The other side of transition

My last post was the second of three that delves into the transition educational opportunities that I was fortunate enough to take advantage of.  As many of my readers have pointed out it was another long one, so in an effort to keep things moving along without bludgeoning you, my friend the reader, with another lengthy post I present this brief missive about transition…

Transition is a nice word.  It is a genteel euphemism that we in the military use to describe the transformation from uniformed defender of freedom and the American Way of Life back to the population we all came from.  It makes you feel a little warm inside because it is such a nice word; great feelings about what lies ahead, but also feelings that belie just how nice parts of the transition really aren’t.

There are a lot of elegant synonyms for transition; words like passage, conversion, and adjustment come to mind.  Not bad!  You can read these little bits of cheerful lexicography and your blood pressure stays nice and low.  “I am transitioning.  How nice.  It’s a happy passage from my days in uniform to the rest of my life as a civilian.  The conversion should be a gentle one because of all the programs and whatnot that are out there to help me along.  I used to be a civilian, so the adjustment shouldn’t be too bad!  La de da de da…”  These happy terms are usually accompanied by images of palm trees swaying overhead as you lounge on a nice sandy beach with a mai-tai in one hand and big fat cigar in the other.

Other synonyms are not so nice.  Upheaval.  Distortion.  Revolution.  “Ahhhhhhhhh!  What am I gonna do?  What can I do for a living?  I have no idea what to do for the rest of my life!  Aaaarrrrgh!”  Not so good for your blood pressure.  Visions of a future sitting at highway offramps with a cardboard sign offering to work for food compete with a strong desire to see how fast you can make it all the way to the bottom of a bottle of brown liqour go dancing around your head as you reach for the antacids and Alka-Seltzer.

The truth of the matter is that the transitional process is often only looked at from one perspective- the perspective of “getting out” and neglecting “what’s next”.  We all tend to focus on our End of Active Service day- our EAS- because that is when our career carriages turn into pumpkins.  Woe to those of us who don’t get everything done before midnight….but all too often Marines (and Sailors and Airmen and Soldiers) don’t pay close enough attention to the morning after their last night in uniform.  What are you going to do next?  All of a sudden everything on the list is checked off and you have nobody telling you where to go, what to do, and what to wear as you do it.  It is just you, alone with your thoughts and probably a splitting headache.

There is nothing wrong with sitting around in your underwear for a week or so burning through bags of Cheetos and cases of beer, but that isn’t much of a plan for the rest of your life.  What often occurs is just that- the giddy feeling of hanging it up wears off pretty quickly and is replaced with a burgeoning feeling of dread at the uncertainty that lies ahead, not to mention an epic case of indigestion from all of the junk food and cheap beer that turned out not to be as  rewarding as you thought.  Just like a hangover, the after effects are often not quite what you expected, and then it is too late to go back in time and perform those actions that needed to be done months before.  Without a plan things can go horribly awry- just ask anyone who thought that dropping out of high school would lead to a great upper middle-class way of life these days.  You make your own luck a great man once told me, and sometimes we all need to be told what we need to do even though we don’t want to hear it.

As a commanding officer I made a point of sitting down with each and every Marine and Sailor that left my command.  Many were moving on to new duty stations, but many were also getting out.  The conversation invariably turned to what they planned to do with their lives, and the answers were sometimes surprising.

“So, John (or Bob or Bill), what are you going to do when you get out?”

“Go back to school, sir.”  This is the answer I got about 80% of the time.

“Great!  Good for you.  Where?”

There were a million different answers to this question, but they all boiled down to variations of:

“I am going to (fill in the name of college/school/apprenticeship here).”

or…..

“I dunno.”

The first answer led to a great discussion of life after the Marine Corps- the benefits available with the Post 9/11 GI Bill are quite frankly spectacular.  These Marines and Sailors were well on the way to a successful life on civvie street because they had made a plan and were ready to make it happen.

As for the second answer, well, that led to a completely different dialog, which focused on not ending up like the guy with the cardboard sign.  Some were receptive, some just looked at me with the hollow stare as they inwardly prayed that the bad man (me!) would just stop talking…..but I wouldn’t.  After torturing them for a while, I would wheedle a commitment out of them to do something, anything, but to have a plan.

I think it worked.  I still get emails and facebook hits from a lot of them.  It is very gratifying to hear that a Marine with whom I had such a conversation was now well on his way to graduating from college, and believe it or not I actually run into them from time to time.  Most memorably was a young corporal who got out years ago, and long after he hung up his uniform our paths crossed at Disneyland.  He was there with his young family, and was happy to report that he had completed an apprenticeship as and now had a great life as a locomotive mechanic for the railroad.  I also receive appeals for help from those who didn’t have a plan or who found life on the other side of the fence a lot different than they remembered it.  Where some may turn that into an “I told you so” moment, that isn’t helpful.  I do what every Marine that I ever asked for advice did for me- I see how I can help.  That’s what Marines do, and you know what?  It is just as gratifying because you know that some day down the road the person you help today will send you an email or drop you a note to let you know how things turned out.  And odds are that they will turn out just fine.

Back to class, part 2: the 25+ Pre-Retirement Seminar

“The phonebook’s here!  The phonebook’s here!”

Well, this isn’t the phonebook and I am not Navin R. Johnson, but this is the much anticipated and often promised posting on my second foray into education on transition.  This is the second of three posts about the transition classes and seminars which was fortunate to attend.  The subject today is the 25+ Pre-Retirement Seminar, which is a week long symposium that focuses primarily on training us, the soon to depart active duty set, on the finer points of changing careers. Specifically, this course is intended to provide jobseeking training on a more senior level than the previous TAP/TAMP classes.  Consistent with the title of the course, the student body was comprised with career Marines and Sailors who had served over a quarter of a century in uniform- a truly distinguished (at least we liked to think so!) group of about forty men and women.

Unlike the TAP/TAMP curricula, this seminar did not meet the requirements mandated by the Department of Defense for a transition class.  As such it is truly voluntary but proved to be well worth the time spent!  TAP/TAMP was a broad array of briefs and classes that centered on the mechanics of transition and is intended to educate the nation’s newest veterans on the rights and entitlements that they had earned through their service.  Since all of those subjects were thoroughly covered in the TAP/TAMP classes, the 25+ Pre-Retirement Seminar could focus on what each and every one of us was most worried about: how to get a job.

The course spans an entire week, with an introduction on the first day by a retired Marine named Dan from the Marine Corps Community Services Personal and Professional Development center located aboard Camp Pendleton.  We were shoehorned into a smallish classroom in a building that was new sometime around the Cuban Missile Crisis, but the air conditioning worked so we didn’t really have anything to complain about.  After Dan went over the schedule and the administrative details (like where the heads, I mean bathrooms, were located and more importantly where we could find some coffee), he introduced Chuck.  Chuck would be our teacher, mentor, and confessor for the succeeding days of the course, but the first day belonged to Dan.

Dan’s portion of the class covered some of the same topics from TAP/TAMP, but from a more senior perspective.  For example, one of the guest speakers was a businessman from the local area who discussed entrepreneurship and the exciting possibilities of owning your own business.  “When you own your own business,” he observed, “you are realizing your own dreams.  When you work for somebody else, you are helping them realize theirs!”  True enough!  The concept of being an entrepreneur was more in line with our “older” class, because most young guys and gals getting out after a few years aren’t going to be in the position to go into business for themselves, but the education level and practical experience garnered over a few decades in uniform lend themselves to entrepreneurship.  Hmmm…..food for thought.

One of the most interesting and useful parts of the first day centered around a couple of sheets of paper held together with a standard government issued staple in the corner.  Starkly white with black text (in true government fashion- no fancy graphics or glossy paper for us!), its’ title grabbed my attention right away:

How Prepared Are You to Become a Civilian Again?

Great question!  I read on.

“How prepared do you think you are for the rest of your life?  There are many things to consider as you prepare to leave military service.  Think over each of the questions below and circle the answer that is most applicable to you.  The more “Yes” answers you have, the better prepared you will be.

Hmmmmmmmm.  How ready was I?

“1.  Do you discuss you upcoming retirement freely with your spouse, children, friends?”

Yep.  So far so good!

“2.  Do you know what community, state, and federal resources are available to help you make the transition from military to civilian life?”

Feeling a bit perplexed, I wasn’t so sure that a solid “yes” was the best and honest answer.  I circled “yes” anyway because I wanted to make sure my score at the end of the questionnaire was a good one.

“3.  Do you have a support system – friends, family – away from your work place?”

Whew!  Another easy “yes”!

“4.  Have you thought about meaningful off-duty roles that will prepare you now for civilian career opportunities?”

“5.  Do you have a lawyer with whom you are comfortable?”

“6.  Is your will up to date?”

“7.  Do you have a psychologist, religious adviser, or other professional to whom you can turn for sound personal advice?”

Gulp.  The questions were getting harder, or at least less easy to convince myself that I could continue to happily circle “yes”.  I didn’t realize that having a shrink or a priest was part of transition.  Needless to say, I wasn’t as prepared as I thought, but the exercise of completing the questionnaire did admirably serve to focus my attention.

Not long after being humbled by a simple 25 question questionnaire another lecturer took the stage.  He was a youngish looking guy with a nice suit, and the initial impression was that he was another businessman here to tell us what we needed to do with our lives.  His introduction, though, changed that misguided perception!

It turns out that he was recently one of us, and had made the transition to the other side a couple of years ago.  He was also a graduate of this exact seminar, and was standing before us to spread the gospel of hope and positivity- he was the “after” that we all wanted to become.  Dapper, smart, and articulate, he told us his story, which in a nutshell was that 1) transition is confusing and daunting at times and 2) once you transition, life can be pretty good.  It is the tweener time bookended by getting out on one end and getting a job on the other.  Not to worry though, he said, because we were in this course.  He credited his success to the lessons that he learned in the same seats that we were keeping warm- all we needed to do was pay attention and do everything that Dan and Chuck said.

Not long after his pitch we finished for the day.  Happily, the remainder of the week would be held at the old Officer’s Club, which was much more spacious and comfortable than the Hobbitlike warren we occupied on the first day.  An added piece of happiness was provided as well- we each got our very own copy of the book “What Color is Your Parachute” by Richard Nelson Bolles.  A good class and free stuff to boot!  Not bad!

Promptly at 0800 the next morning we all piled into the O’Club and got ready for Chuck to show us the way to our collective futures.  Before I go into the fine course he gave us, let me give you a little of his background.

Chuck enlisted in the Marine Corps back in the 1950’s.  He did four years on active duty and then got out.  One thing that has always followed him is that his transition from the Marine Corps was not as genteel as it should have been.  More of a “don’t let the door hit you on the way out!” than “thanks for your service”.  It always bothered him.

Chuck had a very successful career despite the failure of the service to prepare him for life on the other side.  He was a salesman and later an executive in the medical devices industry, and after retiring from that line of work he opened his own practice as a career consultant.  He has helped literally thousands of people prepare for interviews and snag successful jobs- including Marines and other servicemen and women.  At a Marine Executive Association meeting (MEA is a great networking association- more on that in another post), Chuck was asked if he could put together a transition seminar for more senior folks (like me!), and after putting a significant amount of diligent work in, he created this seminar.

Fast forward again a couple of years and there I was, sitting on the edge of my seat learning lesson after lesson on what transition was like.  Each and every transition seminar is fantastic, and they are variations on the theme of transition and job hunting.  Chuck’s seminar focused on the hiring process, and most telling was his perspective as a businessman.  He started by handing out a workbook of sorts which contained the entire slide package for his classes along with space to take notes.  This proved to be very useful over the next few days, and my only regret is that I didn’t take more notes!  He used anecdotes from his experience as an employee and employer as well as a wealth of statistical data and research to teach us the ins and outs of how to conduct a successful job search.

There are four specific topics from Chuck’s seminar that were more in depth than the other seminars, and I learned a ton by participating.  Here they are in no particular order:

1.  The importance of professionalism.  Chuck has interviewed literally hundreds, if not thousands, of job candidates.  One of the things he does in his practice is to act as a professional interviewer for companies on the other coast.  He performs initial interviews for professional “C” level (CEO, COO, etc.) candidates- interviews that, if successful, will get them in the door with major companies at senior levels.  Chuck shared with us what it is like to interview senior people.  Some of the vignettes were hilarious, some were a little uncomfortable, but all were lessons in how to put your best foot forward when interviewing.  It isn’t just your resume and a new suit that makes an impression, but little things like cleanliness of your fingernails (engine grease under the nails is only acceptable when applying for a job as a mechanic), the condition of your shoes (ever heard of polish and a brush?) and your breath (is roasted garlic for lunch a good idea before an interview?) His perspectives really showed that it takes a lot of hard work and diligent effort to make an interview go well.  Likewise, it only takes a little laziness a little inattentiveness to make it go poorly.  Long story short- put the work in ahead of time and you will do fewer interviews and land a job.  Don’t do so an you will become a professional interviewee!

2.  Clothes.  The indefatigable Mark Twain observed that clothes make the man, and today I am sure that he would include women in that statement.  In this case it is absolutely true.  Too many of us have terrible wardrobes from decades ago or have a skewed perspective of what businesspeople really dress like (what?  I can’t wear my khaki tie with blue shirt?)  The first impression is critically important in a job interview, and if you look like an idiot things probably won’t go well when you try to dazzle the interviewer with your brilliance.  All they will see is a fashion disaster that they don’t want representing their company.

Chuck doesn’t just wax eloquent with anecdotes in the realm of haberdashery- he brings in the experts.  At the request of the seminar coordinator, the general manager from a nation-wide and well respected clothier gives a lengthy presentation on attire. Far from a sales pitch (and Chuck doesn’t get a kickback!), it is an in-depth education ranging from how suits are made (pretty interesting, really!) to the importance and differences between fashion and style (fashion being the trendy thing that is in this year, and style being timeless…for example, four button suitcoats were fashionable a few years ago, but the two button coat never goes out of style).  They went into great detail on the quality levels in clothing as well as how to dress, which surprisingly has a lot more to it than just slacks + shirt + tie + jacket.  Colors matter (I knew that) and textures do too (texture?  huh?)  Belts should match your shoes.  No bling- that nifty but obnoxious aircraft carrier tie tac is probably not a good idea…and best of all, they had a sale going on that weekend on clothing.  I went shopping and after a personal consultation I like to think that I am, indeed, a sharp dressed man!

3.  Resumes, cover letters, and other job related documentation.  Each seminar has a different take on resumes, and this one is no different.  Chuck preaches the merits of all of the various resume formats, but focuses on the chronological resume over the functional or combination formats.  In his words:

“I have a worksheet for the chronological resume that makes it easier to start. We have to start somewhere and filling in the blanks is easier than saying ‘let’s write a resume what kind of a resume do you want?’ Initially I took this approach [while teaching the seminar] and I had 40+ Marines and Sailors looking at each other. They honestly didn’t know where to start. We are all good at filling in the blanks and each person in the class knows the chronology of their own career. So if you fill in the blanks with your entire career we have a starting point. The chronological is easy for the class because they all have more than two decades of material to work with. When they finally decide on what they would like to do, then we can start discarding irrelevant information. But we had a lot of information to start with; at this point we can make the determination of what type of resume do I want to produce. Resumes are a very personal thing; the resume that you submit to an employer is the one that you decide is the best portrayal of you on paper. It is YOU in the absence of the real and physical you.”

Chuck’s point is a very valid one- the audience (including myself and 30 of my newest and closest herd-mates) have little to no experience with resume writing, and the chronological resume is a logical place to start.  I will devote no shortage of electrons to screen on resumes in the future, but in a nutshell the chronological resume is just that- a lineage of your career that starts with today and stretches back into the past.  How far depends on how much grey hair you have; if you are fresh out of college, then how you did in high school is relevant. Not so much for the “experienced” crowd.  In our case, the last ten years is the most important.  The functional resume is based on your skill sets and is not tied to a timeline.  This is good for situations where qualifications and certifications are important, such as the healthcare field (for example, a specialist in podiatry would probably address their ability to get around a foot pretty well).  The combination is just that, a combination between both of the other formats with the occasional other bit thrown in.  Cover letters are likewise important, because after all, you want to get a job, don’t you?  A mimeographed copy of the same resume sent to a multitude of firms won’t get you very far, and especially if there is not a cover letter to go with it.  The cover letter is a more specific introduction of you to the company you are submitting the resume to.  If you don’t have one, or if it is obviously a generic one, then you are guaranteed to feed the recyclable paper shredder without a second thought.  Other items are business cards, thank you cards, references…..all in all an extensive list of things about which I knew very little but that Chuck educated me on!  Again, I will be writing at great length about all of these in the future.  I promise!

4.  Negotiating salary and benefits.  Now this is important because it is something that all of us uniform are really terrible at.  We come from a background where our salary and benefits are the same for all of us:  you can look it up on the internet.  If you want to see how much I make a year, Google “2011 Military Pay Chart” and look up Lieutenant Colonel (paygrade O-5) with over 26 years of service.  Not so much in the civilian world!  You can get fired for telling everyone how much you make!  Biiiiiiig difference between the civilian world and the military, let me tell you.  Getting back to negotiating, Chuck breaks it down in easily understandable chunks that we can use to negotiate our salary and benefit with a potential employer.  Little things like 37% of people who ask for something get it, while 100% of those who don’t ask for anything get nothing.  Another gem is doing your homework- how much is the position worth?  More specifically, how much is the position worth where you want to live?  A salary in the midwest  is simply not the same as one in New York or San Francisco- you really need look into the background in order to determine what is right for the job, for you, and for your family.  He also goes into great detail about benefits, perks, and the like.  Company car?  Parking?  Mileage?  All of those things that I had not thought of were laid out in a logical and thoughtful manner.  There are literally dozens of resources just a few keystrokes away- try an internet search for the average salary and benefits for the type of job you are looking for.  Search several sites and average them together, and that will give you a benchmark from which to negotiate.  After all, the person with whom you are negotiating does this for a living, so you had better be diligent!

I learned a tremendous amount about transitioning from Dan and Chuck, and I am truly in their debt.  If you are on the West Coast, then start breaking down doors to get into the course.  If not, hopefully their seminar will be established at a base near you….

__________

Lessons learned:

– Find out if a senior level retirement seminar is available in your area.  The successful implementation of Dan and Chuck’s hard work here at Camp Pendleton has resulted in bases far and wide trying to copy the program.  Also, sign up early as there are only so many seats per class.

– First and foremost, calm down and get yourself organized as you begin your search for a job. It’s easy for me to say calm down, but when you are faced with the prospects of finding a job in today’s market, it’s a daunting task.  Organization will make it a little easier.

– Do your planning in a logical order. Don’t try to do everything at once. You want to make a time-flow chart with all of your tasks laid out. Each entry should have a start and finish date. You can follow the workbook and lay out your projects in logical order. Some of these tasks should be: Resume, Cover Letter (Each one should be personalized but you should have a plan) Reference Page, Networking plan in writing, Practice interviewing skills, Research employment possibilities, put together your interviewing wardrobe, develop ideas for thank you notes, and spend only 15% to 20% of your time contacting employment agencies and headhunters because that is the percentage of jobs that they tend to provide.

– Be comfortable in talking about yourself at an interview. Your interviewer really wants to know two things about you (1) What are your qualifications for the job and (2) based on your qualifications what are your accomplishments.

– Follow-up on all leads!  Networking is where most jobs come from, and one of the follow-ups that you do may be the job that you are actually seeking.

– Job search is the worst job in the world. The sooner you get going on all aspects the sooner you will get a job and a paycheck!

I would like to extend a hearty thank-you to Chuck, as he helped with this post!

Crisis avoided!

Ack!

Again, Ack!

Yesterday was one of those days that starts out just fine and ends up just fine, but the middle of the day felt a little like I swallowed a blender stuck on “liquify”.  (For those keeping track, this is yet another post that is not the 25+ Pre-Retirement post, but I swear that one is coming- I just had to share my gut-wrencher from yesterday first).

It all started in the morning.  My routine is a little different now that I am transitioning than it was when I was gleefully shoving my face into the career grindstone.  Back then I was up at 0500 or so and on the road to work before 0600, draining a cup or two of coffee in the dark as I drove to the base.  After checking emails, I was out running and working out by 0630.  By 0800 I was showered, at my desk, and slaying each beastly problem that reared its ugly head.  Ahhh, the good old days…..

But now I get up a little later (0600 if I am really lucky and can sleep in- after all, a couple of decades of getting up early is a tough habit to break!), I make the kids breakfast, watch a little news, check my personal email, drink a couple of cups of coffee, and then take my kids to school.  I still work out, but now I can do it in the daylight (who knew?) and while wearing my iPod and without a reflective belt, the iPod because it is against orders to wear one while you run on base (we can’t be trusted to not wander into an oncoming tank as we dreamily listen to the latest Avril Lavigne album- annoying, that rule!) and sans reflective belt because I am pretty sure I needn’t rely on a strip of reflective vinyl to warn drivers not to run me over.  Silly rules….

So anyhow, I dropped the kids off at school and happily drove onto base.  I drove past all of the motivated Marines who were out running long distances, clapping their hands, and counting to four in the finest traditions of physical training and started work.  After presenting a brief to my erstwhile boss, I headed over to the hospital to knock out a couple of medical appointments.  On the way, I stopped by the “retirements” section of our Installation Personnel Administration Center (IPAC- another acronym!).  IPAC is where those diligent, yet underloved and undervalued administration types work.  They are responsible for getting us paid, ensuring our orders are correct, and every other arcane bit of administrivia that pertains to our service.  In typical Marine Corps fashion, the office is squirreled away in a byzantine and somewhat decrepit old converted barracks located in a part of camp that I rarely get to.

After scaring a few young Privates First Class with my shiny Lieutenant Colonel’s silver oak leaves (my shiny rank insignia- they gave their best salutes and inwardly prayed that I would just keep walking and not say anything other than “Good Morning” to them), I wended my way up the ladderwell (stairs for you landlubbers) and hit the retirements office.  It was about lunchtime, so there were only a couple of people there instead of the normal half dozen or so.

I saw my smiling retirement counselor and gave him a wave.  “Just stopping by to make sure everything is OK with my retirement request,” said I, “is there anything I need to do?”

Even though it was his lunch hour, he set aside what looked like an algebra textbook (never too late to go back to school!) and cheerily said “I’ll take a look!”  This is why I love working with former Marines (a “former Marine is a civilian who used to be a Marine- retired or not), because he could have just pointed to the “closed for lunch” sign and made me come back later.  Marines help Marines, former or not.

After a little banter, his brow furrowed a bit and he let me know that my request for 95 days of terminal leave had never been approved.

I think that the explosive pressure that instantly filled my head caused the earthquake on the Eastern Seaboard yesterday, even though the epicenter was some 3000 miles away.  My knees nearly buckled and I almost started to feel faint.

Before I continue with the story, let me explain a few of the particulars in the case.  Let’s start with “Terminal Leave”. Terminal Leave is leave (“vacation” in civilian parlance) that is taken at the end of your service and before you officially transition back to civvie street.  We earn 30 days of leave each year, and in cases where you have some left over you can take it at the end of your time in uniform, which in effect gives you time off with pay before you get out.  In my case, I had accrued over 100 days of leave (which is a lot, but thanks to a lot of time in hot, brown, and angry places I had not been able to take all of my vacation for the last five or so years) and I wanted to use up 95 days of it just before my retirement date.  That would give me an opportunity to transition at a leisurely pace and maybe put a dent in the scoll-like “honey-do” list that hangs above my married head like the sword of Damocles.

Well, to get 95 days requires one to ask for a waiver from the Marine Corps headquarters in Quantico, Virginia, and the waiver must be requested in standard Naval format using an arcane system that hearkens from the days of clattering teletypes.  In my case, the timing is critical because my request crosses over the end of the fiscal year (September 30th), and any leave that I had in excess of 75 days would be lost without the waiver.  So, in a nutshell, if the request was not approved I would have to work for about another month before I could go on terminal leave.

That would not go over well at home.  Trust me.

My friendly retirement counselor saw my consternation and asked if I had a copy of the message. Nope.  Did I have an email, perhaps?  Yes!  Taking his generous offer to log into one of their office computers, I pulled up a months-old email from my monitor (the monitor is the Marine who determines your assignments and issues orders that send you to places like Alaska if he doesn’t like you or Hawaii if he does in addition to approving terminal leave waivers from people like me) that said he had no problem with me taking 95 days of terminal leave.  Unfortunately, the email did not have the formal approval, so it wasn’t quite enough.

D’oh!

“Call your monitor,” said my counselor, “he should have the message.”

My head was spinning.  Surely there was a copy of the message!  I asked if he could access it from his computer.  He looked, but it wasn’t there.  Again, he advised me to call my monitor.

Reaching for the phone, I didn’t call my monitor but instead called the administrative shop at my unit.  The request had gone through them months ago, but because it was lunchtime the only one there was the poor low ranking sap who had to sit there and answer idiotic question from knuckleheads like me who call during lunchtime.  After baffling the poor Marine with questions that way outside his lane, the sweat started to break out on my forehead.

A little more insistantly, “sir, call your monitor!”

So I dialed up Quantico and asked for my monitor.  He wasn’t there, but the assistant monitor was.  He had just re-entered his office after being evacuated by the earthquake, but in admirable Marine Corps fashion he immediately got back to work by helping me, a distraught officer on the other coast.  He confirmed that they had never received the request, but he was able to pull up the email where his boss had agreed to my retirement plans.

“Sir,” he said, “If you can get the date-time group of the message I can pull it up and approve it immediately.  You’ll have it tomorrow.”

Ahh, the date-time group of the message.  That is how these messages are tracked.  The date-time group is just that- the date and time that the message was sent by the originator.  Since literally thousands of these messages are sent every day it is the only way to make sure that you have the right one, and without having the date-time group it would be like looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack.  Part of the problem is that the request does not go directly from the originator (me!) to the approver, but instead it has to go through several levels of command (bureaucracy at its finest!) and then it finally arrives on the desk of the person who can approve or deny it.  In my case, the message was lost somewhere between California and Virginia, even though it is an electronic system.  At any rate, I had some sleuthing to do in order to find the information he needed.

I thanked him as well as my counselor, who waved and went back to his algebra homework.  I left the office and headed for my appointments, making calls as I went.  Since it was still lunchtime, they were in vain.  So, off to the hospital I went, and after a couple of hours getting poked and prodded by various medical personnel I was able to resume my quest for the most important message in the Marine Corps (at least in my opinion!).

I called my administrative section and finally got connected to a Marine who knew how to work the messaging system.  I explained my dilemma, and after answering a few questions, he announced that he had found it.   Hooray!  He quickly read me the date-time group from the message, and I was back in business.

I emailed the information to the assistant monitor, and sure enough I checked my email this morning and he had done just as he promised- the request was formally approved and all was again right with the world.

Whew!  Good thing, too.  I think my family would have strung me up had I come home with the news that I needed to keep working for another month….

__________

Lessons learned:

– Always, always, always get copies of every piece of paper that pertains to your transition.  In my case, I followed the status of the message up through the chain until I had been assured that it was approved.  I didn’t ask for a copy, and since I didn’t I was unable to provide the proof I needed to fix my problem.

– Follow up repeatedly.  I tracked the message several months ago, but didn’t follow up again until it was nearly too late.  I shudder to think what may have happened if I had not stopped by the administrative office yesterday!

– Listen to the experts.  The counselor had to tell me three times to call my monitor.  If I had just done as he suggested immediately it would have saved me a few hours of angst and heartache.  After all, that’s why they call the experts- they know more about their trade than you do!

Joining the herd

When I left you with the last post I promised that the next missive would be on the 25+ Retirement Seminar.  Well, this isn’t it.  I didn’t exactly lie (not just because that is just a bad idea in general, and I promise that I will be giving you, the constant reader, all the inside scoop on the 25+ later) but I am instead going to write about the new group that I have found myself becoming a part of- a group that I had never overtly intended to join but happily ended up in anyway.

I became a member when I began attending transition seminars.  Not at all unlike the the first couple of days in a high school I started to see the same faces in the seats to my left and right, except now they had grey hair and wrinkles as opposed to the big hair and RayBan Wayfarers that were the rage when I left the hallowed halls of my youthful education. In a surprising departure from our love affair with snappy uniforms with lots of sparkly trinkets the courses are conducted in civilian clothes, so there were none of the trappings that are part and parcel of martial life; no rank insignia or rack of ribbons to show our standing in the pecking order.  Becoming civilians again began with the simple act of dressing like civilians- it made us all equal again, just like we used to be.  We were all of similar age and were similarly dressed in the standard collared shirt and khaki slacks which compose the non-uniform that we all wear when we can’t wear a uniform.  Much as we leave the world as naked as we entered it, my cohorts and I were decamping from the service in the mufti we abandoned to don the cloth of the nation.

Where before I considered myself carnivorous to a fault, I left the pack and fell in with very different crowd.  I affectionately call them (us!) the herd.  It is not a pejorative title in the least, but a descriptive observation of the new strata I found myself in.  When you are on active duty, you are moving at a million miles an hour in about a hundred different directions. Compartmentalized thinking and multitasking are the norm- you almost never have the luxury of just tackling one problem at a time.  As such, when all tend to be in a hurry, may be a bit brusque in our speech, and never have time to sit back and watch the leaves blow in the wind.

Once you drop your papers and announce that you are departing the service your ride on the waves of chaos comes to an end.  You turn over flag to the next guy or gal, hand in your blackberry, and lose your parking spot- but you get your life back!  All of a sudden you can take your kids to school and plan for holidays with the certainty that you won’t be hanging tinsel on a tree made out of an ammunition crate made festive with olive drab paint.  Just as significant as these marvelous changes is your inculcation into a covey of people just like you- recently careworn, stressed out, and career-driven, but now shifting their lives to civilian side of the fence.

No longer part of the rapacious pack, we are all members of the congenial herd.  Regardless of our background- pilot, grunt, artilleryman, mechanic, whatever- we are all now taking the same train to the same destination.  We are all leaving our chosen profession to pursue life on civvie street, and just as the Unsinkable Molly Brown observed as she watched the Titanic sink beneath the waves, we were all in the same boat-first class and steerage passengers all lumped together.  The ride is about to end.  But that’s ok.  There are plenty of other rides out there, and for a change we get to choose which one we want to try.

Back to class, part 1: the Transition Assistance (Management) Program

Transitioning from the military to the civilian world is an inevitable event in the lives of servicemen and women.  It began with George Washington bidding a fond farewell to his militia and regulars at the end of the Revolutionary War and has continued on through a couple of centuries of war and peace.  Decade after decade veterans who have served the flag have hung up their uniforms and integrated back into society- some without missing a beat, but those individuals are rare indeed.  For the rest of us, the road is a little bumpy and has some unexpected turns! Fortunately, somebody up there was looking out for those of us who are easily confused.

Enter the Transition Assistance Program, or TAP (sometimes labelled “TAMP”, for Transition Assistance Management Program).  TAP/TAMP, universally referred to by military types as “tapandtamp”, is a mandated and required training workshop that everyone in the military must attend prior to hanging it all up.  The program began in 1989 as a joint initiative between the Veterans Administration (VA), the Department of Defense (DOD), and the Department of Labor (DOL), and was designed to provide separating servicemembers with employment and job training assistance as well counseling on VA benefits and services.  It came about because prior to 1989 there was no coordinated or consistent curriculum to aid those on their way out the door; every base and service had its own version of what to do, ranging from formalized classes and aggressive job placement to nothing more than a hearty handshake and a slap on the back as you walked out the gate.  Needless to say, the creation of the program back in 1989 was a great idea, and it has been helping military types become educated veterans ever since – including the one writing this post!

After meeting with my retirement counselor I began coordinating with the base Transition office.  I picked up the phone and called the number listed on the first page of my transition checklist, and was very pleasantly surprised to find yet another retired Marine on the other end of the phone who was thrilled that I had rung him up.  He quickly put my mind at ease with his affable manner and earnest desire to help me out.  After chatting for a few minutes, he asked about my circumstance (“what rank are you?  Oh, that’s great, sir!  Retiring?  How many years in?  When is your last day?”) and by the end of our conversation I had reservations at both the Pre-Retirement TAP/TAMP and the 25+ Pre-Retirement seminars.  It was truly a joy to talk to this guy, who I had figured for a long retired guy who just loved being around Marines.

As it turned out, I was right.  Not long after our conversation I stopped by his office, a tiny room on the third deck (floor for non-Naval types) and met him in person.  An surprisingly spritely octogenarian, he fairly leaped from behind his desk in order to shake hands and introduce himself.  With a broad grin, he confirmed my enrollment in the transition courses.  As I looked around his cramped office, I saw pictures of a much younger man in vintage Marine Corps uniforms.  Too modest to talk about himself too much, we parted company.  I later learned that he had enlisted in the Marine Corps during the Second World War and crossed the beach at Iwo Jima with a rifle in his hand, which to all Marines places him into nearly God-like status.  As if that weren’t enough, he went on to fight in Korea and Vietnam and ultimately ended up retiring as a Sergeant Major.  And now he spent his days helping people like me, who were likely unborn when he retired, transition from the service.  Thank God for men such as him!

But I digress. At any rate, the schedule of events during the seminar is very similar whether you take it in Okinawa, Germany, or California.  More of a symposium or a workshop than a seminar, it is a series of lectures, classes, and briefings presented by knowledgeable representatives on a wide variety of topics ranging from medical evaluations to taxation considerations.  The following is a list of presentations that I found to be very useful as I attended the Pre-Retirement TAP/TAMP seminar at Camp Pendleton, California:

– Welcome/Introduction: this was just like the beginning of any workshop you attend.  They hand out a schedule and promise not to keep you late, which is a standard fabrication for almost any required class.  I was pleasantly surprised to find that these guys could actually keep to a schedule, and we got out on time!  They had this down to a science, and each brief was efficiently and professionally done in the time allotted.  In addition, they provided a broad overview of the transition services center and what they could do for the attendees, which turns out to be a great deal.

– TRICARE brief.  This is a very important brief for retirees, because it details the options for medical care after transition.  In a nutshell, healthcare is free for active duty personnel and there are several different programs for families.  Once you take off your uniform, however, you have to decide which medical insurance plan is best for you.

– Dental brief.  This was pretty quick and to the point.  Just as with medical care, dental work is free for the servicemember and there are pretty good plans for families.  As you transition, though, they options are less good, so you will have to choose which one you would like.

– Survivor Benefit Plan (SBP).  As a retiree you will receive a pension.  Depending on when you entered the service you are eligible for one of three plans- in my case my pension is based on my length of service and average monthly salary over the last 36 months of active duty.  The length of service determines the percentage of the 36 month average salary you will receive for the rest of your life.  Getting a pension is a pretty big deal, particularly now as there are very few companies that such a great retirement plan.  401Ks are nice, but require a lot of management and are subject to the whims of the stock market.  A pension check just shows up once a month, well at least as long as the Federal Government is around.  I think that will be a while, but again I digress!  The pension check only arrives as long as the retiree is alive- once he or she kicks the bucket the pension terminates.  In order to protect the family, however, the SBP allows for up to 55% of the pension benefit to transfer to the spouse (and in some cases, the children) after the passing of the retiree.  Like TRICARE, there is a lot to it, and I will dedicate a post to insurance considerations (TRICARE, Dental, and SBP) in the future.

– Federal Veteran’s Affairs.  There were several components to the VA brief, all of which were relevant and important.  First there was on overview of benefits, such as loan guarantees, burial plots, and the like.  The most significant brief covered the medical evaluation process which results in the determination if you have a service connected disability.  Being considered disabled opens the door to other benefits, many of which are pretty amazing, one example being the California University System, which will allow the children of disabled veterans to attend college tuition-free.  Whilst images of disability meaning life in a wheelchair, I learned that is not the case.  As with insurance, this will be a post of its own in the future because it is a pretty complicated process, and it is easy to screw it up and deny yourself benefits later in life.  Another critically important VA brief covered GI Bill benefits, which these days are fantastic.  In a nutshell, the VA will pay for school at the state school rate and also pay you a housing allowance while you go to school, but you have to jump through a few hoops to take advantage of it.  Fortunately, there are VA offices and administrators whose job it is to help, and I have found them to be helpful indeed!

– State Veteran’s Affairs.  Like the federal VA program, each state has benefits for veterans.  California’s are largely based on the level of disability (such as the California college education opportunity listed above), but not all of them are.  Benefits range from free license plates if you are 100% disabled to free access to state parks just for being a veteran.  Great stuff!

– Joint Education Center (JEC).  The presenter from the JEC (woohoo!  more acronyms!) also addressed the GI Bill, but also went into much greater detail on the various education programs available for veterans.  For example, many of the schools and jobs that servicemembers have attended and held during their careers may be eligible for college credit, and the JEC can assist with the evaluation process.  It also provides counseling and help with applying for trade schools, college, or apprenticeships.

-Disbursing and Travel.  This brief covered how you will be paid as a retiree.   As an active servicemember you receive a paycheck twice a month, on the first and fifteenth of the month.  As a retiree, that changes to once a month on the first, so budgeting is a little more important.  They also disclose what you will be paid for and what you won’t, which is significantly different from being on active duty.  While serving, your paycheck includes a housing allowance (as long as you live off base), an allowance for meals, various bonuses and special duty payments (for example, reenlistment bonuses or extra pay for pilots and parachutists), and a uniform replacement allowance for enlisted members.  When you retire all of those extra payments go away, and you pretty much just rate your pension.  I don’t jump out of airplanes or fly them, so I won’t miss that money because I never received it.  I will miss the housing and food allowances, though!

– Household Effects/Transportation.  This brief is important for those who will be retiring someplace other than their last duty station. Pretty much everyone wants to retire to Aruba, but the realities of life generally bring that dream to a tragic end.  Generally speaking, people retire to one of three places: where they are, where they are from, or someplace completely new.  Transportation to the first choice is easy because there are no benefits.  You just go home.  The second choice is pretty simple as well.  If you want to go back to your Home of Record (where you enlisted from), the government will pay to ship your household goods as well as pay for you and your family to travel to your new (old) home.  In the third case, it is a little more complicated.  The travel experts figure out how much it would cost to move you to your Home of Record and will apply that amount to the cost of moving you and your stuff.  So, if you still want to move to Aruba and you enlisted from Iowa, you will have to make up the difference on your own.

– Financial Readiness.  This brief covers the financial ramifications of retirement as well as strategies for the future.  Since we are eligible for a pension, most of us have not really paid much attention to the variety of other opportunities out there beyond a Individual Retirement Account and maybe the Thrift Savings Plan, which is a nonmatching 401K type vehicle.  The presenter showed us various investment strategies and a peek into what types of compensation exists on the outside world.

– Marine Corps Community Services (MCCS).  This brief covered the opportunities that exist with MCCS, which is a broad umbrella organization that includes things ranging from portions of the Marine Corps Exchange (like our base shopping mall) to recreational services such as sports equipment rental.  Access to some programs change when you retire, which they covered in the presentation.  There are also a lot of job opportunities with MCCS, which the addressed as well.

– The Psychological Factors of Retirement.  This covered the “softer” side of transition, the side that doesn’t have a rigid checklist to follow or series of classes to attend.  This class really addressed what happens after your last day in uniform- the feelings of loneliness, uselessness, confusion, and in many cases, happiness and joy.  We military types are not the most introspective and emotional folks out there, so this class was a real eye opener.

– Relocation and Retired Activities.  There are a lot of resources out there that you can utilize as you transition and once you become a valued veteran, and the Relocation and Retired Activities office is the place go to access them.  It is really a resource designed for those who are staying in the area because it is a link to the local community.

– Medical records brief and review.  This is one of the most important parts of the symposium!  After an hourlong brief that covered the nuts and bolts of how you are medically evaluated by the Veterans Administration, you are afforded the opportunity to have your medical record evaluated by a true expert on such things (in my case, it was a great guy from the Disabled American Veterans, or DAV).  It is very important that you bring your entire medical record on this day, because the class and succeeding evaluation of your record will provide you insights about which you had no idea.  This is a pre-inspection of your records, but what it does is allows you to follow up with your military medical provider on any physical maladies or problems that require attention before you retire or get out.  This is a big deal because access to medical care is easy while you still wear a uniform, but not so much when you take it off for the last time.  In addition, you will leave the screening with a list of recurrent medical problems that will later determine your medical disability percentage, and with that percentage the possibility of greater monetary compensation.  I will write a lot more on the medical side of transition in future posts.  Don’t miss this day at TAP/TAMP, and DON’T FORGET YOUR MEDICAL RECORD!!

– Job Hunting and Prospecting.  This is a class that could have been a seminar all by itself.  You are introduced to the realities of finding a job on the outside (not impossible, but not necessarily easy, either) along with the importance of networking.  I will leave it at that because the next two seminars focus on this part a great deal.

– Writing a resume, cover letter, etc.  This class was accompanied by a couple of nifty workbooks which helped you write a resume that actually might help get a job, as opposed to the horrible ones that you tend to write without help.  I say that from experience, because I brought with me a resume that I thought was pretty good but was in all actuality total garbage.  You spend a lot of time (a whole day out of the four day package) learning about business documents and how to write them.  In addition, you learn how to interview and how to sell yourself.  Marines tend to be pretty humble, believe it or not, and it is difficult to get them (and me!) to talk about their accomplishments and the great things that they have done during their careers.  Lastly, the fine art of salary negotiation (!) is covered- something that is completely foreign to Marines who have been paid based on time in service and rank for their entire careers.

All things considered, the TAP/TAMP workshop was a tremendous wake up call for all of us who have attended it.  It is indeed required (and you get a neat stamp on your check out sheet that boldly proclaims TAMP COMPLETE on the last day), but despite the negative connotation of all required classes, it was truly invaluable.  I learned more about the rest of my life in that class than in any single period of instruction that I had ever attended.  Well done!

In my next posts I will cover the  25+ Pre-Retirement and Ruehlin seminars- both fantastic courses with a different spin on transition.

__________

Lessons learned:

– Start early!  You are eligible to attend TAP/TAMP up to two years before you get out, and if you do you will be a lot better off than those of us who waited until it was nearly too late.  The insights you receive are fantastic, but more importantly the class details what you need to do to successfully complete the transition process.

– Make sure to get the whole week off for the course.  Even though it is required, there are often times when you “absolutely” have to get back to work and miss a brief or two.  Believe it or not, you aren’t that important.  After all, you’re getting out!  Let some hard charger run your shop for a while so you can devote the time and energy needed to make the best of the whole course.

– Bring your medical record!  If you don’t you will miss out on a great opportunity to prepare for the medical side of transition, including making the best of your disability evaluations.

– Take lots of notes.  You will be provided a pile of handouts and workbooks and the like, but if you don’t take notes they end up being pretty useless.  A good idea is to write the name of the presenter and their contact information (phone number, office location, and email address) in the corner of the handouts that they provide.  This will make it easy to call on them later when you have a question- and I guarantee that you will!

– This post is a broad brush of TAP/TAMP, and I will be writing in much greater detail about several topics in the future.  Just some of the future posts will include the medical evaluation process, insurance selection, resume writing, job hunting, interviewing, administration, and more.  Keep reading!

Getting schooled…

I left my last post with the observation that there were three major undertakings that I needed to accomplish before I could consider my transition completed: first, transition training and education, second, administration, and third, medical evaluations.

In terms of timing, the transition and education bit comes first, and here’s why: the administration of transition as well as the medical evaluations are largely based on a timeline that is centered around your transition date.  The transition training and education, however, are not not.  Instead, the opportunity to educate yourself and learn about the transition process is available pretty much whenever you would like to take advantage of it whereas the other areas are closely tied to when you are actually departing the service.

Much to my chagrin I learned that I was eligible to attend classes and seminars on transition and retirement whenever I wanted.  It was quite the revelation!  Had I only known that I could learn about the other side long before I actually decided to retire it would have made the whole process a lot easier, but to be honest the thought had never crossed my mind.  I was too busy travelling around the world and serving in places notorious for the bad food, scorching deserts, and angry locals.  That said, here are the opportunities that exist to learn about the transition process, well, at least those that are relevant to my situation as a retiring senior Marine officer in Southern California:

-TAP (everything is an acronym! it stands for Transition Assistance Program) which is also known for some reason as TAMP (which stands for the Transition Assistance Management Program).  I really don’t know if there is a difference between the programs, but it falls in line with the military’s love affair with acronyms- adding an “M” between “A” and “P” is certainly an improvement!  I hope somebody got a medal out of it.  At any rate, the TAP (or TAMP) program is both mandated and required to actually separate from the service.  Designed for those separating from the service after serving a hitch or two, it It covers the legal, medical, and administrative requirements for transition as well as a lot of information of how to write a resume, what to wear to an interview (which is a HUGE deal for those of us who have not updated our duds since skinny leather ties and white shoes were all the rage) and how to get a job.  This class is of enormous importance because you cannot get out without attending it; your final check out sheet (a document of epic importance that rates a post of its own) will not have the required notation that allows you to stop getting your hair cut and quit wearing a uniform.  It lasts about a week, during which time attendance is mandatory and is the appointed place of duty for the participant.  This is important, because unlike high school or college, you can get thrown into the brig for skipping class.  Needless to say there is rarely a need for a truant officer to go round up class-skipping delinquents…

-OUT, or Officers Under Twenty class.  This particular class is for officers who are separating from the service but do not meet the requirements for retirement.  Generally speaking, these officers are Lieutenants and Captains who have completed their obligated service of four to six years and who are going back to the civilian world.  It is very similar to the TAP/TAMP class, but focuses at the college graduate level as opposed to the high school graduate level.  They don’t spend too much time on how to dress or what to wear, though, because these young officers are still generally in their twenties and their wardrobes haven’t aged to the point of embarrassment.

-Pre-Retirement TAP/TAMP course.  This course is TAP/TAMP for those who are going to retire after at least twenty years of active service.  It is designed for the more “distinguished” amongst us (myself included) who are greying at the temples and are at a different place in their lives than a 22 year old who will use his or her benefits to go to college or a trade school.  It covers the same required topics on benefits and whatnot as the other TAP/TAMP courses, but has additional lectures and classes on things like becoming an entrepreneur, networking, etc.

-25+ Pre-Retirement Seminar.  More of a symposium than a seminar, this one is not required but is strongly encouraged and recommended for those who, again, have been for a loooong time.  It does not go into the benefits and administration of retirement, but instead focuses on life on the other side of the fence.  In addition to job search and assistance with developing a new career there are several guest lecturers who cover topics ranging from financial management for retirement as well as financial management as a career, how to go into business for yourself with a franchise or on your own, and how to dress for success.

-Ruehlin Seminar.  This course is a week-long seminar that caters to senior officers and enlisted who are retiring- the definition of senior being length of service and advanced rank.  There is often a difference- it is possible to retire after 20 or 25 years but not be at a senior rank; for example, many officers began their careers as enlisted members- and that service counts towards retirement.  As such, they may have over two decades of service, but are retiring as relatively junior officers.  Also, some enlisted members may have the same length of time in uniform but for whatever reason do not achieve higher rank.  At any rate, this course is very small (around fifteen or so attendees), and is focused specifically on the process of starting a new career and all of the job hunting skills necessary to do so.

So there you have it.  Five different courses, seminars, or classes that anyone eligible can attend.  Amazing!  Each one is a little different in its focus and intent, but each provides a slew of information that is invaluable to one on the path to transition.  In my particular case, I attended the Pre-Retirement TAP/TAMP course as well as the 25+ Pre-Retirement and Ruehlin Seminars.  Suffice it to say the wisdom I gained under the tutelage of the experienced and dedicated instructors was remarkable and very welcome.  Without it I would have been not just a bumbling fool stumbling along until I found myself unemployed, but I would have missed out on education and training that my contemporaries in the private sector pay thousands of dollars for.

In my next string of posts I will go into much greater detail for each of the courses that I attended, starting with the required Pre-Retirement Transition Assistance (Management) Program, or TAP/TAMP.

__________

Lessons learned:

– Start early!  I was pretty far down the path to transition before I began attending classes.  I found myself sitting with no small number of more prescient Marines and Sailors who were years away from transitioning but were smart enough to start learning about it early.  All that is required to attend the classes is permission from your command (in civilian parlance, that means your boss has to say it is OK to miss work for a few days) and a commitment to attend the course in its entirety because seating is often limited.

– Find out which courses are most suited to your situation.  If you are getting out after four years, then obviously the Pre-Retirement courses are not for you.  You may be in a situation, however, where you may not be eligible for a “senior” retirement seminar due to not having over 25 years in uniform, but there may be an empty slot you can take advantage of.  Contact your local transition program coordinator to see what is available.  Take every opportunity you can to educate yourself!

Learning from “The List”

I left the retirement counselor’s office with a smile on face.  He had given me exactly what I needed to chart my course for transition: a comprehensive checklist of tasks to perform along with a roster of contacts that would help me get those things done.  Happily I sat down and took a good look at the list.

It was several pages long, and I won’t bore you with the mundane and excruciating details, well, at least not all of them! I read through the whole packet and pondered what to do.  Should I just start at the top of the list and charge through until I reached the end, or was there a more logical way to complete the rather lengthy assignment?

The first two lines made me chuckle:

RETIREMENT CHECKLIST
I. CHECKLIST

More repetition!  It only makes sense that the “Retirement Checklist for Retirees” would have a Checklist as the first item in the Retirement Checklist section.  Maybe I could just read every other line and still get all the information I needed?

Nope.  The checklist’s first bullet, which was next line on the paper quickly got my attention:

􀃎12-24 months before separation:

Ack!  I was only about nine months from the big day.  According to the list I was already over a year behind, and I just got started!

Yikes!

I took a deep breath and read through the entire document (which you can read too- just follow the link in the blogroll).  It was arranged in reverse chronological order in a countdown of sorts to the date of retirement.  Beginning two years out, it quickly went to six, and then three months before retirement.  Since I had already missed out on over a year of preparatory work, I decided to ditch performing the checklist as written and instead to figure a different way to get everything accomplished.

What I found was that there are basically three facets of the retirement process, so I reorganized the checklist into those three areas and then arranged the various subtasks in order of importance and time sensitivity- basically, the things that I needed to do right away hit the top of the list and those that could wait migrated towards the bottom.  By regrouping the dozens of things to be done it made them more manageable, and hopefully I would be able to accomplish them more efficiently.  The basic areas I came up with after studying the checklist were 1) transition training and education, 2) administration, and 3) medical evaluations.

Transition training consisted primarily of a series of seminars and classes that prepare the “separating or retiring service member” (me!) for return to civilian life.  As a retiring Marine (meaning I have more grey hair and wrinkles than those who were separating after only few years of service) I was required to attend one course and was eligible to attend two more.  The required class, called the Transition Assistance Program (TAP) Employment Workshop, is necessary for each and every person on their way out of the military despite their length of service.  It covers a lot of really important topics ranging from veteran’s benefits to tax rules, and you can’t get out (at least not legally!) without attending it.  The other two courses were designed for more senior (again, the “distinguished” looking grey haired and wrinkled set) people like me, and they are designed to help with resume writing, and other important job skills.

As for administration, this area addresses the nuts and bolts of leaving an incredibly bureaucratic profession.  There are forms to fill out, papers to sign, and about a billion things to read and initial.  The administrative boxes to check ranged from deciding where you would establish your home after the service (back where you enlisted from?   Where you live now?  Tahiti?  They all have their upsides and downsides…..but you can only choose one!) to what uniform you will wear to your retirement ceremony.  The administrative requirements ran for several pages and would take a long time to accomplish, but fortunately many of the items could be knocked out simultaneously as I met with various administration specialists, which is what we call Human Resources experts in the military.

The medical bit is just as important as the administrative requirements, and is likewise just as lengthy.  For all separating and retiring servicemembers the physical evaluation and rating for disability has potentially the greatest impact on them of any part of the transition process.  Many people departing military service will have developed some physical problems that will follow them for the rest of their lives, and if they are properly evaluated and documented then they are eligible for medical care long after they take off their uniform.  (After all, carrying a 75 to 100 pounds of equipment on your back while patrolling in 120 degree heat for weeks on end takes a toll on the knees just as operating a tank, flying a helicopter, or shooting artillery will likely make you a bit hard of hearing…what did you say?) It is crucial that these problems be evaluated while in uniform, however, because if they aren’t a bureaucratic nightmare awaits should you try to get them evaluated as an ex-servicemember.

So, after revising the checklist into these three areas I set out to check each box on the list as quickly and efficiently as I could.  With less than nine month to go until my retirement date, I immediately attacked those items that I was delinquent on and started emailing and calling the points of contact on the first page of the checklist to schedule everything else.  It was going to be a bumpy ride, but at least I knew when it would end!

In future posts I will go into greater detail on the three areas on my revised list, starting with transition training.  I had no idea how little I knew about how to quit my job, but the transition classes would ensure that I didn’t punt anything into the stands.  All I need to do is check every box on the list…

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Lessons learned:

– First and foremost, time is incredibly important.  The recommendation is to start transitioning two years before you take off your uniform because it takes that long to do everything properly and at a leisurely pace.  I started transitioning with less than half of that time, and as a result I find myself working a lot harder than I need to to get everything done.

– As soon as you make the decision to get out or retire you need to get organized!  Obtain a copy of the appropriate checklist (retirement or separation) and start checking things off as far out as you can.  Even if you have not decided on a firm date, there are things that can be accomplished easily (such as reviewing your personnel and medical records for accuracy and researching where you would like to go when you get out).

– Find out what administrative section will be processing your separation or retirement and schedule a meeting with them.  They can provide you with contacts and guidance that you can put to good use immediately, and without the time wasted by adventure learning and trying to do it all yourself as I had done initially.

Cracking the code

Although I didn’t know it at the time, the act of officially setting a retirement date set a lot of things in motion about which I had no idea.  My name was placed on a few lists here and there, and soon enough I began to receive emails and phonecalls asking me to set up appointments and attend transition courses.  It seemed a bit random at first, but all became clear when I met again with the transition specialist.  Now that I had established a solid date, I could move forward with the myriad tasks ahead of me- tasks that I really didn’t know too much about.

As I sat in the standard issue uncomfortable government issued chair beside his standard issue faux wood desk he noticed my blank stare and handed me what appeared to be an unremarkable handful of papers with a government issued staple in the corner.

I looked at the first page and saw that much of my future sleuthing about to find points of contact would be unnecessary.  “Retirement Contact Numbers” it proclaimed at the top, and below the title were over a dozen phone numbers of the various people and organizations that I would be required to coordinate with as I transitioned.  Sure enough, I discerned the names and email addresses of some of the people who had been contacting me, seemingly out of the blue.  Aha, I thought- a method to the madness.  Good stuff!

I turned the page, and read words that set my heart racing.

“RETIREMENT CHECKLIST FOR RETIREES” it said.  Despite the repetitive syntax (although there may be a Retirement Checklist for non-retirees I suppose), it was exactly what I needed.

To a Marine, and I suspect all servicemen and women, checklists hold a disproportionate level of elevated importance.  Pretty much everything we do can in some way be distilled down to a list with little boxes next to every line, boxes that beg to be checked as you perform whatever it is that the list is for.  Checklists rule pretty much every aspect our martial lives…

As a recruit I learned everything about the military by the numbers in checklist fashion, from how to lace my boots (“One-Grasp the laces in both hands!  Two- Insert the aglet in the lowermost eyelets, and cross the laces left over right until you run out of eyelets!) to the intricacies of the M-16 (“There are eight steps in the cycle of operation of the M-16A1 service rifle!  They are firing, unlocking, extracting, ejecting, cocking, feeding, chambering, locking….and don’t you forget it!!).  Our undershirts were folded according to the unyeilding inspection requirement that they neatly fit into 6″ by 6” squares and our socks were rolled into precise little balls that, despite their olive drab color, were reminiscent of meatballs in some fine Italian restaurant.

The predilection for neatly arranged lists followed me through my career.  Just as corporate managers dread the arrival of a clipboard toting efficiency expert, military types cringe at the sight of a clipboard toting inspector.  Necessary evils perhaps, but they share the same method of accounting and delivery- a bit of paper with a grade at the top, based on how well each item was scored on the checklist.  And, of course, everything gets inspected in the military, so there is almost a perpetual state of anxiety that induces ulcers and makes one long for the simplicity of a firefight with Al Queda or the Taliban.

Checklists have been thoroughly and completely etched into my psyche.  I use them for everything, or at least for everything that I need to get done.  In combat we used them to ensure that we had everything we needed (Grenades?  Check!  Ammo?  Check!  Water?  Check!), and at home I write a list of household tasks with little boxes next to them and earnestly attempt to check them off as quickly as possible.  My meeting at the retirement office was neatly written next to a tiny rectangle in my notebook, and as soon as my meeting was done I would gleefully put a tiny “x” with the box and move on to the next entry.

But I digress.  The arrival of this particular checklist produced the anti-cringing emontion of pure joy.  It was the Rosetta Stone that translated all of the gibberish of retirement into an organized and comprehensive compendium of every box I needed to check in order to complete the transition process.  Hugging the packet to my chest, I rose from the standard issue uncomfortable government issued chair and floated out of the  retirement office, marking the little box on my own checklist and happily setting out to check every box on my newly acquired agenda.  More on that in the next post.

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Lessons learned:

– All of the answers you need are out there.  You just need to know where to go to find them, and in typical military fashion I can guarantee that there is checklist out there somewhere that will greatly aid you in your transition.

-I should have asked for the checklist up front instead of just blankly staring at the counselor until he took pity on me and handed it over.  One of your first stops once you decide to retire is the administration shop that will be processing your retirement as they have a wealth of information and advice that they will cheerfully provide.  All you need to do is ask.

Advice is useful. Who knew?

Transitioning from a career in the military is a bit more daunting than you might think, which is a lesson I continue to painfully learn through various clumsy misadventures.  I have managed to make it more difficult on myself through my own ignorance (really!) and boneheaded assumption that I knew everything that I needed to do, which proved to be shockingly askew.

So there I was, sitting with my retirement counselor when he informed me that my best-laid plans for departing active duty were fundamentally flawed.  I had made all of the calculations to determine the date of my retirement based on my enlisted and officer service on both Active Duty and in the reserves, but all of my mathematical gyrations were in vain because I had to show my math, along with the source documents that backed it up.  D’oh!

I left his office dazed and confused.  He said something about getting with somebody at Headquarters Marine Corps (in Quantico, Virginia, which is a little too far to go from San Diego during my lunch hour) and straightening things out.

In the best fashion of reality-deniers everywhere, I went back to work and lamented about my fate.  Dame fortune smiled upon me, however, when a senior officer heard me bemoaning my misfortune.  After he told me to quit whining, he offhandedly directed me to contact a friend of his who had recently retired (!) and was now in charge of the retirement branch (irony or apropos?) back in Quantico.

The clouds parted, the birds sang, and my half empty glass was suddenly and miraculously half full.  With that happy bit of info I realized that things were not as dire as I had thought.  Giddily I asked my savior if he had any advice to go with the news about his friend.

“Just drop him a line.  Tell him I told you to call, and he’ll take care of you.”

He was right.  I sent off an email, and within an hour I had a response.  Although my quandary seemed epic in proportions to me, he was a little to high in the food chain to deal with my “minor” problem.  He did have just the people to help, though, and with another email I was almost there.  After reiterating my dilemma yet again to the retired Marine (this one was in charge of just the officer retirements), I was linked up with a most polite and supremely helpful lady who was the person in charge of verifying retirement dates.

I could have given her a big hug and a sloppy kiss, but fortunately for the both of us computer technology isn’t quite that advanced as of yet.

After a brief email exchange, I called her on the telephone and set me straight on what I needed to do to- find every Leave and Earnings Statement (LES, also known as a pay stub) that showed my service.  As I wrote in my last post, I had already braved the Dante-esqe cavern of my garage and had found them, so that part was done.

“Scan ’em and send ’em in!” she said.  “I’ll let you know in a week where you stand.”

Several hours of furious scanning later, I sent off email after email with my records attached as .pdf files (nothing is ever easy- the scans are relatively large files, and with our internal email system attachments cannot exceed a megabyte or so….and as a result, I spammed her inbox like a teenage hacker.)  And then I waited.

A week is a long time to wait!  The stakes were, for me anyway, pretty high.  The crux of the issue was the magical date on which I could retire, which I had calculated to be in the fall of 2011 was actually, according to the retirement counselor, sometime in mid 2012.  Although that may seem like only a few months, it would prove to be a significant emotional event if it were true, as I would have to find another assignment in the interim- an assignment where nobody would really want me around (because I am retiring) and my usefulness would be pretty limited (because I wouldn’t be there very long).  I would have been as useful as a typewriter in a computer lab, and just about as annoying.  Besides, I had already told everyone from my kids to my boss that I was retiring soon…..and boy would I look like a complete idiot if I had to take it back!

So that week passed at a glacial pace, with every day seeming longer than the day before.  After watching the grey hairs on my head sprout like a chia pet, a week passed, and sure enough she dropped me a line to let me know how my math stood up in comparison to hers.  My calculations were off by about a week from hers, which in the grand scheme of things was not enough to really matter.  The day was saved, literally!  My retirement date was officially set on the same date that I had calculated and advertised.  Hooray!  I wouldn’t have to go back to my boss with my hat in hand, and I wouldn’t be begging my family for forgiveness.  I almost gave my new found friend in Quantico a big hug and a kiss- but computing technology hadn’t progressed enough in a week to make it work.

Again, that was probably for the best.

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Lessons learned:

– The best resource is all around you- the people you work with, and more specifically, the people you work for.  Senior people know a lot about a lot and can give you some great advice, if you are smart enough to ask for it.  In addition, they are invariably connected to other people who can help you out.  Again, all you need to to is ask!

– Regulations and research are a great place to start when you are looking to transition, but they aren’t enough.  I had assumed that everything was hunky-dory with my service record, but I was wrong.  As Ronald Reagan once said “Trust, but verify…”, and his witticism is the cornerstone of administration on the military.  Nobody was going to doubt me, but neither would they accept my word without performing their due diligence to make sure that every “i” was dotted and every “t” crossed.

– Find out who the people are that you will be working with, both locally and at higher headquarters.  An email or two and a few phonecalls solved a problem that had completely flummoxed me, but those emails and phonecalls were to the right people.  Find the right people and your transition will go much more smoothly!