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Dave Smith: Navigating Transition

November 12, 2015 7 minute Read by Ashley McConkey, David Smith

At the Bush Institute, we're committed to the responsibility we face as a Nation to know and understand our vets and help them successfully transition.  This week, as we honor our veterans and their families, we are distributing The Veteran Employment Transition Roadmap and reminding everyone that the key to a successful transition is employment.  The Bush Institute and Hiring Our Heroes developed The Roadmap to serve as a guide for our Warriors as they navigate the critical transition issue of employment.  

Dave Smith is a retired Marine Corporal who participated in a Warrior 100k bike ride with President George W. Bush a few years ago.  He recently spoke on a panel about his own experience transitioning to civilian life alongside our very own Colonel Howe.  Smith was kind enough to write about his experience for us.  

Dave Smith: Navigating Transition

Last month, I had the distinguished honor to represent the Bush Institute’s Military Service Initiative at the Energi Summit in Washington, DC, alongside Colonel Miguel Howe and Justin Constantine. The Energi Summit is focused on risk management and insurance within the energy sector and brings together over 1,000 leading professionals from all across the United States.

The topic of our panel centered on military veterans and the transition from service back into the civilian world. The key to this transition is the ability to secure meaningful employment, mentorship, and the resources necessary to ensure that our service men and women are not left hanging out to dry when they take off the uniform.

I spoke about my personal transition, some of the successes and struggles I faced, how the Bush Institute has been critical to helping me deal with post-traumatic stress and what the private sector can do to ensure that our nation’s military service members are receiving the training, mentorship, and employment opportunities necessary to provide a successful transition.

Getting a Job

After completing my service, I applied many places with a résumé’ that talked about ribbons and awards and listed things like “captured xxx insurgents and instructed operations in urban military combat”.  In interviews, I used words like “We” and Us” to describe what I had accomplished in life.  Of course, this left employers wondering exactly what tangible skills I had that could translate into revenue growth and what I had accomplished as an individual.  On the only follow-up phone call out of 5 interviews, I was asked “What exactly did YOU do?” I thought it must have been a trick question and my response was “I have never accomplished anything by myself”. I didn’t get the job.

I ended up working construction making $12/hour for a family friend.  I was underemployed but happy to have a job.  Eventually, while working in California, he saw Marine stickers on my truck and mentioned he had been a Navy Officer.  He requested a résumé’ and I brought him the same 3-page long accomplishments sheet that I thought would guarantee me a job anywhere. Luckily, he talked HR into hiring me.  

Acknowledging My Nonvisible Wounds

Eventually, I used my GI Bill to complete a Bachelor’s degree.  I enjoyed college but felt isolated, angry, and unable to connect with people who had never been to war.  I hated being in school while guys I had served with continued serving and were being deployed.  I didn’t know what I wanted to do and I missed being around people who understood honor, courage, and sacrifice.

Ignoring the frustration, anger, and pain I was feeling led to me putting a shotgun barrel in my mouth.  I had failed to take proper responsibility for my transition and had unknowingly slid deep into depression.  Luckily, rather than pull the trigger, I locked the gun away and left the house.  I sought help, worked very hard, became extremely involved in the community, served other veterans, and went on to do incredible things.

Regardless of rank or specialty, all veterans leave the service having had a clear sense of purpose, shared identity, and leadership experience. When they leave the service, they are looking to conquer their next big obstacle.  Unemployment or underemployment for an extended period grinds away their sense of confidence and can quickly lead to debt and depression.  However, veterans who leave the service and enter into gainful employment are likely to be much happier and have better self-confidence.

Additionally, we repeatedly covered the issue of removing the stigma that surrounds post-traumatic stress (PTS). PTS is simply a normal reaction to a set of extraordinary events.  It is common in rape victims, car crash survivors, assault victims and numerous other groups of people.  Would you ever consider denying any of them a job on account of those events?  Probably not.  Veterans with PTS are not ticking time-bombs and are not a danger to hire.  PTS is probably not what most people seem to think it is and proper education is key to changing that stigma, especially within the employment search phase.

The Military is America’s Pipeline for Leadership

The private sector has an incredible opportunity to help veterans smoothly transition by offering mentorship, training, internships, or jobs.  Most importantly, you will come to realize that veterans bring an incredible array of tangible skills to the table. Here are just a few:

  • Leadership
  • Teamwork
  • Motivation
  • Management
  • Work ethic
  • Ability to accomplish any task with limited resources
  • Flexibility and adaptability
  • Quickly learn and master new skills
  • Great risk management and risk mitigation

At a follow-on panel, keynote speaker Dr. Condoleezza Rice mentioned that one of the most patriotic and intelligent things that any employer can do is to hire veterans.  She cited attributes similar to the ones above and added that veterans are an incredible asset to any organization. That’s quite the recommendation, if ever I’ve heard one.

My transition is similar to many other veterans with one key difference: I was lucky to have had fantastic mentorship at key points that helped me get into school and find good employment that kept me engaged and motivated. Unfortunately, many veterans lack good mentorship and therefore enter a civilian job market underprepared and misunderstood.


Twitter: @dsmith_raider


Ashley McConkey
Ashley McConkey

Ashley McConkey manages communications for the George W. Bush Presidential Center and is responsible for message development on behalf of the Economic Growth, Human Freedom and Military Service initiatives.

Before joining the Bush Center, McConkey worked in the communications and public policy arena in Austin, Texas for both non-profit and corporate entities.  She also served as a Budget and Policy Adviser to Texas House Speaker Joe Straus. 

McConkey grew up in Greenville, Texas and moved to Austin to study Political Science at St. Edward’s University.  She and her husband reside in Dallas.

Full Bio
David  Smith
David Smith

Corporal David J. Smith joined the Marine Corps in 2003 and served as an Infantry Rifleman and Team Leader with Alpha Company “Raiders” of the 1st Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment.  He was deployed twice in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.  During his service, his unit was engaged in some of the heaviest fighting of the war to date including the battle of An Najaf in August 2004.  Smith was honorably discharged in 2007, but upon his return to the States experienced severe symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress.

One event, in particular, hurt him the most.  During an intense gunfight one night while trapped on the roof of a burning building, Smith caught movement and muzzle flashes out of the corner of his eye coming from a nearby alleyway below his position.  He didn’t have his night-vision mounted because his team had been clearing through the building.  Acting on instinct, Smith shot into that group of targets moving toward their position. It turned out to be a group of Marines and Smith wounded one of them.  That warrior was sent home and had part of his foot amputated.  Smith lost contact with him for many years and he didn’t know how well he was doing.  It was the single most painful, regrettable moment of his life.  Knowing that he had injured one of his own, “It haunted me for years.”

Afterwards, Smith says, “I had a very hard time admitting that something was wrong.  Instead of taking responsibility for my transition like I should have and asking for help, I tried to ignore it all because it was painful and embarrassing and I didn’t want to appear weak.  Ultimately, I found myself staring down the barrel of a shotgun.  That’s when I realized I just couldn’t fix the problems on my own and I needed help.”

Smith participated in his first event with the Bush Center in 2012, riding in the W100k just a month after he had contemplated suicide.  At that time, he remembers feeling like his heart was going to explode every day from all the emotions he was finally feeling again.  It was really nice to be biking and laughing among other warriors.  Since then, Smith works towards providing transition assistance for fellow veterans and eliminating the stigma of post-traumatic stress.  In February 2015, Smith participated on a panel discussion with President Bush and three other veterans about transition in hopes it helps someone else avoid the same big mistake he almost made. “Seek the help you need and you’ll respect yourself for it.”

Today, Smith is a great example of Post-Traumatic Growth.  He has re-focused himself, overcame obstacles, and is living a rich, fulfilling life.  After graduating from UC Berkeley, Smith interned on the New York Stock Exchange, delivered disaster response with Team Rubicon in the Philippines, and traveled to almost 30 countries doing missionary and humanitarian projects.  He finished those projects in December 2014 and moved to Norway, where he lives with his wife and works as the Chief Marketing Officer for Dogu AS, a software start-up company, while running a veteran transition resource blog on the side.

“Day-to-day life is amazing,” says Smith. “I don't struggle with depression and anxiety, I'm not afraid to fall in love or show my emotions, and I work hard to be a great man every single day. I refuse to let past failures or experiences shape the way that I view the world. I’ve never been happier, healthier, or more at peace than I am today.”

Full Bio

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