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Organization Finds New ‘Tribe’ for Special Operators After the Military

As featured in

26 Mar | By Richard Sisk

Matt Stevens cites himself as an example of why The Honor Foundation performs a crucial role in serving the unique needs of troops departing the tightly knit active-duty special operators community.

“The toughest thing to figure out is what is your next purpose,” said Stevens, a 26-year Navy SEAL who retired as a captain.

Much like many of his peers in special operations, Stevens said he was searching for “what I wanted to do, where I could apply my skills and still feel like I was doing something important” when he left the military.

In 2017, Stevens went through what was then a 15-week course offered by the foundation and found a job with a Boston firm. He returned to the organization last month as its chief executive officer.

Unlike the employment programs for veterans run by other organizations, the foundation’s course does not focus on training particular skills such as marketing, sales or cyber security.

“We’re not a job placement program, but we do try to connect to the right opportunity,” Stevens said.

Instead, the foundation’s course, offered free of charge to special operators from all the service branches, concentrates on the individual, and the skills and motivation they already possess.

It’s a matter of translation of those abilities to the private sector, Stevens said.

“In our community, what’s driven into the guys from day one is team before self. It’s team and then self in the pecking order of what’s important,” he said.

The special operator, in a sense, is part of a “tribe,” Stevens said, and the foundation focuses on “the time you leave one tribe and have to find another tribe” while in transition.

“Those units are very tight and close-knit” in special ops, he said, “so when you leave that, it’s tough to find a like-minded tribe, one that is all about the team sharing the same common purpose.”

The foundation’s literature states that one of the goals of what is now a 12-week course is to make those going through it feel “uncomfortable before you can get comfortable.”

What that means, Stevens said, is “trying to help the guys understand that when you transition to the private sector, you have to think about yourself first, you have to sell yourself, and that is probably the most uncomfortable thing that guys do. They don’t like putting themselves on a pedestal and showing off — that’s what they think it is.”

“What we instill in them is, hey, tell some stories, and that in itself will tell the potential employer about who you are,” he added.

The foundation, a 501(c)(3) tax exempt nonprofit and partner of the Navy SEAL Foundation, began offering the courses in 2012 and now has campuses in San Diego; Virginia Beach, Virginia; and near Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.

The 12-week course teaches resume writing and networking, but the main focus is to help the special ops students develop the ability to present effectively on how the leadership, planning and teamwork skills they honed in the service can apply to businesses’ bottom lines.

“I got so much more out of it than I thought I could,” Stevens said of going through the courses himself.

The courses begin with what he called the “pre-assessment stage” with extensive interviews of a prospective student. Three main phases follow, he said.

“The first [phase] is about you, the person; dig into what makes them tick,” he said. Then comes what he called “tactical-level stuff” — resume writing, working up LinkedIn profiles and studying interview techniques.

Finally, there’s the “pre-employment workup” in which participants do interview rehearsals, make visits to local area companies, and discuss small business opportunities and entrepreneurship.

Then, Stevens said, “we take [participants] on a trek” to another city where they can make connections and network.

When it’s over, “we don’t just cut them loose; we stay connected to [them] and try to help,” he said.

The program has graduated 429 students thus far, and Stevens said he expects the number to exceed 500 by the end of this summer. There is a faculty of 44, plus 90 volunteer mentors from various business sectors and nine executive “coaches,” he said, adding that the foundation is preparing to offer the courses online.

Some of the graduates decide to remain in the service, “which I think is great and noble,” Stevens said.

“Some decide to go into higher education, [and] some want to do sabbaticals, but most go into the workforce,” he added.

The decisions are up to the graduates.

“We don’t tell them what to do. We try to provide opportunities,” Stevens said.