veteran identity

How Money is Destroying Your Veteran Identity and What to Do About It

At US VetWealth, the financial services that we offer are fairly unique compared to what you will find with traditional financial planning services, and there’s a reason for that: traditional financial planning focuses on your money largely in the context of preparing for retirement; at US VetWealth we focus on your money as a tool for enabling you to define your veteran identity and to live the life that you want to live NOW—not 30 to 40 years from now. If you consider yourself to be more than just a wage-earner and a tax-payer, then keep reading.

The financial services that we have specially designed for military and service members are about wealth and liberty, but inherent in these concepts is another, crucially important one: identity as a Veteran. Military service members face a unique problem when transitioning from the military that is seriously underrated and under acknowledged by the systems that are set up to help us transition. For many of us, during our time in service, our rank, our small unit, and probably our command, becomes our whole identity as a veteran. You can get lost very easily as you take on your military roles and responsibilities; it takes a mental effort to hold on to “you.” So the transitioning-out stress, panic, and desperation that a lot of us experience makes a lot of sense to me because it is a sort of identity crisis. There’s a conveyor belt system to help people write resumes and look for corporate jobs after the military, but there’s not a very strong system to help people transition out and into a new identity that will allow them to earn money and experience some kind of happiness in civilian work. 

I believe that the more honest you are, the more open you are, the more you share with people who you are, and what you're learning from things, and why you did or didn’t do certain things, it’s going to resonate with those whom you're meant to serve. Being transparent helps the people who stand to benefit the most from what you have to offer find you. With that in mind, I want to share the story of how I came to understand the concept of identity as being central to our military financial planning services.

My Struggle with Veteran Identity

Identity can be fluid. Like many of you, I have had a number of identities in my adult life. In the Army I was a Knowledge Management Officer. Before that I was a Ground Liaison Officer, and before that I was an XO Platoon Leader. These are standard military identities, and they are easy to latch onto. Then, after the military, for about seven years I remained in Stuttgart, Germany, where I felt that my identity was that of a  military financial planner. This wasn’t so much a choice as it was the first viable thing that I ran into. 

The work consisted largely of sponsoring events, where we would set up a booth and make conversation with the people attending the event. Our goal was to develop a list of potential clients that we could then call back later to try to sell them financial products. Though for the first two years that I worked in the industry I barely made any money, I kept at it, because I was trying to find a purpose. I wanted to feel like I was actually adding value to the industry and to the people that I dealt with. But I was becoming disillusioned about the work that I was doing. I didn’t agree with the standard financial advice that I was dispensing, even though it was what I had been taught to tell clients by “expert” colleagues with thirty years of experience. When I had spare time on my hands, I used it to try to educate myself about the financial industry. One of the books that I read explained things to me in a way that none of these experts in the industry had been able to do, and it blew my mind. It made so much more sense. Why weren’t the financial planners and advisers that I knew explaining things to their clients this way?

Around this time, I had the opportunity to see this other adviser give a presentation about how he did what he called holistic financial planning. It was a well-drawn-up presentation that explained things very simply and nicely. That was the kind of thing I was looking for, because I like getting up and presenting. So I introduced myself to him, and he offered to mentor me. He basically said, “Hey, bring people in and I'll work with them, and any money we make, we can split it.” He was the number-one guy in the firm, making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year and living a dream lifestyle in Italy, so of course I jumped at his offer.

I was nervous, because I hate cold-calling, but I started to get motivated because my mentor did things a little differently. I had 200 names that I had collected at a recent sponsorship event, so I started calling them. The next thing I knew, my mentor was coming in and meeting with people, and he started making sales. Then, basically, I was just sitting there and watching the show. We ended up doing really well, so I went from making no money to making well over six figures in that first year we worked together, which was my third year in the industry.

Right before all these paychecks started coming in, a relationship that had been a huge driver in my decision to remain in Germany as a civilian fell apart. By Christmas, I had nothing financially tying me down, and all of a sudden I decided to go to Thailand. At one point I’m sitting on the beach looking at my iPhone, and I get an email from a sort-of client who had bought a life insurance for military type of policy. He couldn’t afford the policy anymore and wanted to make some changes. I was communicating with him on my phone and freaking out because I didn’t want him to find out that I was in Thailand and not sitting in my office behind my desk. It was the first time I felt like I had to hide my lifestyle. But as time went on, this happened over and over again.

My Veteran Identity Epiphany

I was starting to struggle with my Veteran identity, because I wasn’t doing what I knew I was supposed to be doing, which was going into the office and sitting there for eight hours a day, and filling the calendar with client meetings. That was the role I thought I had to play if I wanted to be successful in the industry, and that’s what my clients were doing; they were working really hard. But I felt like I had made enough money. I wasn’t motivated to make more. I was really just kind of miserable and depressed. I wanted to get the heck out of Europe. So I didn’t do much. I just kind of sat around, and answered emails and calls as needed. But I didn’t go look for new business until my mentor in Italy would call and say, “Hey, I’m going to come up for a weekend and meet with everybody.” Then I would go crazy, getting a bunch of people on the calendar. We did that every couple of months. And there’d be some follow-ups and some business done. And I would do another sponsorship and collect the names of more people that I could call, and that was enough.

After a few years, my mentor suggested that I move down to Verona, Italy, where he lived. He said I could live in the office, and we could get organized and start really working together. I started getting excited again, thinking that we were now going to put together a plan to create a unique business together—but that didn’t happen. 

For starters, we spent a lot less time thinking about business than I had expected we would. I learned that my mentor, too, was living a completely different kind of lifestyle from our clients. He spent most of his time training for triathlons. It really struck me that both my mentor and I were living the lifestyles we wanted, which were completely different from not only what our clients were living, but from the corporate/industry standard of how we were supposed to be living our lives. Meanwhile, we had clients who were trapped in unfulfilling lives, and we were being complicit, in a way, in keeping them there, when we knew full well that there were other ways to leverage assets and other ways to live.

I began to ask myself: Why am I not doing what I can in my capacity as a financial adviser to enable people to live in whatever way they want to live, outside of the 9-to-5 grind if they wish, if this is what I believe in and what I am doing for myself? I was using different financial tools and strategies from what I was sharing with my clients that were enabling me to live the lifestyle I was living, and not only could I not figure out a way to explain these tools and strategies to people at that time, I was actually too ashamed to do it! I was ashamed because I was breaking out of a system that is so unsatisfying for so many, even as I was entangling my clients up in it. 

On the outside, I had been living a successful post-military life for a number of years. I was self-employed, earning a six-figure income. But I was frustrated. I was unhappy. I was losing touch with who I was and who I wanted to be. I did not have an authentic identity as a veteran resonating with a life’s purpose fueling my work. I had learned the hard way that money is not necessarily connected to wealth (which I define as the financial freedom to do whatever you want with your time) or to happiness. Sure, I was able to do a lot of things with my time that I wouldn’t have been able to do if I had to be chained to a desk for eight hours every day, but I felt guilty about and ashamed of doing it.

But thank God it all happened that way, because when I said goodbye to my mentor, left Europe, and came back to the States, I knew that now I would be able to find my purpose, my mission.

The US VetWealth Way 

If you are struggling with your veteran identity or work-life balance in your current or anticipated post-military life, contact us today. As you can see from my story, we’ve been there, we understand, and we can help. At one time I had three false identities that I played for years. I was this successful West Point grad, an officer and a veteran who had been to Iraq. I was a financial planner. And then, when I got back to the U.S., I was a single guy in San Diego, which everyone thought was such a cool thing to be. But none of these things define WHO I AM. I know firsthand that living within and juggling false identities can be exhausting and disheartening.

For me, the path to happiness was not to pick one of the identities and commit to it; and although it may seem so from the outside looking in, the solution wasn’t to somehow merge them, either. The solution was to get rid of the fragmentation permanently, and I did that by creating a situation in which my purpose, my passion, and my identity could shape my life, rather than always having to conform my life around a false identity.

Today, I might write on my Facebook page that I’m going to Thailand, and there’s always someone who writes back, “Do you even work, Scott?” And I’ve heard my share of underhanded comments, like “Well, I have a real job.” The life I live today, and the work that I spend my days doing, is something I’ve been creating for years. And I don’t call it my job: I call it my life. I don’t want to have a work identity, and an off-work identity. It’s confusing. Living that way almost killed me. 

If this resonates with you, then you’re in the right place.

What I learned during that time in my life is that people who are thinking differently from the herd need a unique style of financial guide. These kinds of people need more than retirement planning in the traditional sense. That doesn’t mean that they don’t want to have TSPs, 401(k)s and IRAs, it just means that’s not ALL they need to have. Their financial planning for military retirement needs to include different ways of saving money that allow them to actually ACCESS that money in the PRESENT if they want to try out an idea or make some change in how they are living.

There had been a time when I had thought that I couldn’t stay in the industry and still have integrity, but eventually I realized, oh my gosh, we can actually offer people hope for change. We can explain things differently, we can talk about what role they are in and what identity they want to have. I want to talk to people about how to set themselves up to be able to live the lifestyle that they want to live. I want to empower people. 

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