I am in the middle of writing a series of articles and a book about transition, and about a month ago I created a survey about the military transition process to help gather information on the subject (and if you have not taken it, please do! I can never get enough data points: Military Transition Survey). The survey revealed some very interesting data points, and one struck me as being particularly revealing about how those undergoing transition are viewed and treated by their organizations as they leave the service.
The question was: “How involved was your unit and/or unit leadership in your transition process?”
The answers ranged from “Very Low” to “Very High”. See if you can guess where the bulk of respondents fell on the scale…
Well, a startlingly low percentage felt that their units were involved in their transition. Only 8% felt that their unit and their leaders were highly or very highly involved. For an institution that prides itself on being the gold standard of leadership that is a pretty dismal level of effort.
What is shocking is how poor the involvement was. 15% of respondents selected “Neither High nor Low” (which was the middle of the scale), but a whopping 76% stated that the involvement of their units and leadership was “Low” or “Very Low”. Ouch!
Upon reading the results I had to think back to my personal experience with transition. As a leader myself, I had always thought that I had taken care of those in my charge, including those who chose to hang up their uniforms. After reflecting for a bit I realized that although I was very supportive of their efforts I certainly could have done a whole lot more.
I would sit down and talk with every Marine and Sailor who left my command. The conversation that we would have varied depending on what was next for them as they departed the unit; if they were transferring to another duty station we would talk about what was in store for them and how it could impact their career and family, and if they were getting out we would have a discussion of where their lives were headed. I would try to guide and mentor them towards pursuing an education by taking advantage of the GI Bill, and in cases where he had no interest in further education I would try to get them to at least formulate a plan for the way ahead. After we spoke and shook hands we parted ways.
That was all well and good. But I could, and should, have have been much more engaged. As I learned during my transition there was a lot to do after I checked out of my unit, and I was pretty much completely on my own to get it done. As a leader I should have gone the extra mile and actually followed their progress as they navigated the path of transition, but I didn’t. I should have gone to the transition assistance classes to see what was being taught and how my Marines and Sailors were being treated, but I didn’t. Shame on me.
As I discovered out during my own outprocessing there are a lot of bumps in the offramp from military service. As I transitioned I found the process to be both difficult and annoying, and I was a senior officer with nearly three decades of experience. If it was hard for me, how tough was it for a young man or woman who served only one tour?
The answer to that question is that it was a lot harder for them than it was for me. Part of the reason that it was harder is because they were just cast upon the waters of transition without the guidance and oversight that they had experienced during their time in the military.
From the day that they met their recruiter to the day that they decided to leave the military each and every servicemember was under the guidance and tutelage of a concerned leader. Recruiters prepared them for bootcamp, and their drill instructors molded them into Marines (or Sailors, or Soldiers, or Airmen). They were trained by professional instructors in their military trades, and became valued parts of units and teams in the operating forces. They became leaders in their own rights as they progressed up the ranks, and they were always under the wing of those who had been around longer than they had.
Unfortunately, when they decided to get out the concerned leadership of their units disappeared. They (and I) were no longer valued members of the team, but instead guys and gals who were getting out. To be fair, there certainly is a lot going on in the military these days with things like combat deployments, training exercises, and everything else that is part of the military experience. That said, as leaders we failed to be there for the final chapter of military service for 76% of those who transitioned out of the military.
That is truly a shame, and something that should be addressed. In my humble opinion, the most significant portion of the problem is how the TAP/TAMP and transition process is performed. Those on the way out are centrally trained for transition, and the centralization of training removes the onus of oversight from the units that they came from. They are out of sight and out of mind, and as such quickly become forgotten in the churn of daily military life. The close bonds that they formed with their peers, subordinates, and seniors quickly fade during the time when they need them most: the incredibly stressful and uncertain transition from the all encompassing world that they knew to an ambiguous future in a world that they left years before.
Another telling statistic from the survey is how well the respondents felt that their transition process prepared them for re-entry into civilian life. Sadly, on 12% felt that they were fully prepared for the jump. That number should be much higher, and perhaps it would be if leaders were more involved in their people who are transitioning.
How many would have felt more prepared if their leaders had stayed as engaged with them during their last days in uniform as they were in the beginning?
Transitions are always hard. Especially when a service member is separating from the service. From the view point of the person leaving, it is much more difficult because they made the choice to leave in most cases but in others the military machine made that decision for them.
I was once told that everyone will leave the service at some point. The only difference is if it is your decision or the commander’s decision. I felt on my own, and while difficult. I think it was easier than some friends who were forced to leave because of age, failure to promote, and other reasons.
It is not easy for anyone, and I hope you find this side of the military as rewarding as I did.