Business Columns & Blogs

Adjusting to life after the military

The lives of military personnel and their families is not a subject lacking attention in this region. Between the sheer size of the installations in Pierce County, the Puget Sound region and Washington state, the number of people at them, the overseas deployments and the casualties endured in those missions – even those with little direct connection are aware of the physical presence, economic impact, issues, pressures and challenges associated with the military here.

Less considered, however, is the matter of “what comes next?”

Next, as in, life after military service for the thousands who are based here and their families. It’s a subject that is going to demand increasing attention in the next few years from individuals, families, businesses, civic and social organizations and government.

The impacts of what happens next could be even greater than those of what’s happening now.

At Joint Base Lewis-McChord, 5,000 to 6,000 people depart from the military each year. At the Navy installations at Bangor and Bremerton, it’s on the order of 2,300.

Those numbers come from Tom McLaughlin, executive director of the Kent-based Center for Advanced Manufacturing Puget Sound (CAMPS), who notes that the numbers don’t include the Navy installations at Everett and Whidbey Island, Fairchild Air Force Base, the Coast Guard (and may not factor in the National Guard or the reserves as well).

Nor do they account for the likelihood that those numbers will accelerate, as the military goes through one of its periodic cycles of downsizing.

Nor do they include the immediate family members – spouses and children – associated with each of those leaving the military.

Not all of them will stay here. Many come from other parts of the U.S. and plan to return there when their stint is over.

But anyone with experience in news-gathering interviews in this region has heard this theme more than once: “I was stationed here in the (Army, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard) and liked it so much that when I got out I decided to stay.” Either they like the climate, the topography or the culture, or they wanted to be close to services for veterans or to live near other vets – whatever the reason, the ranks of former military personnel living here are considerable already, and they’re going to grow.

Which raises some big questions, starting with: Where are they going to work? That’s already a major issue because unemployment among veterans tends to run higher than for the general population.

CAMPS has put more than 100 veterans and soon-to-depart military personnel through its M2M (military to manufacturing) program. McLaughlin, himself a Vietnam vet, says military personnel have the technical skills employers want. The big challenge is translating the military’s system of job titles, descriptions and functions into terms the civilian world recognizes. “It’s a different language,” he said.

As important an issue as employment is for military personnel and the region, it’s hardly the only one. Where will these newly minted civilians live? What kind of housing do they want? If they’re younger and starting families, where are their kids going to go to school, and later to college? If they’re older, how will that affect what they buy and what services they want? How will business be affected by these new employees and customers? Will some of the vets catch the region’s entrepreneurial bug and start new businesses? What kinds?

The region already has a full agenda figuring out the impacts of any downsizing on military operations here. That agenda will have to make room for consideration of what happens to those leaving military service. The transition to civilian life is a big deal, and as we’ll find out, it’s the community as well as the individuals who will be challenged to successfully manage the adjustment.