36 Things to Remember When You’re Leaving the Army
Editor’s note: This article was originally published last year, but it’s so good that we decided to publish it again.
Many company grade officers (and soldiers and sergeants) will soon depart the Army much earlier than they had planned. My own departure was unexpected, but I seized the opportunity to start again and have had a great run so far. Leaving the Army (or other services) need not be the end of the world. So here, based on my experience, are the top pieces of advice I have for those about to make the transition to civilian life:
Do not check out: Despite the bad news, you still have a job to do, and soldiers rely upon you for your orders, guidance, products, or staff work.
Veterans Affairs (VA): Contact the local VA office and ask their requirements to start your paperwork. What records or forms will they need? Will they require appointments or medical checks? Where should you do it? The VA has been a great asset for me, but it does take time.
Medical: Start documenting any past or current medical issues or treatments. Get copies of your medical records (civilian and military) and keep them in a file. You will need these for your civilian doctors and the VA. Tracking down paperwork later is difficult.
DD 214: Make sure your DD 214 is accurate and complete. You can correct it later, but make it easier on everyone. This form is vital for the VA and if you plan to request Veterans Preference on applications. Plus you will have something to show your grandchildren.
Post 9/11 GI Bill: Ask your VA rep what they need to verify your eligibility and start the process. You will need this letter/packet if you apply for school and it is easier to have it in hand, and will ensure you do not miss out on opportunities.
Grad school, college or training: Being an Army leader is a great experience and you handled challenges and circumstances that many of your civilian peers did not, but that does not mean you are qualified for all jobs. If you want to work in a new field, you will need credentials and relevant experience. The Post 9/11 GI Bill is a generous and great benefit, and you should use it. Start researching programs. Take the GRE or whatever exams are needed and start your applications. Education is a great choice, and you may have a hard time getting it done later.
Networking: Start talking to people in the fields that interest you. Create a LinkedIn account (or the other resume/networking/recruiting sites) and make connections. Contact your school’s alumni network and see if any events are planned, or if they offer job services.
Job Fairs: Go to a job fair and see what they are like. If you plan to stay near your duty station, start working on your next career. If you will live elsewhere, consider it a training exercise to see how they work. Talk to recruiters and ask what they are looking for. I went to several job fairs before I was discharged and they were great practice for the live fire events later.
Interviews: Similar to the job fairs, learn how to talk to recruiters. Do they speak Army? Do you speak their language? Practice makes perfect and learn your elevator pitch, your hook, and the right questions and answers.
Resumes: Learn what they look like and start building yours. Ask civilian friends to review it or share theirs. My mom took my draft and asked her HR reps to tear it apart. It helped. Learn what resumes do and do not do. Learn the different types. Find a format that is clear and tells who you are.
USA Jobs: If you are interested in working for the federal government, you must learn how to use the USA Jobs website. Read the instructions, research online, and find someone who has used the system. You have to follow the rules if you want to get through. It can work, be patient.
National Guard/Reserves: I have friends that are happy they continued service in the National Guard or Reserves. It seems that finding the right unit is critical, but just like active duty, sometimes you end up where you are needed. There are great soldiers here and they deserve good leaders.
Terminal Leave/Permissive TDY: Find out your command’s policy for permissive TDY, and verify how many days of terminal leave you will earn. You can get a couple weeks or months of paid leave while you move out to start anew. Do not waste it, and it will start sooner than you expect, so be ready.
Family/Friends: There is a high likelihood that you have not seen your family and friends as often as you would have liked. Take time to reconnect and see them. Spend time with your parents and siblings. Your friends may have scattered to the wind, but track them down and catch up. Many may have started families or careers, and they can offer support and advice. Plus they are usually still fun.
Hobbies: You may or may not have had time for hobbies while in uniform. When I got stuck in a hold pattern, I started reading random fiction for the first time in years. It was refreshing and invigorating and it even inspired me to write some bad short fiction.
Have fun: I had a lot of fun in the Army, but geography often limited recreational opportunities, so take the time and freedom to do the things you enjoy. My wife and I now go to baseball, hockey, theater, concerts, and even the ballet. Do whatever is fun for you, and try new things.
Travel: Consider visiting parts of the United States that you have never seen before, or consider going on an adventure abroad. You may not have a chunk of time off again, so give yourself a vacation. You earned it.
Clearance does not equal job: Many folks assume that a security clearance equals guaranteed work and high pay. That does happen, but is not certain. Many jobs require years of technical expertise and you may not have spent your time in a database or writing code. A clearance is a tool to unlock doors, not a skeleton key; except when it is.
Workforce differences: You dress, speak, act, and smell like an Army officer. Even in the defense world, do not assume all employees are familiar with military mannerisms. They may not react to your tone, demeanor, and body language as a soldier would, and giving orders does not work when you lack authority or expertise. Do not judge them because they did not serve in uniform. They deserve respect too. Get to know those you work with and assume they will not laugh at Army jokes, no matter how funny they are.
Civil-Mil relations: You may be the only veteran your coworkers or neighbors know, so the responsibility is yours. Show them that veterans are hard-working, socially adjusted individuals. Be proud of what you did, but do not be shocked if they do not know where Kandahar or Mosul are, or what indirect fire or an IED are. That is okay, they probably know a lot of things that you do not.
Dress for Success: You can wear a dress uniform to weddings, but not to a job interview. If you are like me and failed to own a suit, get a few before you leave. They will help at job fairs, and just like your Army uniforms, after a while you will not notice you are wearing one. Look respectable and sharp if able. A coworker pointed out that I dress like a government bureaucrat, but that is okay because I am a government bureaucrat. Also, seersucker is a good thing.
Employers want technical or work experience, not just a manager: Many jobs require technical skills or expertise in addition to managerial experience. Being a problem solver has a place, but getting to an interview on general managerial experience can be hard. Consider this when you look at schools or certification programs.
Find somewhere to live: For the first time in years, you can pick where you work and live. You can live near a base, in the city, or you can move back home, whatever you want. Do research first; though. Once you get to that location, do not expect a BOQ waiting for you.
Find someone in that area to help/assist during transition: Because of the reasons above, it helps to have resources wherever you choose to live. Having willing friends and/or family greatly eases the transition, but please remember that they have lives and families too, and do not become a burden.
Share your experiences: Tell your family and friends about your service. Tell your coworkers about what you did. Write and share your stories and lessons. Join the American Legion, VFW, or another veterans group.
Spend time with your family, or start one: If you are married, you may not have always been there when your spouse or family needed you. Start making up for it and keep your relationships healthy. If you are single or legally separated, start planning or working on finding someone. It may help to know what civilians talk about. If you can find someone that thinks motor pool closeout stories are interesting, keep him or her, but assume most will not.
Find a doctor, dentist, etc…: Army medicine is great, but say goodbye. The VA does a good job if you have the time to wait for appointments and get through the system. If there is an emergency or specialized issue, though, it is good to have a civilian doctor too. Learn how health insurance works. There is no sick call anymore, and if you are not ready for it, an emergency can really set you back.
Financial planning: If you were planning on that twenty year retirement paycheck, I am sorry. Start saving now, and learn about pensions, 401K’s, etc… Your finances and future are your responsibility. Do not feel too bad, the government cannot afford all those future retirements anyway.
Do not just come to DC: I ignored this rule, but many officers reflexively come to DC to find defense work. DC, MD, and VA are great places and I love it here, but if you are looking for defense work, you will be competing with many thousands of other veterans, retired personnel, and defense professionals. You can succeed, but come in with a plan and flexibility. In fact, there are many great defense and government opportunities far from DC if you are willing to look elsewhere. You will not get to enjoy the Metro or commuting, but you can still visit as a tourist like normal Americans do.
Keep doing PT: I ignore this rule because I am lazy and regret it each day. Keep fit and you will be healthier and happier. You may have developed some habits that you need to quit (ie: smoking, dipping, blousing your pants into your shoes) but this is one to keep.
Grow a beard: You know you want to, and it will look great.
No one cares about you: Not literally, your family and friends care about you, but though your employer or coworkers may like you and care about your work, they are not responsible for you and probably will not come looking for you if you miss work. You will have to feed, dress, house, and clean yourself from now on. It sounds simple, but the simple things are hard.
You are not owed anything: You volunteered at a time of war, served, sacrificed and maybe even suffered. Thank you, but civilians have the right to not know or not care what you have done. Many will acknowledge and thank you, but not all, and that is how the system works.
Get help: An early departure from the service can be scary, upsetting, stressful, and a dozen other words. You may have lost friends, family or health and you may feel betrayed or angry. All those emotions are healthy, but do not let them rule you. Do not ruin your past success or reputation in your remaining months. Do not burn bridges. If you have health or mental health concerns, get them checked. If you have PTSD or other worries, start working on them now while you have resources and an understanding community.
You are more than just an Army officer: You will soon be a veteran and are a member of the profession of arms. You earned a lifetime membership, but the next fight is not yours, and that is okay. You served when many would not, and your time is up. Military service is a privilege, and it comes to an end for everyone. Use your talents and experiences to make an impact wherever you land.
Relax: You have seen and survived worse. Enjoy yourself and enjoy life.
Patrick McKinney is an Army civilian in Northern Virginia. He served as an Army officer and was a platoon leader in Iraq. The opinions expressed are his, and not necessarily those of the U.S. Army or the Department of Defense.
Photo credit: DVIDSHUB