Taking the leap
Veteran made a mission of preparing for his new life
With retirement looming after a quarter-century of service in the Air Force, Michael Burton reached out for help.
The rugged senior master sergeant contacted the Virginia Transition Assistance Program (VTAP), an arm of the state Department of Veterans Services. The program provides educational resources and employment help to veterans who call Virginia home, no matter where they may have been stationed.
Burton, 44, always has been a planner, and getting ready for retirement for him was not much different than preparing for a mission at an Air Force base in the U.S. or abroad.
“I don’t like waiting to see what’s going to happen to me next, especially with a wife and family,” he says.
Burton, the father of two children, also had applied for disability as the result of a severe sleep disorder that developed while he was serving in Afghanistan during 2011-12. So, that issue was on his mind, too.
No easy task
He says VTAP helped connect him with a Virginia Employment Commission representative. Burton welcomed all the assistance he could find in preparing for the next phase of his life.
“I hadn’t interviewed for a job in 25 years,” Burton says. For most long-term veterans like him, looking for a job is not an easy task.
He started planning about a year out from his separation from the military while stationed at Joint Base Langley-Eustis in Hampton. Burton was superintendent of the inspections division in the office of the inspector general of the Headquarters Air Combat Command.
Burton holds a degree in human resources and has commanded and trained airmen most of his career. “[But] I really didn’t know what I wanted to do after the military,” he says.
Burton began attending job fairs and other events where he could gauge the employment climate and figure out how military skills might qualify him for civilian jobs.
“I started getting my things in order: all my finances, documents and papers,” he says. “I can’t think how many times I wrote my résumé, maybe four or five times.”
Then, he waited until his discharge neared. That is when he could begin applying for jobs.
Many moves for family
Throughout the process, Burton says, the sacrifices his family had made for him were foremost in his thoughts. “We knew at a minimum every four years, we were going to move. Our children didn’t have roots,” and his wife was unable to focus on a career, Burton says.
Even though he had faced some difficult times in the military, he says he always believed his wife had the harder job.
In 2010, Burton and his family purchased a home in Williamsburg. He commuted to his military assignment in Hampton, and his wife got a job in the same area with Ferguson, the nation’s largest distributor of residential and commercial plumbing supplies.
For the first time in years, Burton and his wife could close the door at night with a sense of being somewhere permanent.
In finding a civilian job, Burton wanted it to be within reasonable commuting distance. He also had some other requirements for the next chapter of his life.
“I didn’t want to be tied to a desk,” Burton says. “I wanted to be able to talk to people … People are the most vital resources. What I learned a long time ago is that if you take care of the people, they will take care of the mission.”
Job interview classes
Burton took advantage of job interview classes for veterans offered by VTAP and its partners. With VTAP’s help, Burton prepared for an interview with a potential employer.
The first interview was by phone. Then in January, Burton had an in-person interview. In helping Burton get ready, VTAP suggested questions he might ask the interview panel.
The interview went well, and Burton was hired as a quality assurance and training manager at MAXIMUS in Hampton. MAXIMUS, a Reston-based V3-certified company, operates health and human services programs on behalf of government agencies.
While still on active duty, Burton took what is called “terminal leave,” using leave time he had accumulated but had not used while he was in service.
He began working March 1 with the understanding that he would return to the Air Force if they needed him before his retirement on April 30.
The retired master sergeant says one of his challenges in the civilian world has been trying to pare down his use of military lingo. Once in talking with his new colleagues, he described an upcoming meeting as a “hot wash.”
Burton got blank stares until he explained the term. “Hot wash” is a military expression describing the debriefing of personnel immediately after they return from a mission.
Looking back at the incident, Burton laughs. All he could think to say to his colleagues at the time was, “I’m going to teach you a few things, and you’re going to teach me a few things.”