Editor’s note: Military Times introduces Change of Mission, a new column designed to help you through one of the most stressful times of your life — what happens after taking off the uniform for good.
After 21 years of service, I decided in 2017 to submit my paperwork to retire from the Army. So, with retirement orders in hand, I stumbled into the unknown. I was a Green Beret and a strategic planner at Joint Special Operations Command. Normally I’m a big fan of irony, but the fact that it was my job to plan things yet I had no plan for my own transition seemed like a form of professional malpractice. The clock was ticking with less than 12 months to my unemployment, and even though 200,000 veterans separate from the military every year, I felt like the first person to ever retire.
Transitioning from military service is a complicated process. Waiting until the last minute or treating it like a typical PCS move is not the way you want to approach one of your most important missions: getting on with the rest of your life. The consequences of blowing this off or wasting time and effort on the wrong things could lead to financial issues, loss of critical benefits, or the most widespread problem — taking a job that isn’t a good fit. This is why so many vets quit their first job in less than a year and find themselves right back where they started looking for employment again.
I’ve been retired over three years now and I am on my second career since departing the military. I’ve learned a few painful lessons along the way and I’ve worked with a non-profit called Project Transition USA to help other veterans and to pass on the things that I wish someone had told me. Here are a few of those lessons and focus areas for transition that require ample lead-time and planning.
Financial planning Make sure you have your finances in order. Try to live beneath your means and get out of as much debt as possible (particularly credit card and other high interest debt). Save some money (at least three months base pay) to get you by a few months after you separate in case your job hunt takes you longer than expected. Hold off on buying a new car or other big purchases until you have settled into your next career.
Benefits and Insurance This is related to financial planning, but make sure you understand the VA benefits available to you. Register your spouse and all your kids for your Post 9/11 GI Bill benefit (this can come with an additional service obligation if you haven’t done so yet). Your $400,000 of SGLI coverage ends 120 days after being released from active duty, so find a replacement for this to cover your family. VGLI is government subsidized life insurance option available upon separation, but in many cases private insurance can provide more coverage with cheaper premiums. Same with the Survivor Benefit Plan (SBP), which is a program that passes on retirement pay to an eligible beneficiary. If you want private life insurance, get it well before starting a VA disability claim, as a high disability rating could make your premiums go through the roof or make you uninsurable.
Finding your next career You have to figure out what you want to do next. For most of us, this is unclear at first and will require finding mentors, joining local veterans’ assistance groups and networking. The further your interests are from your military expertise, the more effort you will have to put into conducting informational interviews, getting training, earning relevant degrees and certifications, translating your experiences and finding opportunities with industry like a DoD Skillbridge Internship or even volunteer work.
Marketing yourself After you figure out what you want to do, you have to establish a professional online presence and start working on the life skills you need to compete in a dynamic and face-paced market. This means setting up a LinkedIn profile, creating a resume, understanding your value proposition, creating an elevator pitch, learning how to interview for jobs, negotiate for salary and benefits, and learning how to network to learn critical info about the new culture you are about to enter.
Medical Your main effort during your retirement/separation process is to get your medical affairs in order. You have been beaten-up over time and may be entitled to some level of compensation. Start early on documenting your medical issues (minor and major) and start your VA physical/disability claim around 6 months-out if you want to get your disability rating soon after separation. It is up to you to ensure your medical records are complete to make the most accurate case to the VA.
Your local Transition Assistance Program (TAP) office is a resource for the basics, but TAP is not enough on its own and for many important tasks it is too late in the game. There is plenty of help out there if you know where to look. Please join the Project Transition USA | LinkedIn Group Page to access a series of free online transition courses Your transition is up to you and you have to take ownership of it. The more effort you put in, the smoother the landing.
Kirk Windmueller is a retired Green Beret and Army veteran with over 22 years of service. He is a senior manager at Avantus Federal and a volunteer for Project Transition USA, a non-profit organization that teaches veterans how to use LinkedIn to network and find their next career. He lives in Fayetteville, NC, with his wife and three kids.
If you have questions about how to transition out of the military, send them to us: firstname.lastname@example.org