Heroes at Work: Retired Marine reveals the challenges of returning to the civilian workforce after 20 years

Lt. Col. Ted Handler is not the kind of person to stand down in the face of a challenge.

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After serving as a Marine Corps Officer for more than 20 years, Handler chose to pursue a different kind of challenge -- the civilian workforce.

“There’s a lot of job security [in the military],” he told FOX Business. “You have been selected and selected and selected. You’re with like-minded people, for the most part, that all have the same goal and are very team-oriented.”

“Going into the civilian workforce is not anywhere near the same,” Handler added. “They are a team and you’re kind of a rookie again, where you may be in a leadership position, but you’re definitely a rookie. There are different agendas at play. Different people have their own experiences and people come and go.”

Lt. Col. Ted Handler (pictured) retired from the Marine Corps at the beginning of 2018 after 20 years in the military.  (Courtesy of Ted Handler)

Last March, Handler took the role of Senior Manager of Business Process Excellence at Stihl, Inc., the chainsaw and power equipment manufacturer.

“Stihl has a great reputation,” Handler said. “They have a great product, they have great benefits, great employees. It’s a great team. But even in first place, people know that you can always do better. I like that challenge.”

He also stays busy by sitting on the board of the Tidewater Community College Educational Foundation and co-running a hot sauce company with his wife, Stephanie.

Handler first joined the Marines in 1996, when he was 27 years old. He served as an infantry officer until 1999, when he got married and decided to go into finance at investment bank PaineWebber, which was bought by UBS in 2000.

He signed up for the reserves in August 2001 -- just to “have fun with the Marines being a leader” -- one month before 9/11. He lost a couple of childhood friends in the attacks but was lucky that his father and brother-in-law survived -- his dad hadn’t felt well, so stayed home that day, and his brother-in-law had missed his train.

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“I felt very lucky, but also obligated and somewhat expected to go back to serve,” Handler said.

In fact, his unit was one of the first to be recalled to active duty.

In March 2018, he became the Senior Manager of Business Process Excellence at Stihl, Inc., the chainsaw and power equipment manufacturer. Handler (right) is pictured this summer with Stihl Corporate Communications Manager Roger Phelps (left) and dog (Courtesy of Ted Handler)

Eventually, Handler and his wife decided that he should continue to serve “so that somebody else doesn’t have to.” But they agreed he would retire after 20 years.

By 2006, Handler was serving with the Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command (MARSOC). He was eventually stationed overseas as a Marine Special Operations Officer and was later recruited to work with the Naval Special Warfare Developmental Group -- the Navy portion of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) --  in Virginia Beach.

“It was exceptionally exciting,” he said. “It was kind of like one challenge after another after another.”

Handler (center) served as a Marine Special Operations Officer until he retired in 2018. He is pictured with his parents.  (Courtesy of Ted Handler)

In 2017, Handler’s wife reminded him of their 20-year agreement and told him she wanted to stay in Virginia Beach. So he agreed and retired.

Having been a part of the Special Operations community, he was able to participate in The Honor Foundation (THF), which helps prepare retired officers for success in the civilian workforce.

“They give you the full opportunity to introspect and figure out what makes you tick and they do a whole thing about figuring out your why and what your strengths are and literally figuring out what it is that is going to be that next mission,” Handler said.

That was vastly different from the typical military Transition Assistance Program, “TAPS/TAMP,” which Handler described as “here’s a whole bunch of information, here’s a whole bunch of phone numbers and websites, good luck. Slap on the butt, on to the next one.”

“That was very disappointing,” he said. “But the opportunity to go through The Honor Foundation was very unique.”

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“I realized that challenges and the stress is kind of what drives me,” he explained. “And so I got introduced, through The Honor Foundation, to Stihl, Inc.”

He found that his position at Stihl is similar to what he did with Special Operations.

“I’ve got a team that works on looking at all of our business processes and how can we make them more efficient,” Handler explained. “And when you think about special operations ... that’s essentially exactly what I’m doing now, it’s just a different mission.”

“That whole planning cycle the military uses is really the same thing that the business world is using,” he added.

Handler and his wife Stephanie run a company called Sassy Hot Sauces, which plays off a military theme. Some of their sauces are pictured.  (Courtesy of Ted Handler)

Aside from his work at Stihl, Handler and his wife also have a company, Sassy Hot Sauces, which plays off a military theme, with a drill instructor -- that’s actually a hot pepper -- as the logo and different flavors named after different articles of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ).

“It’s fun and it’s entrepreneurial and it’s different,” Handler said. “We’ll see where it takes us.”