My Journey to the Other Side

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Pro Photo GustafsonBy Timothy M. Gustafson, RT(R) 

December 2013—My first transition to the civilian world was a total failure. In 1999, after 4 years as a Marine Corps Military Police Officer, I had made up my mind that my future career plans did not include the Marine Corps or law enforcement.  But things did not go as planned when I began my journey towards domination of the civilian sector. I quickly learned that it was nearly impossible to support a family, attend school, and do all of the other things I felt needed to be done at that time. One of the biggest challenges I had was integrating into the culture of a civilian workplace where principles such as discipline, commitment, and resolve were more likely to be found on a motivational poster than as part of the work ethic of my coworkers.

One night while at work as a hospital security guard, I found myself overwhelmed with the feeling that I had made a big mistake. The next morning I went straight to the Marine recruiter to request a return to the Corps and retraining in a skill that would better serve me the next time I left.  I was told that if I wanted to return, I would have to go back to the unit I left and then request retraining. I knew full well how that process would work out. Slightly dejected, I left the office and decided to see what the Army might tell me. It was ten steps to the Army office, and those may have been the most important 10 steps I have taken to date. A short time later I was deciding what my future job would be. I wanted a job that was marketable and which had a decreased likelihood of spending the majority of my time in the field maintaining 5-tons and cleaning machine guns. “How about radiologic technologist?” the recruiter asked. After he clarified that this was an X-ray tech, I had a pretty good idea of the growth and earning potential of this field and accepted.

I was assigned to the 21st Combat Support Hospital (CSH) at Ft. Hood, Texas. I spent the next 5 years as part of a platoon of pharmacy, physical therapy, laboratory, and radiology technologists and deployed to Kuwait and Iraq in support of Operation Enduring Freedom/Iraqi Freedom. My time in the 21st CSH was a great experience that allowed me to build my knowledge of hospital operations, managing chaos, and new technologies such as PACS, CT, and teleradiology. Imaging in a field environment taught me how to be self-sustaining and creative in acquiring quality exams in suboptimal conditions with older, challenging equipment.

In 2004, I reached the point where a soldier decides if 10 years is enough or whether to go for the full term. I was 27, had finished two degrees, was a registered technologist, learned CT, and was tired of the constant deployment and moving. It was time to try the outside world again, but this time I was ready for what was to come (though still a little nervous).

Similar to my previous attempt, I found that there was not the camaraderie I had become accustomed to and discipline seemed like a foreign concept. But this time, I had decided it would not be about assimilation — it would be about capitalizing on my military experience and what skills I had to offer.

In my first civilian job as a technologist, I learned everything I could about the field from senior staff and tried to gain a deeper understanding of what motivates civilians. I soon realized that success was not about becoming like the outside world, it was about integrating the two realities and taking account of what opportunities existed in healthcare. I decided this was where opportunity lived. I would take my passion for training, hard work, and leadership, and make these my contributions to the field of radiology.

My management positions in the years since have exposed me to every different aspect of our profession. In my current role, I bring a bit of every experience the military instilled in me. If I have a difficult patient, I think back to conflict resolution as an MP. I believe the concepts are the same; it is merely the scenery that differs.

To those who contemplate their next steps, I say “Fear Not” (21st CSH motto). There are numerous resources available to assist in the transition out of the military and associations such as the AHRA have increased efforts to reach out to military veterans. I have met many fellow veterans at AHRA conferences, including my predecessor at White Memorial, Russell Cain, a former Navy Officer and long standing member of the AHRA. Reach out to these resources and determine what they can do for you. Embrace your new mission with the same resolve that served you in situations that most civilians will never truly understand. Be proud of yourself, the work you have done, and the mission you are about to embark on. Do not be afraid to stumble; you have the strength to rise stronger than before. My first attempt to become a civilian was a failure, and for this I am eternally grateful.

Semper Fidelis,

Timothy M. Gustafson RT(R)
Cpl, United States Marine Corps 1995-1999
SSG, United States Army 1999-2004


Timothy M. Gustafson RT(R) is the director of imaging service at White Memorial Medical Center in Los Angeles, CA. He can be reached at gustaftm@ah.org

4 comments

  1. First off, thank you for serving. And “outstanding” on your accomplishments.

    You were fortunate to achieve what you did in the Army. As an Army X-ray Specialist (91P) (1983-88) I had no support in Germany to take the registry. I studied with what I could get my hands on. There was only one registered tech amongst us in Frankfurt and he didn’t share his wealth. I ended up flying back to the US with my family in 2007 on a visit to Florida and took my ARRT registry in Tampa. Going back to Germany we got bumped off a MAC flight in Philadelphia and I ended putting $1,900 on my credit card. I often brag that my registry cost me 2 grand!

    I did pass my ARRT registry on the first attempt…and in March I celebrate my 30th year in Radiology since graduating from Ft. Sam in 1984.

    I have been a civilian since 1988 and although the Army MOS has changed to 68P, I will always be a 91P at heart.

    Mark L. Gordon, AAS, BGS, RT(R)(ARRT)
    SP4, US Army 1983-1988

  2. Inspiring article.
    I still miss the camaraderie of the uniform and wish I didn’t have to deal with the unions, but overall I do love my job. I will always be thankful for the training I receive in the Air Force and how it prepared me for my civilian career.

    David A. Woodford, M.S., R.T. (R), CRA
    TSgt, USAF 1978 – 1986

  3. I admire and congratulate all of my fellow technologists in arms who ever served their country. I joined the Army in 1987 when the X-Ray Specialist Course at Fort Sam Houston, TX was
    MOS 91P. I got to stay in and retire and watch the nomenclature change to 68P. I served 21 years and retired in April 2008. I managed to get a job on the west coast even though my desire was to stay on the east coast. It was very hard to find a job transitioning out of the Army. I am fortunate to have a job at all. I managed to find one and am blessed and thankful. I did get a little bit of CT experience while I was in the Army but unfortunately have since lost those skills since I took a management job where I am currently located. It was hard to maintain my skills to sit before the CT registry. That was over 5 years ago. I have managed to earn my CRA this year in May 2013. I learned that it was a difficult transition at first going from being a soldier to working in the private sector where I am now and dealing with three labor unions within my department. I am thankful for the experience that the Army gave to me and I am also thankful for the lessons I have learned since retirement. I wish you all the best in your current and future endeavoers.

    Fredrick B. Frowner, M.S. HCM, CRA, ARRT
    SFC, United States Army Retired

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