clearly he DID have time after all.

It was all I could do not to chew some ass with that response.

If you were to start off with some BS like that in the Infantry you’d be asking for it. I mean, who talks to people that way? And then proceeds to answer their initial question anyway? Was this person an idiot? Did this staff puke lack all social understanding? Should I have ripped him a new one?

The answer to all these questions is a resounding “no,” IF you understand civilian culture.

Admittedly, it took me more than a day to figure out how that conversation went ‘south’ so quickly. Actually, it took me more like a couple of years and more interactions like this to finally start to get it. That’s why I’m convinced this is such a large cultural divide and one that’s not easy to bridge.

My military roots are still there to this day and I have to constantly remind myself that these people don’t see things the same. So, here’s the perspective I missed on this encounter:

Lesson 1
Civilians need constant reassurance of their status, position, and/or authority

Keep in mind; civilians don’t wear rank on their collar. When you meet them for the first time they know that YOU don’t know how important they are. It’s a tough line to walk to be deferential without being obsequious. You’ve got to find that balance, and each organization does it differently. But good luck as you try to figure it out.

Lesson 2
Civilians love to talk, and to show how much they know

Everyone loves to tell you how much he or she knows. (Hell, I’m doing it here. And if you’ve gotten this far in the blog you’re an enabler to my habit.) The key is to use this trait to your advantage. Get them talking; wind them up and let them go. Go back to my story. I didn’t read a single email for weeks but 20 minutes after checking in (and keeping my mouth shut) I had all the information I needed to start classes.

You Are Not Alone
Just like in any deployment, the culture shock will wear off and dealing with the locals will get easier with time. You are in a new place, but it’s not as hostile as it might appear at first. Civilians are just people, like people anywhere.

One day at a time. One day at a time and you’ll become comfortable in your new environment. Just hang in there.

About the author
Jesse Hughes served in the US Army Light Infantry until 2002. He has a BA in Economics and an MBA from the University of Chicago. He provides Strategy Consulting to commercial and federal clients. A Bears fan, he’s still willing to acknowledge that he has a softer side; that side which enjoys long walks on the beach at sunset.




  1. I’m was a Army Brat from the 60s and 70s. My father did 30 years and my sister 7. I did not take the military path, but I will never get used to the civilians. Thank you.

    • Helena Kaufman says:

      Thanks for your observation. It gets curioser and curioser, this mil-civvy (my words) cultural divide.
      Being a writer, and civilian, I now wonder what examples stand out for you in life?
      My dad was in the military as was my maternal grandfather, but not in my lifetime memory. I know some habits such as care of our belongings was a very purposeful and disciplined routine we were taught.

  2. Thank you for that post. My husband and I have been there…twice, as my husband served in the military twice. We have made it in the civilian world, but miss the military. Civilians have nothing to talk about. It is hard to relate to them. Hard for them to relate to us.


  1. […] Mary E Raynor is a member of the Military Writers Society of America, but today, she’s our guest blogger. She was inspired to write this post after reading Jesse Hughes ‘s post on life with civilians.   […]

  2. […] up on Jesse Hughes registration to join student life  then read on about business school in his own […]

  3. […] One of our fave Go To ‘business guys’ on the MilSuccessNet guest writer roster is Jesse Hughes. We like that his point of view is a mash up of his military mindset and on the ground experience with the light infantry with his fresh look at business theory through the added lens of his Economics B.A. and an MBA.(Read his post on his college registration experience here) […]

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