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Post-Military Career Construction: Understanding the Career Transition Experiences of Employed Post 9/11 Veterans with Service-Connected Disabilities Open Access

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This basic qualitative study sought to explore how employed post 9/11 veterans with service-connected disabilities experienced the career transition from the military to the civilian workforce. Framed by career construction theory, 17 veterans, most with disabilities rated at 70% or more, participated in individual, in-depth, semi-structured interviews to address the study’s central question, “How do employed post 9/11 veterans with service-connected disabilities experience the career transition from the military to the civilian workforce?” Study participants, each employed with a single employer for at least three consecutive years, reflected on how they constructed their post-military careers. The data tell a collective story of how these veterans navigated through the chaos of overwhelming resources, felt like a stranger in a strange land, and adjusted and adapted to new environments to ultimately find their place in the civilian workforce. Eight main themes emerged from a comprehensive thematic data analysis: 1) accessing formal, structured resources; 2) identifying informal, social networks; 3) losing military identity; 4) reconciling disability; 5) adjusting and adapting to new environments; 6) compartmentalizing military experience; 7) changing mindsets; and 8) surprising self-discoveries. Findings from the study were concentrated on the need for more holistic and hands-on transition experiences before military separation, and a glaring absence of disability education (aside from disability benefits) provided at any point during the career transition process. Taking personal ownership, actively seeking out mentors, and discovering failure was normal and expected were paramount lessons learned. Veterans also came to understand that transition is messy, complicated, and chaotic, but also educational, exciting, and rewarding. Overall, the veterans in this study recognized that there was simply no “easy button” for career transition.Several recommendations are identified for future research, including, but not limited to: exploring the influence of interpersonal relationships and social capital on early transition experiences; using strength-based and appreciative inquiry approaches to document and facilitate growth and the positive impact military identity has on career retention; and exploring whether successful career transitions are linked to an overall positive outlook on life. Additional studies using a career construction theory framework are also suggested. Policy recommendations highlight expanding civilian internship experiences for veterans with service-connected disabilities before separation and adding civilian soft-skills training to formal transition assistance programs. Implications for practice highlighted the importance of storytelling, self-reflection, and developing increased personal agency during career transition. For employers and hiring managers, implications included how the nuances of unconscious bias, especially related to disability and military service, can impact career transition.The existing literature about veterans with disabilities and career transition tends to focus career dysfunction and barriers to employment. This study offers an important attempt to shift the veteran and disability research dialogue to one of solutions and positive results.

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