Air Force veteran Dwayne Paro narrowly missed being a casualty of 9/11. That experience, though, inspired him to give back to the country by coaching service members as they transitioned to the civilian workforce.
When a plane slammed into the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, Paro should have been working at a computer system one floor above the impact site. Instead, fate intervened. Paro was called away to assist another client elsewhere in the Washington, DC, that day.
But the 9/11 attack and a photograph showing the collapsed Pentagon roof leaning on his computer-server rack cemented Paro’s desire to ensure his life never was devoid of a greater purpose.
After leaving military service in 1999, Paro had achieved career success but he missed the day-to-day sense of purpose he had felt while serving in the Air Force. The 9/11 attack put him squarely in the fight again, though this time as a civilian contractor. He spent the next six years helping to build the network infrastructure for the newly formed Defense Intelligence Agency’s Combating Terrorism Task Force and the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Combating Terrorism group.
“Never had my sense of purpose and pride in our country been greater,” Paro recalls.
When he resumed his ascent up the corporate ladder, Paro never stopped searching for ways to serve. In 2015, Paro hit the pause button on his ambitions as an information technology industry executive and began helping veterans navigate the military-to-civilian transition.
“I see my IT career as chasing ambition,” Paro explained, “and I wanted to get back to serving something of a greater purpose.”
Paro’s book, “The Empowered Veteran: Strength and Confidence to Harness Your Future,” provides a soup-to-nuts blueprint for transition success that goes beyond resume and career advice. Paro delves into the importance of transition preparation, replicating military structure in civilian life, re-building a social life, creating a support network, making smart money moves, and capitalizing on educational opportunities. He also provides insights into how the core strengths gained through military service and leadership training can translate into a purpose-driven life.
Paro earned a bachelor’s degree in computer information systems while in the Air Force. When he left the military, Paro admits personal branding was foreign to him, but it ultimately helped him achieve his goals in the IT industry. He says military training prepared him for the ups and downs of a civilian career.
“You have to use those core strengths of perseverance and adaptability and confidence and having the ability to handle stress. All the things we develop as members of the military come in very handy when you are getting to where you ultimately want to be,” Paro explained.
Paro’s first transition lesson arrived with his first civilian paycheck.
“I undersold myself,” Paro said of his first post-military job. “I took a salary that turned out to not be sufficient for what I needed. I wasn’t smart on the fact that what I was taking home from the military (base pay) didn’t include my housing, my food money and things like that. That was a quick lesson learned.”
Paro believes today’s veterans often are overwhelmed by the number of nonprofit and other organizations offering military transition advice, creating what he calls a “fire-hose effect” that leaves them unsure where to turn for assistance.
“One of the big stumbling blocks for veterans in transition is they don’t go anywhere because they don’t know where to go,” he said. Paro supports creation of a vetting system for veteran non-profits so service members would have a transition roadmap to follow.
When service members have successfully prepared for transition, Paro says they are less likely to fall victim to the “scarcity mindset” that results in accepting the first job offer they receive rather than thinking broadly about career options. He maintains ex-military job seekers should approach hiring managers “with confidence and show them I’m the guy for you. I have what you’re looking for.”
“Transitioning members often feel like they’re at the mercy of hiring companies rather than these companies need what I offer,” Paro said.
Because personal connections often matter most when job hunting, Paro recommends taking advantage of networking sites such as LinkedIn that offers a free, one-year premium membership for veterans and military spouses, and RallyPoint, a military networking organization. But he urges service members to do more than job hunt from behind a computer keyboard.
“You need to go to industry specific events, like conferences or straight up networking events, where you get to know who’s who and start making connections that draw you closer to the who’s who in an industry,” Paro said.
Networking, he says, also is key to finding employers that will be a “great cultural fit.”
“A lot of organizations carry really nice bumper stickers about being veteran friendly, but you need to dig deep with veterans in the business you want to go into. Get that inside scoop,” he said.
Paro also reminds veterans that their first civilian job is but one step on their career ladder.
“Once you are officially out–you’ve got your DD214. Hopefully, you have a job. But it is still an ongoing process,” he said. “It’s not like once you get that first paycheck, you have now successfully transitioned. You’ve got to keep working and shoring up those areas where you need to invest in yourself.”