Whether you have served for one enlistment or you have made the military a 20 year career, at some point your time in uniform will come to an end. When it does, is it important that you are prepared for what comes next. Sometimes what comes next seems too overwhelming that you do not even know where to start.
Did you know you should be attending your TGPS course 12 months out from your separation? Did you know that the TGPS instructors look at you funny if you tell them you have less than a year until you’re out of the military and you knew your separation was coming up? And if your plans post-service include going to college, have you started applying? Do you know deadlines for applications? Do you know what the deadline is to fill out a FAFSA form to get additional financial aid? Oh and you can’t forget the VA medical claim process. That could take between 6 months and 2 years to get through if you don’t know where to start. Plus, there is the fact that in just a little while you will no longer have a job.
This is not to scare you! This is just to let you know the importance of getting on the ball.
But where do you even start?
1. START EARLY
Believe it or not, a lot of people have no idea when they should begin transitioning out of the military.
Transitioning is not started the day you go on terminal leave. It is started when you decide that you will not be reenlisting or that you will be retiring at the end of your current enlistment. That is the day you need to start making plans.
Talk to your military career counselor and find out what they suggest the first step for you should be.
Each branch of the military has different steps to follow when it comes to separating from service but they all require going to a TGPS course.
You are allowed to attend those courses twice. So if you are 24 months out from your separation date and you want to get a big head start on the process, feel free to enroll in the TGPS course then AND you can take it again closer to separation to clear up any questions that you still might have about getting out and what benefits there are for veterans.
2. PREP FOR COLLEGE
As for college plans, while some schools have a rolling enrollment, if you are looking to start a program at a traditional brick and mortar school, you may have to meet specific application deadlines. Look into the schools in your area (or the area you plan to move to after separation) and make sure you do your research on the programs before you apply.
- Call the school and ask about the military affairs department.
- Find out what benefits they might have for veterans that their main website doesn’t advertise.
If you’re looking at online programs, find out what they require for you to be considered a full-time student AND if they have any distance learning programs near you that would allow you to claim status as a residential student.
The reason you want that information is because for those using the Post 9/11 GI Bill a big perk is the BAH.
Online students do not receive the same amount of BAH as a residential student. They receive half the national average for BAH and in some areas that means taking a big cut in allowances.
If you aren’t sure about where to start with the college process you can always go to Military One Source or your local Fleet and Family Service center for help. They have trained employees who will walk you through the whole thing and help make sure you are on the right path for success.
3. VISIT THE DAV AND VA REPRESENTATIVES
Most bases have a Disabled American Veterans (DAV) office on or near them. Same goes Veterans Affairs (VA) offices. The employees at the DAV offices will sit down with you and review your entire medical record to pick out every single tiny medical issue you ever had that could be considered for a VA claim.
When I went to my appointment, there was a Chief waiting for his appointment, and his medical records were so big that he had them in a printer paper box. Yet, these employees were happy to sit and look at every sheet of paper he brought to make sure that he was going to be able to be taken care of once he was out of the military. For those wondering why to make an appointment with the DAV or attended a VA clinic prior to separation, it is all about time.
If you can get your claim filed BEFORE you actually separate, then your VA claim is supposed to be processed within 6 months of your separation. However, if you wait until after separation to attend these clinics or get in touch with the VA it could take as long as 2 years for your claim to be finished. That is a big difference in time when it comes to your potential disability rating. And even if you do not think that you have anything severe enough to warrant a look from the VA, still go through this process. That way should something come up later you have already started the claim and it will go much quicker.
I can tell you from experience, being able to attend the DAV clinic and talk to a VA representative prior to separation made the process seem so much less intimidating. The class I was in had a representative that walked us through each and every form we had to fill out and broke down information in a way that everyone understood.
They emphasized multiple times that there was no stupid question when it came to these documents because they were going to determine our benefits. And on top of getting my claim processed faster, I was also able to knock off my medical check-out required for the Navy at the same time! It meant standing by a copy machine and making duplicate copies of every document in my medical record, but now I have that whole file in my possession so should something come up in the future I do not have to rely on the VA to locate a copy of the records.
Even if your local medical office does not tell you that you have to copy your medical record, do it! Keep a copy for your records because you never know when you might need it again and you will not be able to call the last military medical facility you were at to get it. They have to ship it off to the VA office in your new home of record. So having to prepare it for the DAV clinic put me one step ahead when I was checking off my to-do list for medical.
4. THINK ABOUT YOUR NEXT CAREER
You would think that this is an obvious one. Something that everyone thinks about when they are getting ready to transition out of the military. But often times service members assume that finding a job after the military is going to be a piece of cake and they do not prepare themselves for the challenges that might come with job hunting.
My father was in the Navy for 26 years and when he retired he did not head off to Florida, kick up his heels, and relax. In fact, his retirement party was on a Friday and the next Monday he was at work at his new job. But finding that job took some work.
I asked him recently what he wished he knew before getting out of the Navy and he told me that someone should have told him that when it comes to finding a job and getting hired, often times it is less about what you know and more about who you know.
Even with veterans hiring preferences out there, this is a true statement. It is so important that service members who intend to go into a new career path start planning in advance. Not just by applying for jobs months out either. This search needs to start with a good resume. See Putting Together a Civilian Resume
If you do not know how to polish your resume or how to translate all the jobs you did in the military into terms that civilians can understand, then it is time to use your resources.
- There are companies that help edit resumes.
- There are companies that help military members create well worded resumes.
- They are classes you can take to help you put together your own resume if you do not want someone else doing it for you.
No matter which route you go it does not hurt to have a second, and even third, set of eyes go over your resume before you start sending them out. There is nothing worse than sending out a dozen emails and then realizing that you misspelled just one word.
And do not forget to network.
I know, it stinks to think people are hired before you just because they knew someone who worked for the company. But that is reality. So call up every connection you might have and let them help you out. When my husband was looking for work after separating from the Marines it was a connection my father had from his time in the Navy that ended up being our saving grace. And when I got my new job it was because a teacher I worked with before I was in the Navy suggested to the principal that I just might be a good fit for the position, even if I was lacking a few certifications.
Don’t burn your bridges when you walk out the door on your last day of service.
You never know when those people will come back and be able to help you out…or when you’ll be the connection they need to move forward.
5. PLAN YOUR NEXT MOVE
The last big thing that needs to be considered when separation is looming is where you are going to live next. Many service members are eager to go home. Back to the home of record on their enlistment papers. Back to family and friends they left behind when they enlisted.
Other members pick their last duty stations because they know that is where they want to retire. My dad was happy to return to Norfolk for his last tour of duty because we had made Virginia our home and he had no intention of uprooting my sister and me for one last hurrah only to return to the coast after it was all said and done.
And then there are those who go where the jobs are. It’s a new city with no family, no friends, but a paycheck that makes the move worth it.
No matter what route you are going you have to start thinking about the move. Many people are aware that the military will pay for a final move from your last duty station back to your home of record.
What people don’t always realize is that if you want to move to a new town or even just move to a new house in the same town they will pay for that too!
Of course there are stipulations to both of those options. If you choose not to return to your home of record then the military will pay for a move that is the same distance as it would have been for you to go back home. And if you want to move just out of one house and into another in the same city then you have to file for a local area move. It is as simple a process as doing a cross country move! I know that because I did it earlier this year. My final move when I separated took me a grand total of 12 miles. Yet, I had wonderful movers come and pack up everything, load it all, move it the 12 whole miles, unload it, and even start unpacking for me. All on the military’s dime!
I was not complaining about that at all.
I know this seems like a lot to remember. And it is often just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to transitioning out of the military and back into the civilian world. But it is important that even if you feel like your transition period is never going to arrive, you keep in mind just how fast time flies. From the “12 month out” moment when I signed up for TGPS to the day I was handed my DD 214 went by in a blink of an eye. Starting early and asking questions, even when I thought they might be stupid questions, made the process so much easier.
So use your resources. Start early. And do not be afraid to reach out to those that have gone before you for help on what it takes to get from point a to point z without losing your mind.