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Mike Terry, Deseret Morning News
Keith Fieschel recently left the military to work as a civilian at Hill AFB. He decided 24 years as an aircraft mechanic in the Air Force was enough.

Keith Fieschel was 19 and living in New York when he decided to join the Air Force in 1983. He became an aircraft mechanic, traveled the world from base to base and rose to the rank of master sergeant.

By all appearances, Fieschel was a military lifer, someone you wouldn't expect to leave for a civilian job.

He served tours in Korea, Turkey and Kuwait, and from January to June 2005, he was deployed to Afghanistan. His sense of belonging and purpose that was cultivated in his military life was elevated even more while he was overseas.

"I was in charge of the flight line," he said. "Those planes made it up in the air — those ground troops expected those planes in the air."

But Fieschel, husband of 18 years and father of two daughters, decided 24 years as an aircraft mechanic in the Air Force was enough.

While living in Alaska, he began to prepare to leave the military by taking part in three government-sponsored programs designed to help with what can be a complicated and frustrating transition into the civilian work force.

It's estimated that about 250,000 people annually part from the military. Some retire or have fulfilled their contract with the military and choose to move on. Others are war veterans who have tired of multiple deployments to the Middle East, and they want out. And some are military members who don't want to keep moving their families around to various bases in the United States and overseas.

The military offers programs to help ease military members' transition to the civilian work force. Even so, the change can be rough for some people, and while some of them prepare months or even years in advance for the transition, others make the leap with little preparation.

Fieschel helped himself by paying off all his debts and making sure he had plenty of money in the bank before moving — without a job — to northern Utah, near Hill Air Force Base, where he figured he had the best chance of landing work with the government.

The gamble paid off. His wife found a teaching job, and Fieschel now works in Building 503 on Hill's base, where he takes old plane parts and makes them usable again.

Planning for change

Fieschel said he knows plenty of people who, after 20 years or so in the military, decide to retire and try to find a civilian job without preparing well in advance. He said he was advised to start planning two years before his retirement.

One of the best tools at Fieschel's disposal was a Transition Assistance Program, which he took part in three times while in Alaska.

Hill Air Force Base offers TAP classes throughout the year, and the classroom is usually full.

On a recent day, about 32 casually dressed people inside a room at Hill Air Force Base for a class were a mix of men and women, the young or the ready to retire, all people who are leaving the military, looking for help on how to make a smooth, successful slip into full-time civilian clothes.

One of those people was Ashley Norris, 26, a captain in the Air Force, her employer for more than four years. Norris is getting ready to leave the Air Force, which is helping her with the switch to the outside world.

Her husband, Steve Norris, is also in the Air Force, an F-16 pilot who is currently deployed in the Middle East. Ashley Norris left this month for a deployment to South America. Before that, her most recent overseas tour was six months in Afghanistan.

"It's becoming increasingly hard for us to stay together and be able to spend good, quality amounts of time together," Norris said about her overlapping deployments with her husband.

Soon, however, he'll be grounded and transferred to a base in Nevada, where he will fly unmanned aircraft while sitting in a room with a computer. Norris will follow her husband, and she's planning to write children's books and possibly work at a zoo.

She loves the Air Force, which has a program designed to help couples serving at the same time by at least making sure they're stationed at the same base. But ultimately the Air Force's needs come first, which helped clarify Norris' decision to move on.

"I wanted a little more control in my life," she said.

A different way of life

Even on the way out, the military has got her back covered. Since 1990, TAP has helped prepare more than 1 million separating and retiring military members and their spouses for life after the uniform, the Web site Military.com reports.

At Hill alone, TAP workshops are held every two weeks, with an average of 40 to 60 people attending each session. The workshops are held at many military bases and are mandatory for those leaving the Army, Navy and Marines. The workshops are only suggested for those separating from the Air Force.

Beth Freitas, a transition assistance manager at Hill, offered the first nugget of info at one recent workshop, alerting everyone to an aircraft manufacturing plant that is supposed to be hiring 600 employees for its future Ogden-area operations. There's also a job fair in March at Hill, attracting about 50 potential employers.

Freitas described the transition out of the military as "scary," saying that those leaving need to start thinking outside the box now and that one goal of the workshop is for everyone to leave with a working resume.

"Think of what skills you have that are marketable in other areas," she told everyone.

After Freitas' turn, what the group at Hill heard for the first four hours of its recent four-day TAP seminar sounded more sobering than encouraging.

Steve Hadley, Utah Department of Workforce Services veterans representative, warned about life in what he calls "the outside" world. Hadley, who retired from the military after 23 years, reminded everyone in the room about how great the support system is in the service.

"Do you think that's the case on the outside?" he asked. "No, it's not."

If you have a need, just pick one. You know where to go in the military for help — but it's much different on the outside, Hadley said.

When you tell someone to do something at your job in the military, "they do it," he said. "Will they do it like that outside? No, they do not."

And forget about way of life where hearing "sir" and "ma'am" are part of the routine.

"Civilian companies don't care about your rank or what your position is in the military," Hadley said. On the outside, a company cares more about what you can do for it, he added.

For 10 years, Hadley has been helping military types make the split, and the Internet has become a major source of information for military workers during their transition to civilian life.

Hadley directs his audience to several Web sites that offer help from figuring out salary ranges by state for specific jobs and searching for available openings to finding help with veteran benefits and how to build a resume that a potential civilian employer will understand.

On the lower tech side, airmen can thumb through the 138-page book, "From Air Force Blue to Corporate Gray — A Career Transition Guide for Air Force Personnel." Even lower tech, Hadley recommends networking with friends and co-workers to help in the job search.

Less structure

Different branches of the military do things a little differently to help their own make the break. Years of service and a military member's specialty also may dictate how much help is needed.

The 96th Army Reserve Regional Readiness Command, which covers Utah and five other states, has no recent records of any soldiers leaving the uniform in search of civilian work, according to 96th Utah-based spokesman Claude McKinney. "We have had no full-time/active soldiers separate early (prior to retirement) to take a civilian job," McKinney said.

But that's not the case with the Utah National Guard.

Bart Davis, who is based in Draper, has the job of helping full- and part-time National Guard members transition out of the military. Some of those guardsmen have just returned from deployments in Iraq or Afghanistan, and others are simply ready to jump ship for myriad reasons, Davis said.

"There's a real challenge for people who have been in the military to be in a much more non-structured environment," Davis said. "In the military, you're pretty much on a schedule, and you can look out months ahead and know what you're doing. In the civilian world, you can get up and go to work, or choose not to."

Davis describes what can be a deflating feeling that goes with trading in a sense of self-importance as an integral member of a military team for work on a production line at a manufacturing plant, where if a person misses a day or quits, the vacancy can be filled quickly and easily.

"I hate to say it, but the adventure is kind of taken out of it," Davis said about swapping a military uniform for civilian clothes.

Thriving in civilian life

Fieschel recognized the diminished "sense of purpose" after he was out, but he takes solace in knowing what he does at his civilian job still has an impact in the overall military effort.

He said everyone is on a first-name basis inside Building 503 where he now works at Hill. His level of responsibility as a supervisor in the Air Force has been reduced to being one of several civil-service workers in a shop, but he likes it that way.

"My stress level is a lot less than it used to be," Fieschel said. He likes getting dirty and greasy, and he has no regrets about leaving, although he hasn't flown far from the nest.

So, why leave a military career that can offer relative job security and a strong sense of belonging?

Davis said some of the Guard's soldiers and airmen quit because of the stress associated with having been deployed to a combat theater. Whether it's a domestic or international deployment that takes military members away from their homes, being gone for months at a time is also a huge impact on families, Davis added.

He figured that about 18 percent to 20 percent of full-time military types, specifically guardsmen in Utah, give up the military life for the private arena, a rate that is about the norm in the military nationally and in the business world.

Who succeeds with the transition depends on what a person's job was like when salutes were expected and phrases like "Yes, sir" or "Right away, ma'am" were more common in the workplace vernacular.

"If you thrive in military life, you'll thrive in civilian life," he said. "It's really, in my mind, that simple."

E-mail: sspeckman@desnews.com