FORT RILEY, Kan. Brian Brooks sat against the wall listening intently to instructions for his next mission. After 20 years of working for team Army, the next task was all his.
Brooks is trading his Army uniform and procurement job for civilian clothes and work schedules. Since 1987, he has reported each day for duty, knowing there was a job waiting for him. Now, there's no guarantee.
"For some of us, it's a different world. It will make you a little nervous," said Brooks, 38, who's retiring after 20 years.
The disconnect between life in the active duty military and the civilian job market is not unusual. For the nearly 250,000 who leave the military annually, selling themselves to employers isn't something they have had to worry about for years if ever.
More and more mid-grade officers and enlisted soldiers are leaving the military as multiple deployments to war take their toll on them and their families. Despite increased incentives, including huge bonuses from the Army, many are opting to test the civilian job market, even if they aren't sure how.
For the Department of Defense, having thousands of unemployed veterans is costly. In 2006, the agency paid $518 million in unemployment benefits, and $365 million through the first three quarters of 2007.
Veterans say it's difficult to go from a culture where the emphasis is on "we," as in the squad or platoon, to "me," as in a qualified applicant.
"It's lost in the translation, this inability of the veteran to communicate all of their skills to an employer in a way that is meaningful," said Tom Aiello, vice president of military.com, a division of Monster Worldwide.
A recent survey by military.com found that 76 percent of veterans felt unable to effectively translate their military skills in civilian terms and 72 percent felt unprepared to negotiate a salary. The survey heard from 287 recruiters and hiring managers from firms across the country, as well responses from 4,442 veterans. Responses were gathered through telephone interviews and online questioning.
"Because their resumes and experiences differ from traditional candidates, it can be challenging for hiring managers to immediately appreciate the value they bring," Aiello said.
Brooks was responsible for getting resources to train teams sent to Iraq and Afghanistan to work as advisers. It meant working with approved suppliers and contractors for clothing, weapons, food and anything else soldiers or trainers needed to complete the mission. In the civilian market, Brooks could expect to do similar tasks in factories, warehouses or retail stores.
There is some help for veterans.
A 1994 federal law requires the Department of Defense to help prepare service members for civilian employment. At Fort Riley, soldiers use the Army Career and Alumni Program to build resumes, search want ads and prep for interviews. The course takes a week, but services are available after the soldiers leave the Army.
Many don't realize they are qualified to hold civilian jobs until they start putting their skills on paper, said program manager Glennwood McLaurin, a former air defense artillery soldier.
"I wondered, 'How am I going to find a job shooting down airplanes?' But I had other skills," he said.
Some say venturing into the job market is like jumping off a 10-story building: About eight floors down, they wonder how the landing will be.
Veterans may apply for unemployment benefits the same way a worker at a steel plant may if he loses his job, depending on each state's rules. But those benefits last only so long, meaning veterans often are taking jobs for which they are overqualified because of difficulty getting their foot in the door.
Some people suggest turning to big ex-military employers, such as defense conglomerates, retailers and law enforcement. Union Pacific, for example, has been named the top military-friendly employer by G.I. Jobs, a publication aimed at soldiers moving to civilian life. The railroad hires the veterans to fill various jobs, from maintaining the engines and cars to managing the millions of tons of freight that it handles each day.
Spokesman Mark Davis said about 25 percent of Omaha-based Union Pacific's new hires in 2006 had military experience. Working outdoors can be a big draw, he said, "and being able to work on their own, while also on a team to move this country's freight from one coast to the other."
Six months before he left the Army, Darren Doherty started looking for his next job, sending out resumes and applying through the Internet. He earned an engineering degree from West Point, and he was looking for a career in that field in his home state of Texas.
Doherty turned to The Lucas Group, an executive search agency that has a reputation among ex-military personnel and specializes in finding jobs for retired officers and enlisted soldiers, to help him connect with firms. After several weeks of sending out applications and interviews, he landed a job with Dannenbaum Engineering in Houston, whose chief executive officer is a retired Army colonel.
A week and a half after he left the Army, he started in Houston.
"The civilian work force can be a scary place when you've learned to enjoy the security of the military," said Doherty, 31, a former captain and Army aviator.
Andrew Hollitt, an executive senior partner at Lucas Group, said intangibles such as leadership skills in veterans like Doherty make them attractive candidates, regardless of the job market. But military.com found most employers don't have a complete understanding of what skills and talents veterans offer.
Veterans have to overcome perceptions from employers who see a former artillery or infantry officer trained to kill or blow things up but don't see that they also have talents in motivating others, leading them through a task or managing personnel with complex personalities.
Part of Hollitt's challenge is helping veterans learn what to expect and to recognize what their skills are.
"They are smart, hardworking and have a good moral compass," Hollitt said.
For some young soldiers, the Defense Department's mandatory training course on civilian life may end up convincing them to stay in the military. McLaurin said he sometimes advises people to re-enlist and get additional training.
"I'm not shy about telling the soldiers that they don't have the skills to get that job," he said.
But after four years in artillery, Derrick Rima, 24, said he is ready for life outside the military. He's not scheduled to leave the Army until next July, but the ACAP program allows him to jump-start his future up to a year ahead of separation.
"I'm kind of through with manual labor right now. I want to sit at my desk and pay somebody to mow my lawn," Rima said. "I'm ready to do whatever it takes to make that happen."
While younger soldiers often exude confidence after Army life, Doherty said older veterans may have a different outlook when they have to start looking for a job. They often are more realistic about finding a job, realizing it's not going to be a slam dunk and that it may take some time and hard work.
Doherty prepared himself for what could have been a long search. He knew he had some resources to bridge between the military and first job but couldn't go months without a steady paycheck and had to start thinking about employment sooner, rather than later.
"Once I realized that I could feed the kids and would have diapers, you get some perspective and make some decisions," Doherty said. "It was nerve wracking."