By 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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.