By Sydney Johnson
For many service members, retirement or transitioning out of military life can feel daunting. From finding a new job to navigating VA benefits, there’s plenty about making the leap into the civilian world that can leave even the savviest service member feeling uncertain.
To help make the transition to civilian life a little easier, the USO offers service members and their spouses support through the USO Pathfinder® Transition Program. Through the program, USO Transition Specialists work with service members and military spouses to develop a personalized Action Plan, which can include connecting them with professional and personal resources and services that are best suited to their goals. USO Transition Specialists tailor each USO Pathfinder experience to each client so they can thrive as a veteran or military spouse, both personally and professionally.
In 2019, more than 10,000 action plans were completed by service members and spouses, with thousands of additional military family members served in 2020. We caught up with two veterans who used the USO Pathfinder Transition Program over the past few years to hear how their civilian career is going and learn about their path to success:
Michelle Imperial – Air Force Veteran
Air Force veteran Michelle Imperial first heard about the USO Pathfinder Transition Program while on the fence about retiring. However, after a short while, she finally decided that after more than two decades of serving in the Air Force it was time to retire. In March 2020, she reached out to the USO to get the ball rolling. From there, she was partnered with USO Pathfinder Transition Specialist Kelly Stull.
“Kelly helped me through everything,” Imperial said. “If I needed anything, she was like that strong older sister, a partner in all this. She was my rock. She helped me through everything.”
Imperial already had her sights set on a Walt Disney Company internship, offered through Skillbridge – a Department of Defense (DoD) program that partners with private companies to help veterans find employment. Since transitioning military personnel still get paid by the military – and active duty service members cannot typically hold additional paid jobs – unpaid internships like these are perfect for service members looking to gain some experience before being fully retired.
Disney was somewhere Imperial saw herself thriving in a professional capacity, so she was determined to compile the best application she could, but the program she was excited about was put on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Although she kept in touch with people at Disney, Imperial worked with Stull to continue networking so she could explore other professional growth opportunities.
Through these connections, Imperial met the founder of a startup called Intern Pursuit, a platform that provides employers with intern recruitment tools and resources. The two hit it off immediately and Imperial landed an internship with the company. Though Imperial will technically be an intern until she officially retires in May, she holds the impressive title of Director of Operations and Growth and is on the fast-track to a future full-time leadership position. She has really enjoyed her time with the company and hopes to continue to help the owner build it from the ground up.
“I’m really enjoying working in the startup industry,” Imperial said. “I’m getting experience in every aspect, and I’m learning so much from my entire team.”
After such a positive experience with the program, Imperial now recommends the USO Pathfinder Transition Program to anyone considering retirement or separation from the military.
Ambrose Pantoja – Marine Corps Veteran
Marine Corps veteran Ambrose Pantoja felt that retirement was the right move after suffering a shoulder injury and undergoing surgery in 2019 because he would no longer be able to lead the way he liked to lead – actively, from the front of the pack. Plus, transitioning to civilian life after 26 years of service meant having more time with his two elementary school-aged children. The timing was right.
While sifting through resources, he serendipitously stumbled upon a flyer for a USO Pathfinder Transition Program event with the Grow with Google program, which provides IT development skills to participants. He attended the informational luncheon, signed up for the USO Pathfinder Transition Program and started Google’s program that August, continuing until April 2020.
From the start, USO Transition Specialist Sharon Notman was there every step of the way to answer questions and guide Pantoja through the process, including connecting him to people in her network and anything else necessary for a smooth transition. Most importantly, she helped him find a path to success.
“USO Pathfinder goes above and beyond, and just puts you in touch with a lot of resources which are not easily available,” Pantoja said.
Notman introduced Pantoja to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s Hiring Our Heroes initiative, through which he found Neogenomics Laboratories, which piqued his interest. From there, Notman connected him with some resume-building resources. Pantoja utilized them, applied and landed the internship, which turned into a full-time job that he felt passionate out. Later, Pantoja left the company when he got another job opportunity overseas. Unfortunately, since he was offered the job right before the COVID-19 pandemic began, Pantoja’s move and employment didn’t pan out due to pandemic-related restrictions.
Thankfully, he found a temporary opening for a program analyst with the Navy and was later promoted to a permanent position. He now works as the deputy director at the Naval Supply Systems Command Fleet Logistics Center in San Diego.
“I’ve been very lucky and a lot of it was from the networking I did through various sources that USO Pathfinder helped me engage with,” he said. “My experience [with the program] was a complete success. It was good to have people who care.”
There are hundreds of similar success stories thanks to the USO Pathfinder Transition Program and as thousands of service members plan their transition out of the military in 2021, the USO will be there to support them every step of the way.
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