No Matter What, It’s Always a Process
From personal leave paperwork to base-level functionality ideas, not much escapes the Chain of Command process, and getting items up and down this chain can take days or sometimes years depending on who and/or what is involved. It’s one of the annoying (but necessary) reasons why the military sets its deadlines way out in advance. Most service members learn to navigate this issue pretty early on, but it can present a unique problem when it comes to processing paperwork for decisions you’re not yet ready to make.
This goes double for the first-term folks facing the looming issue of separating since most of the people that have been through the process are no longer around to help guide others through it. Whether you’re in to serve your one contract or planning to retire, knowing what options and benefits are available to service members – and the process required of them – can give you or someone you know the knowledge and time to get things pushed through the chain of command. This ensures you’re making the right decisions, and getting the benefits you deserve. The key to successfully navigating the military separation process is to act early, get educated, and use the base’s free resources.
Initiate Your Separation (Even If You Don’t Plan on Separating)
Whether or not you reenlist, you can start the process of separating two years out – and you should. For those who choose to stay in, you can cancel this process right up to the day before your Date of Separation (DOS) and you’ll be better equipped as a leader to help those who come after you get through it. If you’re getting out or are still on the fence about leaving, it’s a no-brainer; there are zero consequences to starting the process and many of the steps require the participation of multiple different commands (each with its own series of Chain of Command hoops to jump through) so the earlier the better.
Keep in mind that just requesting to initiate a separation can take two weeks (while canceling can be done at the touch of a button, go figure), and many times you’ll find that further steps are locked behind signatures which are required to run up and down your Chain of Command. Expect the longest part of this whole process to be waiting for paperwork to find its way back to your inbox.
Go to TAPs, They Can’t Stop You
The DoD doesn’t just offer assistance in making a separation decision; it is mandated that every service member who separates or retires is given the proper education regarding their re-conversion to civilian life in the form of the Transition Assistance Program (TAP). TAP briefings are considered base appointments, so your command is required to allow you to participate. In addition, these aren’t one-and-done classes, either.
Most TAP lecturers will tell you to sit in on these briefings at least twice if you’re able to – once before you get started so that you know what to expect, and again in the thick of it to ensure you’re applying for all your entitlements. Many of the benefits servicemen are entitled to require careful timing and preparation to prevent hiccups (which could delay or even deny your benefits), and TAPs is designed to teach you the when, where, and how to get these things right. It also tells you what the military does and doesn’t offer its veterans and retirees when they leave the service, giving you a clearer picture of what path may be right for you.
Free Isn’t Forever
Most bases do a good job of advertising their support agencies, but it’s important to remember that many of these services end with active duty. The good news is there is plenty of help you can get while you’re in that will pay dividends long after you’re out. At the top of the list is resume building – a properly worded and well-formatted resume is invaluable to have in the civilian world, and adding to an existing resume is much easier than building one from scratch. The base Career Advisors can help you create a resume and advise you on what types of training, certifications, etc. you could pursue to strengthen your resume before you separate.
Other important steps include:
- Financial Advisors who can create post-service budgets and give tax advice
- The Veterans Affairs Office for federal and state veteran’s benefits information
- Military OneSource for personal or family counseling
- The local Education Center for various higher learning advice
If you believe you may have an atypical separation situation or just want to be sure you’re making the most of your resources be sure to read over the base directory or talk to your First Sergeant about your personal situation. Every base hosts a variety of free, situation-specific agencies ready to assist you in achieving a smooth transition.
All Information is Good Information
Regardless of whether you have a clear career path or are still in the decision-making process, having access to this information gives you a leg up towards preparing for your eventual return to civilian life. Plus, it will make you a valuable asset to first-term enlistees and those faced with unexpected early separations, preventing fellow servicemen from unfairly missing out on well-earned benefits. It’s important to remember that everything is reversible (so don’t be afraid to be over-prepared), to get the right information (you’ll have to do it eventually, so the sooner, the better), and to make use of what the base offers (many of these free base services cost an arm and a leg on the outside). Don’t let the “Hurry Up and Wait” culture of the military be the reason you or your coworkers find themselves unequipped for life as a US military veteran.