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!

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