Finding Passion and Purpose in Work when the Mission was your Life

A Successful Transition – Finding passion and purpose in your work when the mission was your life
By Chris Clary
Project Manager, Spirit of America

Any veteran who has been downrange and experienced the thrill of serving abroad knows that our civilian careers will likely never match the level of intensity we experienced in uniform. Our successful transition from military service to the civilian world hinges on finding a fresh sense of passion and purpose in our new lives.

I enlisted in the military to become a Green Beret, to join the brotherhood of an elite group of men devoted to serving their country. I poured everything into making it through the selection and training. When I made it, all I wanted was to fight alongside my brothers to make a difference in the world. Being a Green Beret, serving in combat was more than a job. It was my life. When I returned from my second deployment to Afghanistan in 2012, I was faced with stepping back from what I had committed the last five years of my life to and finding a civilian job. As I looked at transitioning, I had the same question that many soldiers have: What job will ever give me the same sense of purpose I had while wearing the uniform?

I needed a job that gave me the same sense of mission as my life as an operator. Personally, I found my answer when I came across a job posting with Spirit of America.

Spirit of America (SoA) is a groundbreaking nonprofit organization that provides private assistance in support of US missions abroad, providing critical aid where US Government resources can’t be applied. Everything from metal detectors for partner forces to medical supplies and humanitarian assistance for refugees and vulnerable local communities. Shortly after coming onboard with SoA, I was back in Afghanistan alongside some of the same men and women I had previously deployed with, focused on a new mission: supporting the safety and success of US personnel and helping build security and stability in some of the world’s toughest places.

Chris during his time in service in Afghanistan, then continuing to support the mission by providing humanitarian assistance to vulnerable refugees in northern Iraq.

Two years into my tenure with SoA, I was called up for what would be my third and final time to deploy to Afghanistan. This experience reinforced my need for a mission-driven civilian career. It was a hard deployment, which only complicated the emotions I felt about getting out. But, when we returned from the deployment in 2016, I knew it was time for me to make the full transition out of the military.

I also knew enough about myself to understand I couldn’t successfully transition alone. The field team at Spirit of America, comprised entirely of combat veterans, were exactly the kind of people I needed to be around. We all come from a similar set of experiences and have benefited from finding a fresh sense of purpose in the mission of Spirit of America.

Three of my colleagues also come from the SOF community, and they understand the need to continue to serve a greater purpose. Nicolette Doliva is a former active duty sailor and Spirit of America’s South America project manager. She has deployed around the world, including trips to East Africa, Spain and most recently Afghanistan as a Cultural Support Team member in support of Naval Special Warfare’s Cultural Engagement Unit. Her passion to engage with and understand cultures outside the borders of America made Spirit of America a natural fit when she left active duty.

Gabe LaMois, a former Special Forces officer, set out to become a Green Beret following the attacks of 9/11. After nearly a decade of service and multiple deployments to the Middle East and Southwest Asia, Gabe made the difficult transition to civilian life and joined the team at Spirit of America.  Managing projects in the Middle East and North Africa has given him the opportunity to continue his mission in a part of the world he is passionate about and to assist the US effort to defeat ISIS by supporting many of the local forces he trained and fought alongside in uniform.

Chris VanJohnson joined the Spirit of America team after completing multiple deployments to South Asia as a SOF officer. His passion to better understand the world drove him to pursue his master’s degree in International Affairs and Development from the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. He now manages projects in Africa countering Boko Haram and other extremist organizations, working alongside SOF personnel seeking to prevent war in some of the most fragile communities in the world.

We all had a strong desire to continue to serve, which was a driving factor in our job selection. To that end, we were all impassioned to leverage our unique set of skills as we made the journey to the civilian sector.

As veterans, we have experienced one of the greatest senses of purpose through service to our nation. When we transition to a civilian life, the loss of that sense of purpose can be one of the most challenging barriers to overcome. My personal transition has not been an easy one, but it has been far smoother than I ever thought possible due to the continued sense of mission and the camaraderie I have found at Spirit of America.


If you are approaching, or already went through, your transition and are in need of support, please look at SOF for Life for job opportunities, transition seminars, and other means of financial and career path support:

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