(*Updated 10/27/2015) Are you getting out of the military soon? With the eventual massive downsizing of the US military, there will be a lot of veterans joining civilian ranks in the next year or two. You may be one of them or know someone who will be making the transition. They may be officers, enlisted, active duty, National Guard, Reserve. They may have broken service, continuous service, families to support, or not. There are so many variables that make each soldier, sailor, airman, and marine a unique case. However, when I only had six months to prep for retirement, I discovered 6 things to do before getting out of the military that made life down the road, outside of the uniform, easier. Maybe not perfect, but easier.
These are a handful of things I’ve noticed over the years as both an enlisted sailor and a naval officer. Most I’ve done myself. Some I wish I’d done better, if at all. I’ll share them here because if the internet is forever, then my kin can find this info when I’m too far gone to remember. Also, since my DH keeps throwing my name in the hat to his friends as a source to ask questions (questions are free and since I’m retired, apparently so is my time), I’m just going to point him to this post.
DISCLAIMER for all y’all Sea Lawyers: These are all MY personal opinions… fact is, that in a decade or so, bureaucratic engines will change, “upgrade”, but not too much. DO YOUR OWN RESEARCH, KEEP YOUR OWN NOTES, MAKE MULTIPLE COPIES OF WHAT YOU THINK IS IMPORTANT. (You’ll see this again later)
If you’re in your last tour or THINK you’re going to leave the military during your current (or next) tour:
- Communicate with everyone who needs to know what’s going on. Determine your NEED TO KNOW list of people: your significant other, your boss, your team. Who else should be on this list and why?
- Administration: They will track your paperwork, from your discharge requests to extension requests, if you need one later. It helps to keep these folks on speed dial and to keep their contact information handy for several months after you leave the service. While you’re at it, if you are offered more than one copy of your DD214, take them and lock them up someplace safe. That single piece of paper proves your service time and allows you or your survivors to access benefits you deserve. I don’t want to be morbid, but WHEN you die (you will, you know), your survivors may be due benefits or you may want to be buried with military honors in a national cemetery. That DD214 helps. A lot.
- Finance: obviously you want that last paycheck, right? If you’re getting separation pay, they will submit the information needed to pay you. If you’re retiring, you’ll want their help to make sure all your financial data is moved over from the active duty or reserve pay system to the retiree side of DFAS. Don’t assume it will be a quick fix. Correcting any mistakes after the fact can be more than one pay period. FYI: Retiree checks only come once a month, not twice, so get used to that if you’re used to getting a nice paycheck twice a month.
- Transportation/Household goods: If you’re moving out of military housing or you’re moving to your home of record from a different city, state or country, you’ll need to get chummy with them ASAP. During your planning process, keep in mind the typical “rush” periods in the military moving season and try to avoid them, i.e. the summer months.
- Make an appointment with medical and dental. Visit your primary care manager and your dentist well before your LAST separation physical.
- Make a list of what you need to discuss as well as your current medications. No one else knows your health better than you. Your military provider has a limited amount of time for you (let’s say 20 minutes for starters). If you write down what needs to be resolved or what’s missing from your current health record, you likely won’t forget it when you’re sitting in the treatment room between the time your vitals are taken and the doc comes through the door. Ask questions if you don’t understand something. Help your medical providers help you complete your military medical care.
- Get things taken care of while you’re active duty. If you have any medical issues that need to be noted or resolved, do it. Surgeries, follow up care, physical therapy, whatever you’ve been holding off because of deployment, presumed perceptions of weakness, whatever. Take care of yourself now.
- Make a date with a copier. If you came into the military before the electronic medical record, AHLTA, request two copies of your original medical record. (One for you, one for any VA medical claims you may want to do later) Order or make digital copies too. If your local patient administration office cannot/will not make more than one copy, that’s okay. Take what they give you, sign out your old hard copy records and make your own copies.
- UPDATE (10/27/2015) In my volunteer time with my local Veterans of Foreign Wars Post, I’ve seen medical records copied onto CDs as well as scanned files of hard copy records that were pre-electronic medical records (before 2004 in many cases).
- I recommend that you look through each page to make sure that they are (1) yours, (2) legible, and (3) complete. Before the electronic record, medical staff wrote on the front and back of medical forms. The older forms, nicknamed “onion skin”, are difficult to run through the feeder of a copier so usually need to be hand-copied. If any critical dates are missing, it’s best to fix it before you leave the military rather than hunt it down via the National Archives.
- If you’ve seen behavioral health, you’ll likely need to personally request release of those records from the behavioral health clinic that saw you, not necessarily the one where you’re currently stationed.
- Now about those copies: AHLTA records are a good waste of paper when printed out. Seriously, they are good and they are a waste of paper because they are one-sided print outs. Guess what? If you decide to submit a disability claim for compensation with Veterans Affairs, for now you’ll need single sided copies. An actual person will be thumbing through your submission package (if you were lucky enough to submit a hard copy vice uploading to eBenefits–more on that in a second) and double sided paper is a time killer.
- You’ll also have a HUGE pile of paper if you’ve served a while and saw medical on a regular basis. The original, old style, handwritten medical visits are sometimes double-sided. Double check both your medical and dental record copies for clarity and completeness. While your medical and dental records are safely archived by the military “forever”, wouldn’t you want a copy for your own records? So, trust and verify. Always.
- Unless you take advantage of the Benefits Delivery at Discharge (BDD) process, you’ll have to upload your supporting documents into the VA’s eBenefits website. If you can’t read the copies you have now, neither will the VA rater. Help your rater help you by providing the best documentation you can.
- Don’t sweat all the future changes within the military system. Remember my disclaimer comment about bureaucratic changes? Those AHLTA records from a decade ago will eventually change to something else.
- Try not to burn bridges. Do yourself and your teammates a favor in the last year of service: Do a good turnover especially for any major projects toward the end. If you can avoid huge tasks at the very end, it may be best. Now if it’s something you need for a resume, do what is best for your mission and your final evaluation. People remember the best and the worst about you. I think that’s why careful observers will note a spike in improved efficiencies, better teamwork, and other positive notes just before a scheduled evaluation time. You may one day want that letter of recommendation from the last supervisor or the Linked In review from your coworker.
- Always remember: You are NOT indispensable. Don’t kid yourself, even if you are senior enlisted or a senior officer (field grade for Army and Marine Corps). SOMEONE can and will fill your shoes. It may be difficult at first but the mission will continue, even if you are no longer part of the team. Of course, if you’re one of THOSE civilians or contractors who can slide into the same job you just left, good for you. (insert polite applause here)
- Be honest with yourself about what you can do at work and at home. Try not to stretch yourself too thin with commitments at the end. Although I was disappointed, I was appreciative of a teammate’s honesty when he needed to take time to take care of medical and other personal issues prior to retirement. The job market in San Antonio was difficult at the time, his family was feeling the pressure of an upcoming loss of income, and both college tuition and mortgage payments were on the horizon. I knew I shouldn’t expect 100% of him all the time but was thankful that he worked hard when he was around. Although it was far from ideal, I was given the chance to fill any workload gaps by shifting folks around well ahead of time.
- Prepare yourself.There’s a transition phase, however short, between military life and civilian. Take advantage of the mandatory and optional training available to you. Make time for the optional training. If you’re in a crappy job at the end of your military career, don’t be so mad at a situation where you lose in the end. If you decide not to take advantage of the free information being handed to you, the free (and usually mandatory) transition training, the possible networking scenarios, the free resume training, opportunities for job counseling, veterans benefits training, SHAME ON YOU. You volunteered for military service, whether you leave it with warm fuzzies or not. You have so many great benefits out there compared to our predecessors who had little to none when they left the service. Those men and women helped pave the way for what we enjoy now through grass roots work via veterans service organizations like the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the Disabled American Veterans.
…and prepare your loved ones.
If there’s a move coming up, plan ahead. Don’t wait until the last minute to have that last yard sale before the movers come. Say your work goodbyes, if you’re so inclined, before your last month at work. It’s less stressful at the end. Prepare your children and their schools if you’re pulling them out mid-year (or request an extension early on if you have graduating seniors and don’t want to pull them out mid-year). There’s nothing more stressful than having a couple of life’s major stressors all within a relatively short period of time. What are some of life’s stressors? Check out Spurgeon, Jackson, and Beach’s study, “The Life Events Inventory” in Occupational Medicine.
As I think back to my own experiences leaving the military, I’m still amazed at how much I accomplished in less than 6 months. 6 months to go from full-speed ahead naval officer to retired Navy, active duty Army wife with a young child. Of course, none of it could have happened without support from my family, coworkers, and the awesome administrative and medical staff who helped me navigate through bureaucratic waters with military medicine and the Compensation and Pension program staff at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ Frank Tejada Outpatient Clinic.
Final thoughts: DO YOUR OWN RESEARCH, KEEP YOUR OWN NOTES, MAKE MULTIPLE COPIES OF WHAT YOU THINK IS IMPORTANT. (I told you you’d see it again)
By the way, if you see this book, check it out too. If it isn’t a freebie, buy it at a bookstore or online. It’s a start.
Many thanks to Getty Images for the images above.