At 45 years old, Bob Merkl retired as a lieutenant colonel from the United States Army. Not ready to retire-retire, he was anxious about the next chapter — leaving the only life he had known and becoming, as he put it, “a stranger in a strange land.”
This was 1998, when there were few programs to help veterans transition to civilian life. But Merkl, whose resume included three master’s degrees, caught a break. A man he now refers to as his mentor gave him a chance, and that set up a successful post-military career.
On Nov. 11 — Veterans Day, appropriately enough — Merkl took on his latest challenge. He is now special assistant for military & veterans affairs with William & Mary’s Veteran-to-Executive Transition program.
VET was made possible by a $10 million gift from an anonymous alumna with a goal of helping veterans transition after taking off the uniform. Merkl was in their place 22 years ago. He now wants to use his experiences to help veterans transition to their new lives.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Welcome to William & Mary. As a veteran who made the transition to civilian life, what are your thoughts on your new job?
This position was made possible by a very generous gift from a visionary and anonymous donor who recognized there are about 83,000 active duty military here in the Hampton Roads area, and between 12,000 and 15,000 of them transition every year. Many of those have the same experience that I did with not knowing whether they have the skills and support structure to make a successful transition.
This donor wanted to make sure William & Mary did everything to establish itself as the premier institution for transitioning veterans into executive level and continued service to our nation in the civilian sector. I’ve been impressed with the warm welcome I’ve received into the Tribe family and by the creative work that’s already been accomplished at William & Mary to help veterans succeed and flourish.
Can you describe the type of student that VET will be helping?
It’s a combination. There are very young kids who are in the ROTC program. We’ve got older folks in their career that are Major General James Wright Scholars. We have others who have decided not to make the military a career, many of whom are in the MBA program now at the Raymond A. Mason School of Business.
There is quite a healthy population here of those who are either on active duty or are veterans planning to, or are involved in, the transition process.
What was it like for you going through that door in ’98?
I was married and had three kids, two of them in high school and one who had just started college. My earning years were far from over. I certainly couldn’t live off my military retirement. It was a stark awakening to realize I knew nothing about the outside world. I didn’t know how to write a resume. I didn’t know how to translate what I did into a language that people understood.
I was given leadership responsibilities to the point that when I retired, I had been in charge of the 10,000-person operation in Guantanamo Bay during the Haitian refugee crisis. You go from that to interviewing for jobs where you’re going to be an assistant to a director of a big company and you don’t have anyone working for you.
In many cases, it’s a dose of humility. It’s starting over. It’s learning a whole new language, a whole new culture. It’s understanding that everything you did might have been important to you, but it might not even be relevant in the new area you’re going into.
Tell us about your mentor, the man who helped you get started.
Dan Woodward was the head of the Strategic Telecommunications Division of Electronic Data Systems in Bedminster, New Jersey. Dan’s father had been a Marine Corps sergeant major who fought his way through the South Pacific during World War II. And my dad was an Army combat engineer who helped build the Burma Road in the South Pacific and China Burma India Theater.
A headhunter found my first interview, and I met Dan. It was very clear about five minutes in that I didn’t have any of the skillset he was looking for, but he was gracious enough to continue the interview by engaging me in conversation about my background. And we started making each other laugh with stories about our dads.
But you didn’t expect a call-back.
I told my wife at the time, “I met a great guy and had a great conversation, but I’ll never hear from him again.” A couple days later, he called and said, “Bob, I’m going to make you a job offer.” I said, “Dan, how can that be possible? I didn’t have what you were looking for.” He says, ”I’m not looking for a skillset; I’m looking for DNA.”
He said, “I have four direct reports who report to me. For three months, I want you to shadow them and learn their job as well as they know them. Then I’ll rotate you after three months so by the end of the year, you will know as much about strategic communications within EDS as anyone in the company besides maybe me.”
Are you now hoping to take what Dan Woodward did for you and pay it forward?
Yeah, very much so. One of the bridges to the future for these folks is putting together a mentorship intern program and a speaker’s program so people like me who have been down this road can give back to the folks who are about to cross these bridges. It’s a win-win for the organization and the people that participate.
VET is new, but the university has long had programs in place to help veteran students. What are your thoughts on them?
I’m amazed that I’m not starting with a blank slate. There are a lot of people out there doing a lot of great things. My mission is to come in and help coordinate those programs across William & Mary and to forge both the internal and external partnerships that are going to be required for a successful transition to civilian employment at the executive level.
We believe that service to the country doesn’t end when you take the uniform off. We’re building a new tribe at William & Mary, a tribe of continued service to our communities, to our nation and to the world.