PHOENIX PATRIOT Summer 2012
GWYN (PARKER) GARDNER
U.S. Air Force
YEARS OF MILITARY SERVICE:
Two years out
Human resources administrator for Georgia-Pacific LLC
Defense Meritorious Service Medal with one oak leaf cluster
Joint Service Commendation Medal
Air Force Commendation Medal with two oak leaf clusters
TOP TRANSITION TIP:
Tap into TAP, the U.S. military’s Transition Assistance Program. “It’s a great program that was really helpful,” she says
This article continues our series on how to plan for a successful transition from military to civilian life.
When Gwyn Gardner decided to retire from the U.S. Air Force after two decades of service, a haphazard approach wasn’t going to cut it. In true type A form, she analyzed every detail and carefully weighed every decision. After all, she was only 39 at the time and had another lifetime ahead of her. She had to get it right.
“I joined the military to become a better person, travel and serve my country,” Gardner explains of her decision to enlist in 1979. “I was given the opportunity to perform special duty assignments that are only provided to the top five percent of all branches of the military.” This included special duty with the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as well as an assignment at the White House.
PHOENIX PATRIOT Summer 2012
In short, the bar was set high for Gardner, who had accomplished much and enjoyed great responsibility during her tenure in the Air Force. When she decided to retire, it was after careful deliberation. “As a female transitioning to the civilian world, I wanted to make sure I didn’t wait too long, and that made the transition a lot easier,” she says.
She retired from active duty in April 2000. Because she had begun thinking about her retirement two years prior, she had accrued enough paid leave so she could take her time deciding what to do next. “When you are in the military, there are some sacrifices you make for that lifestyle,” she says. “It would be a shame to put in that time only to get out and not have a good quality of life.”
Her first order of civilian business was to figure out where to live. Gardner looked at several cities around the country before settling on Atlanta, which had the right climate, cost of living and ever-important quality of life. Plus, it wasn’t too far from her family in Washington, D.C. “I thought, ‘Atlanta is the best thing. Let’s do it,’” she remembers.
Because she had the luxury of time, Gardner took one month to get settled in her new surroundings before digging into her career search. “My full-time job was to find a job,” she says. She would start early in the morning, combing through newspapers and Internet job postings, attending career fairs and conducting informational interviews with contacts she met through her networking efforts.
When she went on job interviews, Gardner quickly learned that she had to adapt to civilian expectations. “They like your professionalism, but sometimes it’s too much for them,” she admits. For her, that meant making a conscious effort not to call people “sir” and “ma’am,” dressing appropriately for whichever organization she was visiting and generally changing the way she carried herself so she would appear less formal.
She also had to learn how to translate her military experience to language her civilian interviewers would understand. At first, it wasn’t easy, and many employers found her overqualified for her desired positions. “Sometimes I ended up talking myself out of a job,” she says. “It was frustrating.”
PLAN AHEAD FOR A SUCCESSFUL TRANSITION
Although you can’t apply for retirement from the U.S. Armed Forces until 12 months prior to your desired retirement date, you can start planning for a successful departure from the military a full two years out or more.
PHOENIX PATRIOT Summer 2012
Top transition tip:
“Saving paid leave time allows you to take the time you need to consider your priorities and make careful, well thought-out choices about your future.”
On the flip side, Gardner learned that she had to be flexible about the kind of position she was willing to take despite her unquestionable qualifications. “You may not be able to come in at the highest level,” she says. “Sometimes you might have to take a step back to open up opportunities down the line to get you where you want to go.”
In Atlanta in 2000, the job market was ripe for employees. “I got out at a time when employers were really hunting for candidates,” she says.
She was also hunting for the right employer. Before considering a position, she would map out her commute, explore available public transportation and check out a company’s culture and facilities to make sure it was a good fit.
After just three months, she landed an administrative assistant position at Amoco through a temp agency, which helped get her foot in the door. In 2001, she accepted a job at Georgia-Pacific LLC, which offered tuition assistance to its employees.
This enabled her to earn both her Bachelor of Science in Business with a concentration in e-Business and her Master of Business Administration from University of Phoenix, in 2003 and 2008, respectively.
She was recently promoted to her current position of human resources administrator, and she credits her education for getting her there. “Without my education, I don’t think I would have been as competitive as some of the other candidates,” she says. “Had it not been for the University of Phoenix online program, my story may have had a very different ending.”
Gardner’s careful planning has helped her thrive in her civilian capacity. “Everything I did led up to where I am now,” she reflects. “I want to take the experience I get in this role and use it when I have my second retirement so I can be of service to other people who want to progress forward and may not know how.” ★