I started late, now what?

In the two part series, "I started late, now what?", Geoff Phillips outlines preparing for separation from the military.
Written by Geoffrey Phillips on Mar 05, 2019
I started late, now what?

One of the more common transitioning themes is simply this: “I started too late.” Many transitioning service members do not prepare themselves for the daunting task of military retirement or separation. In the same breath, most are fully aware of their upcoming transition date well in advance.

I recently spoke to two veterans, both entirely unprepared for life outside the military. Both applied for and received unemployment pay to help alleviate family stress to cover down on bills and expenses, all of which do not stop after you exit the military. In addition, both provided alarming statements of sorrow, with clear indications that they started their transition efforts too late.

The Air Force Personnel Center indicates people who are retiring (from the military), can “schedule counseling up to 24 months before retirement, while people who are separating can attend up to 12 months beforehand.  The Army’s Soldier for Life Transition Assistance Program website (which offers a wealth of advice), falls in line with Air Force guidance, indicating “Retiring Soldiers can start using services up to two years before retirement, and non-retiring Soldiers can start one year before separation date.” The Department of Defense Transition Assistance Program website follows lock step as well, indicating: “Service members begin the final TAP process between 12 and 24 months before separation or retirement, but no later than 90 days prior.”

Transitioning vets: are you seeing the trend now?

With Department of Defense and service level guidance clearly outlined in instructions, websites, and guidance to transition centers across the globe, why are service members still waiting too late in the game to prepare for transition?

First, many service members are simply too connected to their military circles, and may face a false sense of security, as I outlined nearly two years ago in an article titled “Veterans Transition Tips: Network Outside the Gate.” Most military members, particularly those who have been in the service for several years, are fairly connected. If they are having pay, transportation, or uniform issues, they likely know someone – or know someone who knows someone that can assist. They travel the timeline closer to retirement with a false assumption that these same military members will aid them in getting jobs, either in the contracting world or as a government civilian. Furthermore, they make the assumption that “getting that civilian job” will happen at the snap of a finger – within days! For most, it will take much longer.

Second, service members hold a valued sense of pride, one that is not broken until the end. This is worthy and justifiable, but you must make exceptions. Others will indicate they will “run to the finish line,” burning the last bit of the candle, as they don’t want their subordinates to see them go ROAD (ROAD is referred to as retired on active duty, and often indicates someone who has already checked out of the military). While giving it your all until your last day in uniform is likely treasured by the upper echelons of command, it hurts the service member in the end. Once you exit that gate for the last time, your unit has already forgotten about you. Three months later? Don’t expect your First Sergeant or subordinates to check up on you.

What is the correct answer to get military folks started on the transition process much sooner? I’m afraid this is a question with no easy answer. While many of the transition assistance programs continue to go through changes for the better, the responsibility ultimately rests on the shoulders of the service member.

A simple charter of your goals for the future after military service is more than valuable. Ask yourself, and get answers to tough questions. Do you desire to become a company vice president, a full time student, or stay at home parent? What are your income requirements, and which bills must be paid? Where will you live? What do you actually want to do with your life? These are some of the upfront questions to ask yourself and your family members, who must be included in your transition efforts.

Backing your charter with a skills based resume, and completion of one of the many transition courses is second in line. Connecting with those outside your military circle and seeking mentors and informational interviews are more than worthy. Start talking to everyone you know, and inform them of your upcoming transition.

Communication with your chain of command is vital. While no one wants to become that next ROAD member, you must take time to take care of yourself and your family. Your unit and mission will go on long after you are gone. Schedule a meeting with your supervisor, and outline your needs. Emphasize the importance of getting to those transition classes, and spending time getting that suit ready. Sure, units are required to give you time off for certain events, just make sure your chain of command is fully aware up front.

The best time to prepare for your next job is now – while you still have a job. The next best time will also be the worst time – when you don’t have one. Start mapping your plan now, and start taking action!

(This is part 1 of a 2 part series titled: “I started late, now what” that focuses on military transition. Part 2 will provide a usable transition timeline with actionable goals).