By Juan G. Ayala, Major General USMC (Retired).
I was born in El Paso, Texas and was the oldest of nine born to hardworking, family-oriented immigrant parents. We moved from Juarez, Mexico to El Paso around my 6th birthday. Speaking no English, I failed the first grade and was enrolled in Head Start—which propelled me to take advantage of the great opportunities offered by this country.
My father owned a family-run restaurant that became our livelihood for the next three decades. Raised by parents with a superhuman work ethic, and having a job beginning at the age of six, taught me everything I needed to know to achieve success in my parent’s adopted country. Hard work, perseverance, and treating people with respect served me well during my 36-year career as a United States Marine.
I’ve always wanted to be a Marine. My father convinced me not to enlist and offered to help me with college expenses. Immediately after becoming a new student at the University of Texas at El Paso, I found the Marine officer recruiters on campus. After graduation in 1979 I was commissioned a Second Lieutenant of Marines at our restaurant, Victor’s Café, where I had done everything from peeling potatoes, waiting tables, cooking and keeping the books.
I loved my Marine career. I travelled to just about every continent, served four tours in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom and earned two Masters Degrees. I successfully commanded thousands of Marines. I was ready to do the same in another career. My post-military goal was to work at something I truly enjoyed, not to get rich.
I was told that as a retired General with my credentials, employers would be knocking my door down. My effort would consist of sending out my resume and deciding how much money I wanted to make. I soon discovered this was all hooey.
Frustrated, I re-wrote my resume countless times, networked, looked on line, joined associations, attended social events, and forced myself to be patient. My resume landed in companies of all sizes and government agencies. I did not receive a single response. Supposedly, I was overqualified, and general officers “don’t want to work”. I sensed that my age was a factor. I learned that command of troops and combat actions were insignificant unless translated into civilian-speak. There are even nuances in how civilian employers see leadership qualities.
I recall being told that every meeting, social gathering, or chance encounter was to be treated as a job interview. That advice paid off. After a short encounter with a city employee, he unexpectedly handed me a folder announcing an unadvertised job. I applied. After weeks of waiting, I was asked to interview. My first interview before a panel was daunting. My last interview had been over 40 years ago. Everyone on the panel was younger than me, and not all were veterans. After a series of interviews, I did not receive a call for another few weeks, trying my patience.
Eventually, I was offered the position and started work soon thereafter. Going from almost four decades working in a military culture to a civilian position took some getting used to. Texting is the norm for communicating. Meetings rarely start or end on time. No one stands up when a senior official enters a room, and most surprising, no one seems to care when people are texting during a meeting. Small issues appear to be huge problems (compared to the life and death decisions that are made by military leaders). However, despite my military mindset, what my counterparts do works, as the City of San Antonio is one of the best run cities in the nation. And, at the end of the day, I have resorted to one of the most valuable of military skills—flexibility. And, I joined the city; the city did not join me.
Juan G. Ayala retired as a Major General in the United States Marine Corps after 36 years of service. He is currently the Director, Office of Military and Veterans Affairs for the City of San Antonio. He comes to the City of San Antonio with a proven record of success in leading people and commanding large, complex organizations. Prior to his retirement, Major General Ayala commanded all 24 Marine Corps installations worldwide and was selected to lead the Department of Defense’s 2015 Warrior Games assisting the nation’s wounded, ill and injured warriors in their recuperative efforts. He is the former Inspector General of the Marine Corps, and his service includes 4 combat tours in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, to include a year as the Senior Advisor of a Military Transition Team, embedded with the 1st Iraqi Army Division.
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