Published: Dec. 17, 2020

Drawing on the organizational and logistical skills he gained during a 22-year career in the Marine Corps, Bill Van Atten reflects on how he translated his military experience into the civilian sector. Now working as a program manager at Ball Aerospace, he also lectures in the Engineering Management Program at the University of Colorado Boulder (CU Boulder).

Bill Van AttenBill Van Atten has been interested in airplanes since he was young. His father and grandfather both served in the Army, and when he graduated from high school, he knew he wanted to go into the military. “That desire to fly came to me as a child,” he says. “I also knew I wanted to serve my country.”

Van Atten initially enrolled at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in Troy, New York, on a four-year Army Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC) scholarship. He quickly decided he wanted to switch to the Marine Corps. “I was just drawn to the way they trained,” he says. “I could tell that it was going to be a better natural fit for me than the Army was going to be.”

Van Atten graduated from RPI in 1987 with a bachelor of science in aeronautical engineering. He was immediately commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the Marine Corps — the start of what would be a multifaceted and largely international military career. “I never was faced with having to either apply for jobs or look for something in the industry until much later on when I exited the Marine Corps,” he says.

Van Atten wasn’t able to achieve his childhood dream of becoming a pilot because of poor eyesight, so he started his military career as a Naval Flight Officer (NFO), a designation for officers who operate aircraft as a non-pilot. “Initially, I was the Bombardier Navigator in the A-6E Intruder, which was a two-seat jet bomber,” he says.

As a lieutenant, he flew 16 combat missions in Kuwait and Iraq during Desert Storm in 1990-1991. Then he returned to the United States and served as an instructor at the NFO flight school in Pensacola, Florida. In 1993, after two Black Hawk helicopters were shot down in the Somali capital of Mogadishu, Van Atten volunteered to join the build-up of forces from different branches of the military in Somalia in response to the incident.

Van Atten says that his experience in Mogadishu was formative due to his collaboration with other branches of the military and United Nations peacekeeping forces from around the world. “Ultimately, our job was to enable the UN peacekeeping force to try and fix the famine that was taking place in Somalia,” he says.

In Somalia, Van Atten was responsible for coordinating air support for UN peacekeeping missions. “I was the headquarters coordinator for anything that involved the use of a helicopter or fixed-wing aircraft.”

Van Atten had very little training for that specific role, but he drew on his basic knowledge of military organization and capabilities to meet tactical needs. He worked with experts in different fields such as logistics and supply, ground operation, and UN peacekeeping operations. “You’re using your best judgment day-to-day to help solve problems and make our mission successful,” Van Atten says. “It was an awful lot of learning that had to happen very quickly in order to make all this work.”

After Somalia, Van Atten was deployed to Japan where he was involved in joint military training and operations with allies in the region. Later, he served in the Pentagon from 1998-2001 as a staff officer for the Headquarters Marine Corps Aviation, providing input to the Marine Corps defense budget.

Learning “On the Fly”

Van Atten says that one of the skills he gained from military service was entering a new environment, quickly learning policies and processes, and figuring out how to best contribute. His various posts lasted from several months to several years — and then on to something new. “You’re plucked out of something that you just became very comfortable doing, and you’re transported into a completely different role that you have to learn very quickly so that you can once again add value to the new environment,” he says. “I think that’s one of the big skills you get out of the military.”

Van Atten admits that the prospect of changing positions is intimidating, but doing it several times “gives you some personal confidence to learn things on the fly, adjust to varying needs and environments, and make yourself into a valuable asset for the team.” It was exactly the kind of experience he would later put to good use when transitioning to a civilian work environment.

After three years at the Pentagon, Van Atten returned to the flight deck as a squadron commander at Miramar Marine Corps Air Station in San Diego, California. “As a squadron commander there, you are now the person responsible for executing whatever operational assignments the squadron gets, in addition to being responsible for the training, morale, and welfare of the 180 Marines and a few sailors who are under your command,” he says.

He says that one of the biggest challenges that people face when they leave the military and enter into civilian life, especially after holding senior command positions, is the loss of a sense that they are an integral part of a much larger picture. “You’re really part of something that is big,” he says. “And being a squadron commander brings that home to you. You’re now tied into this more senior-level planning and objective that takes place. And it also brings to light the sacrifices that come along with doing that — mainly long family separations.”

Van Atten’s final tour from the Marine Corps was working for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in Belgium. While he was there, he was on a team responsible for NATO operations in Africa and Iraq, working on projects such as assessing border security between Iraq and Iran.

Building a Great Career: Part Two

All of Van Atten’s military experience would come into play when he transitioned out of the military and began the second big act in his career. His military background proved crucial to his success in the civilian workforce, but he admits it also raised some unique challenges when switching from one environment to another.

Van Atten’s first job after separating from the military was right back at the Pentagon, this time, as a civilian in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. There, he worked on policy making related to the Iran nuclear deal. While he found the work interesting, it was difficult having to start over again after holding leadership positions in the military.

“You’re kind of reentering the workforce as an inexperienced junior person,” he says. “You have to have the mindset that you’re back to work on tasks that are not necessarily on the same level that you had when you were in the military. Although mentally, I was perfectly willing to do that, I found that I just didn’t get the satisfaction out of it that I had as a Lieutenant Colonel in the Marine Corps.”

After a year and a half at the Pentagon, Van Atten spent a few years working as a support contractor for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program office. He enjoyed working with airplanes again, but there was little job security or growth potential. So, he used his GI Bill funding to earn a master’s in systems engineering from Johns Hopkins University during that time. It proved to be a smart move.

When Van Atten started interviewing for other private-sector jobs, his graduate degree was highly sought after. “They viewed that as an important element of my resume,” he says. “Which is kind of funny to me. Knowing my history in the Marine Corps and all the other things I did, I thought that was way more important than earning this piece of paper for doing systems engineering. But that’s the lens through which organizations view the workforce, so you have to respond directly to what they are looking for.”

His previous budgetary work at the Pentagon also made Van Atten especially sought after when he left the military — even though at the time, he wouldn’t have identified it as a key skill. It took him a while to understand the long-term benefit of having an “office job” while in the military. “Nobody joins the Marine Corps to write PowerPoints and spreadsheets at the Pentagon,” he says. “They all join the Marine Corps to fly jets, lead Marines, and do the nation’s bidding.”

But learning about budgeting and finance served him well when he transitioned to the private sector. “You learn a completely new skill that contributes to your marketability when you get out because you understand how the military spends their money, how they decide what money to spend, and where and how to set their priorities,” Van Atten says. “And that is very valuable information to defense contractors, companies like Ball Aerospace, Raytheon, Boeing, and Lockheed Martin.”

Van Atten eventually joined Bell Aerospace in 2014, where he continues to work as a program manager, overseeing contracts and coordinating a team of engineers to design and develop deliverables. He monitors the team’s performance and makes sure they maintain the budget, schedule, and technical performance.

Another challenge he’s faced since retiring from the Marine Corps is that civilian companies don’t truly understand the value of military service in the same way he does. “I’m proud of the things I did in the Marine Corps,” Van Atten says. But he has found that private companies “don’t necessarily understand what military service is all about. They haven’t lived it themselves.”

He has often encountered people who have preconceived notions about what a military veteran is. “Especially being a Marine, because people think, ‘Oh, Marine Corps; those are the guys that took the beach at Iwo Jima. They like to yell at people a lot and make them do push-ups.’ That's literally the perception that people have stuck in their heads. And so they’re almost a little bit cautious of you because you don’t do that in the civilian world.”

At the same time, Van Atten has found that his military experience does translate to the civilian workforce in other interesting ways. He has combined his technical expertise and his military background as a lecturer in the Engineering Management Program at CU Boulder. “Program management is really putting systems engineering to use, and I had the real-life experience background that the university was looking for to teach systems engineering for them,” he says.Bill Van Atten teaching in class

Van Atten says that the best thing about teaching is passing on his experience. “One of the things they always taught us in the Marine Corps was that whenever you came into a job, one of your main tasks is to find somebody who is going to replace you,” he says. “They knew that in three years you were leaving, and someone else had to do your job. It made you very aware of the importance of mentorship and teaching and passing on lessons learned to help the next people who are behind you.”

He says that teaching in the Engineering Management Program at CU Boulder isn’t any different. “To me, that is what teaching systems engineering is all about,” he says. “It’s being able to go to the next generation who are eager, hungry, intelligent, coming out of college with a degree, and ready to go make a difference in the world. And systems engineering is the process by which we take an idea from conception to delivery. So it’s a perfect opportunity for me to take all kinds of experiences, from life experiences in the Marine Corps to professional experiences at Ball Aerospace, and then communicate that through the mechanism of systems engineering.”

Advice From a Vet

Van Atten advises anyone in the military who is contemplating transitioning into a civilian sector to spend a lot of time thinking about what they really want to do. “Think about it in terms of what’s going to make you hungry to go back to work every day,” he advises.

He says his first civilian positions at the Pentagon and as a defense contractor were ultimately not the right fit because he focused on what he was able to do, not what he wanted to do. “You need to think about ‘Where do I want to end up? Where do I want to live? What’s important for my family? My faith? For my values? For my extracurricular hobbies and sports and ideas?’” he says.

He also recommends spending time thinking about translating military experience into the skills that civilian companies are looking for and understand. “I might say, ‘I was a commanding officer of a military squadron,’” he says. “But if I say that to somebody who’s never been associated with the military before, they have no idea what that means. They don’t understand that means that you were responsible for creating a budget, executing and operating 12 F/A-18 Hornets, and overseeing the performance of 180 people.”

He adds that organizations like the Marines for Life Network can provide important resources like helping veterans write resumes and prepare for interviews. “You really need to work hard at translating your military experience into civilian speak,” Van Atten says. “And you can’t do that on your own.”

Van Atten also recommends reaching out to professional networks when job searching. He got an interview at Ball Aerospace because someone he served with in the Marine Corps worked there. “You need to remember that serving in the military makes you part of that network,” he says. “I will have people reach out to me who I never knew before and say ‘Hey, I also served in the Marine Corps.’ I’m always more than happy to meet with them.”

For more information about the resources available at the Marines for Life Network, visit their website. You can learn more about the CU Boulder Engineering Management Program on their website.