Retired Veterans as a “Special Interest” group

As a uniform wearing member of the United States Armed Forces I viewed politics and the special interests that shape them as interesting, but largely irrelevant to my chosen profession.  By law and regulation I could not actively participate in politics; I could not wear my uniform to political events (not that I would have), and if I expressed any disdainful remarks about our elected officials I would have certainly followed in the flaming death spiral of General McChrystal after his disparaging remarks about the administration went public in that scion of popular culture: Rolling Stone magazine.

Once I hung my uniform up for the last time, however, those things that I found to be interesting and irrelevant became fascinating and important.  Suddenly, I was a member of a “Special Interest” group.  I became a retired veteran.

Suddenly, instead of taking what came my way with a smile or a shudder (depending on what it was) I could make some decisions and express my opinion about things and issues.  I could write this very blog and be critical of agencies and entities that I believe are not working in the best interest of veterans, and no commanding officer or general could haul me into his office and existentially threaten my career.

I am not a muckraker by nature, but I have no problem occasionally rocking the boat by writing about things and expressing my opinion about them.

That brings me to today’s post.  Earlier this week I received a newsletter that the Marine Corps mails out to all of us retirees. It contains lots of useful information, such as contact information for various offices and a checklist for my wife to follow when I die to make sure that all of the paperwork associated with my demise is properly completed.  It is a very factual and straightforward periodical.

The focus of this particular issue is TRICARE.  TRICARE, for those who are unfamiliar with the term,, is the medical care system for active duty and retired military members and their families.  The long and short of it is that active duty personnel and their families can receive medical care for free, but once you retire you are entitled to continue receiving care but you have to pay for it.

The cost of TRICARE is low in comparison to other plans, to be sure.  It is not a panacea, however.  It is a secondary or backup plan, so if you or your spouse has insurance through your job that plan comes first and TRICARE kicks in after that. You must submit co-pays for office visits and for prescriptions.  You must pick a doctor from an eligible list of providers.  It is a health care plan like most others, really, but not the golden egg as portrayed by the media.

TRICARE is insurance for vets and their families.  The VA provides healthcare for vets based on their service connected conditions, but does not provide services for their families.  So, if a veteran has a spouse and kids he or she needs to enroll in TRICARE to be covered.

In that manner it fit nicely with the Affordable Care Act that was passed in 2010.

In that manner, it was also viewed as a cash cow to subsidize others who did not have health care, with proposed fee hikes of 345% for some TRICARE members.

That, in my humble opinion, is exploiting a population of Americans who served their country, and as a result chose a career that was not as lucrative other pursuits.  A four star general, certainly equivalent to the CEO of a large corporation, makes a little over $200K per year.  How many CEOs of companys that employ thousands and tens of thousands of people make that little?  Scale it down the chain, with most officer making half that much but with the responsibility of leading hundreds and thousands of men and women in combat.  Is a 45 year old Wall Street hedge fund manager going to work for $90K a year and a pension of half that when he retires?  How about $50 or $60 or $70K per year that the majority of military members are making when they retire from service with half of that amount as a pension?

Nope.

Hence the low cost of TRICARE to the veterans and their families.  Military retirees pay an enormous opportunity cost in terms of lifetime earnings and employment possibilities to serve and defend their nation.  TRICARE is part of the remuneration package for those who have dedicated their adult lives to the service of their nation.

That brings me back to the newsletter I received in the mail the other day.  It discusses the proposed hikes in fees that TRICARE will face in the years ahead, and although I won’t personally see a 345% increase in my monthly bill, I will see it more than double.

Nice.  To all of those who complain that I pay to little and that my family and I are somehow getting over on everyone else because we pay low TRICARE premiums, I say that until you pick up a rifle and serve 20+ years in places where people are actively trying to kill you while your family waits at home in fear for your safety your opinion is both meaningless and insulting.  Decades of service in peace in war was the cost of membership in my “Special Interest” group, and if you aren’t a fellow member kindly shut your yap.

Anyhow, that is my opinion.

For what it’s worth.

Leadership and Transition

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?

An interesting idea from Stanley McChrystal

Stanley McChrystal, the former four star general in charge of the war in Afghanistan, wrote a very thought provoking  opinion piece in today’s Wall Street Journal.  He articulately argues that all Americans, not just those in the military, should serve the nation in some capacity.  With around 1% of the population in the military (which is an all-time low during wartime), there has arguably never been a time in our history when those who actively serve and civilian populations have been further apart.

McChrystal argues that national service, in which a young man or woman can make the choice in how to serve, would make the nation stronger and create a more robust and resilient citizenry.  He challenges the government, the private sector, and the American people to do something to collectively better the nation.

His piece presents an idea that would fundamentally change how our citizens participate in society, and it will certainly generate some controversy.  Even though it will certainly make many people uncomfortable, it is something worth thinking about; in particular is how he proposes that veterans could become an integral part of the program with his proposal that  “[r]eturning military veterans would be treated as the civic assets they are and permitted to use a portion of their GI Bill benefits to support a period of civilian national service, since such service helps them transition to life back home.”

I found his proposal to be very interesting.  I wonder how many boats his article will rock…

Here is a link to the article: Lincoln’s Call to Service – And Ours

The text, courtesy of the Wall Street Journal Online Edition (in case you are not a WSJ online subscriber), is below:

Lincoln’s Call to Service—and Ours

A proposal that would help young Americans understand that civic duty is not restricted to the military.

By STANLEY MCCHRYSTAL

My father first took me to Gettysburg when I was 12 years old. He was a lieutenant colonel in the Army, home from the first of two tours in Vietnam. I remember in particular the hundreds of obelisks poking over the berms, the oxidized plaques attached to rocks and the statues lining the roadways. All spoke for the thousands of men and boys who had died in the grass and dirt serving their nation.

I was young, but I recognized the gravity of the place.

Though I went on to have a career in the military, the visits to Gettysburg with my father were not preparation for soldiering as much as they were early lessons in citizenship—a particular understanding of citizenship that President Lincoln defined and challenged us to fulfill when he delivered his famous address there. It’s a citizenship that does not simply reflect upon the sacrifices of others, but that honors their sacrifice through action: “It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.”

Today, as ever, the task is unfinished. Yet the duties of citizenship have fallen from the national agenda. Talk of service is largely confined to buoyant commencement ceremonies. And too often it is just that: talk.

Less than 1% of Americans serve in the military—a historic low during wartime—leading to a broad, complacent assumption that serving the nation is someone else’s job. As we’ve allowed our understanding of service to be so narrowly limited to the uniform, we’ve forgotten Lincoln’s audience: With the armies still fighting, the president exhorted a crowd of civilians on their duty to carry forward the nation’s work.

It is right that we send off the young Americans graduating this month from high school, college and professional schools with speeches. They should be congratulated for completing the many exams now behind them. But we must remember another test—Lincoln’s test of citizenship—and begin to mark these important junctures in life not just with words, but with real-world commitment.

Universal national service should become a new American rite of passage. Here is a specific, realistic proposal that would create one million full-time civilian national-service positions for Americans ages 18-28 that would complement the active-duty military—and would change the current cultural expectation that service is only the duty of those in uniform.

At age 18, every young man and woman would receive information on various options for national service. Along with the five branches of the military, graduates would learn about new civilian service branches organized around urgent issues like education, health care and poverty. The positions within these branches would be offered through AmeriCorps as well as through certified nonprofits. Service would last at least a year.

Returning military veterans would be treated as the civic assets they are and permitted to use a portion of their GI Bill benefits to support a period of civilian national service, since such service helps them transition to life back home.

The new service opportunities would be created in accordance with the smart rules that have guided AmeriCorps since its founding in 1994, which allow that program to field tens of thousands of service members without displacing workers and who fill vital niches their paid colleagues do not.

Serving full-time for a year or two needs to be a realistic option for all young Americans, regardless of their family’s finances. So civilian service positions would be modestly paid, as AmeriCorps positions are now. (Most AmeriCorps service-members receive a $12,100 stipend for the year, and if they complete their term of service, a $5,550 scholarship to help cover tuition or to pay off student loans.) Government agencies focused on the challenges that these service-members address, as well as the corporations that will benefit from employing Americans whose leadership will be cultivated by service, should step up to fund these efforts.

Instead of making national service legally mandatory, corporations and universities, among other institutions, could be enlisted to make national service socially obligatory. Schools can adjust their acceptance policies and employers their hiring practices to benefit those who have served—and effectively penalize those who do not.

More than most Americans realize, the demand to serve already exists. In 2011, there were nearly 600,000 applications to AmeriCorps—a program with only 80,000 positions, only half of which are full time. The Peace Corps received 150,000 requests for applications but has funding for only 4,000 new positions each year. This gap represents democratic energy wasted and a generation of patriotism needlessly squandered.

Some, particularly after having just observed Memorial Day, might think that only war is capable of binding a generation and instilling true civic pride. But you don’t have to hear the hiss of bullets to develop a deeper claim to the nation. In my nearly four decades in the military, I saw young men and women learn the meaning and responsibilities of citizenship by wearing the uniform in times of both peace and war. They were required to work with people of different backgrounds, introduced to teamwork and discipline, unified by common tests, and brought even closer by sacrifice. Some discovered, often to their surprise, that they were leaders.

This transformation is not exclusive to the military. Those who disagree need only visit young teachers working 18-hour days together in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans. In rural Colorado health clinics, in California’s forests, or Midwest neighborhoods devastated by tornadoes, skeptics would see teams of young people—affluent and poor, college-educated and not—devoting their days to a singular, impactful mission.

Universal national service would surely face obstacles. But America is too big, and our challenges too expansive, for small ideas. To help stem the high-school dropout crisis, to conserve rivers and parks, to prepare for and respond to disasters, to fight poverty and, perhaps most important, to instill in all Americans a sense of civic duty, the nation needs all its young people to serve.

Whatever the details of a specific plan, the objective must be a cultural shift that makes service an expected rite of citizenship. Anything less fails Lincoln’s test.

Gen. McChrystal, a former commander of U.S. and international forces in Afghanistan and of the Joint Special Operations Command, is the chairman of the Leadership Council of the Franklin Project on national service at the Aspen Institute.

A version of this article appeared May 30, 2013, on page A15 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Lincoln’s Call to Service—and Ours.

What do you miss about being in uniform?

When I hung up my uniform for the last time I realized that a huge and fundamental part of my life had changed.  What I did not appreciate at the time, however, was how much the people that I had served with during my career were in that change.

The military is, in many ways, a closed society.  We go to work on bases that are segregated from the civilian population, and we spend days, weeks, and months on end training and preparing to defend the nation from its enemies.  We deploy away from our homes on ships and airplanes with people just like us in the berthing spaces and seats next to us.  Being in the military is an intense and all encompassing immersive experience.

It begins with the shock of meeting your Drill Instructor or Drill Sergeant or whatever your service calls the steely eyed killer who breaks you of all of your nasty civilian habits and transforms you into a Marine, Sailor, Soldier, or Airman.  It continues as you go through training to learn your military craft, and the bonds between you and your compatriots is cemented when you show up to your first operational unit.

It continues as long as you wear the uniform.  Whether you stay in for three years or thirty, you experience a shift in your soul by wearing the cloth of the nation.  You become a critical part of a team, and live your life with people who would willingly die or kill for you — and you would willingly do the same for them.  It is an incredibly powerful experience that suddenly comes to a shocking end when you get out.

One of the questions that I ask in the military transition survey (if you have not taken it yet, please follow this link and help me gather more data: Military Transition Survey) is what you miss the most about serving in the military.

What do you think the most common answers are?  Cool training?  Seeing new and exciting things?  The pay and benefits?

Nope.

The two most common answers by a wide margin are these:

Feeling of camaraderie with my fellow servicemembers

and

The people you served with

After spending a lot of time personally reflecting about my service, the people that I have met, the places I have gone, and the things that I have done, the thing that I personally miss the most about my time in uniform is the same.  I miss the people that I served with.  All of them.  Even the ones that I didn’t like very much, because at the end of the day they were still on my team and ready to fight by my side.

Relationships are powerful, and they are probably the one thing that you can take with you when you leave the service.  So if you are on the way out, make sure to get some email addresses and phone numbers of those you want to keep in touch with.  Find a veterans organization that you like and spend some time there.  Departing the military will drill a hole into your soul, and it is a hole that only those who have served can really help fill.  So don’t wait until it is too late, and reach out to your friends before it is too late and, like your last day in uniform, they are behind you.

Why are transition assistance programs not as effective as they should be? The answers are out there, but nobody is asking the questions.

When Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines leave the military service they are generally young, fit, and eager to get to work in the civilian world.  Many go to school to obtain an education, but many more jump headlong into the job market.  Unfortunately, they are not as prepared as they could be to compete in the cutthroat employment marketplace.  It is not because the government is not trying to help transitioning military folks learn the skills they need to get a job, because there are a multitude of programs out there to help with transition.  Unfortunately, those programs are not nearly as effective as they could and should be.

The Department of Defense, the Veterans Administration, and Department of Labor have spent many millions of dollars (over $50 Million in 2012 alone) on various programs designed to help veterans make the transition from military service to the civilian world.  These agencies are charged with conducting classes, seminars, and counseling that is designed to help those who are hanging up their uniforms with the challenging and often confusing process of becoming a civilian again.

Despite the efforts of these agencies, there is a serious problem with unemployment for recently discharged veterans.  The population of younger veterans who are recently discharged is having the toughest time, with those in the 20 – 24 year old age bracket hitting an unemployment rate of 35% in March of this year according to a Syracuse University study that was released last month (available here: March 2013 Employment Situation of Veterans) .  That stunning number is well over double the rate for the same population of non-veterans.

That means that a lot of our veterans are out of work, and as a result the DOD is paying a lot of money out in the form of unemployment benefits to those who can’t find a job.  It is a shocking amount of money.  I mean really shocking!

How shocking?  Try nearly $1 Billion dollars a year (the actual number was $928 million for 2012 and is on track to increase in 2013).  Almost one billion dollars.  For unemployment benefits.  For veterans who cannot find a job.  And it comes out of the DOD’s annual budget, and every dollar that is spent on unemployment benefits for a veteran is a dollar that is not spent on the people still serving or the equipment that they use to keep our nation safe.

Paying unemployment insurance for separated military personnel is not new for the Department of Defense.  In fact, the DOD has been paying millions of dollars in unemployment benefits for a long time, but the billion dollar pricetag is unprecedented. In 2003, the military paid about $300 million on such benefits, and a decade later that cost has over tripled.

There are a lot of reasons for the increase, with the most obvious being the increase in the number of people leaving the military and having a rough time finding a job in the tough economic conditions that exist today.

That is only part of the story, however.  The Obama administration, to their credit, has increased funding and awareness for the plight of jobless veterans.  Unfortunately, those efforts are not paying the dividends that they should be.  With such a high level of emphasis and funding for transition training and education, you would think that the unemployment rate for veterans would be at or below the non-veteran level.  Unfortunately, it is not.

That is where the data from the Orders to Nowhere Military Transition Survey becomes very interesting.

As I continue to research the subject of military transition, I have been analyzing the data from the survey and a few data points really jump out.  The first data point is how little feedback about the transition process is actually gathered by the organizations that are actually doing the transition training.

Every branch of the military uses After Action Reviews (AARs) to gather feedback from events and learn from the lessons that the AAR provides.  Pilots debrief every mission in order to become better aviators and infantrymen get together and discuss the lessons that they learned from their combat or training engagements.  These debriefs and lessons learned sharing sessions are part of every service and every career field.  Capturing lessons and learning from experience is a crucial part of what makes our military unbeatable.

Unfortunately, the AAR process does not seem to apply to transitioning or recently transitioned veterans.  Despite the culture of learning from experience, the vast pool of potential data sources — recently transitioned veterans — is virtually untapped.

The data shows that, of respondents who left the service between 2003 and 2013, less than one in five had been contacted by the Department of Defense or their branch of service about transition.  Of those one in five who had been contacted, less than half (0r just under 10% of all respondents) were asked to participate in an AAR of the transition process.

In other words, fewer than one in ten recently discharged veterans have been asked to help make the transition process better by providing feedback on their experience.

That, to me, is an incredibly disappointing statistic.  It is not particularly surprising, however.  Nobody officially asked me anything about my transition, and in my many conversations with veterans I have found that nobody asked them either.

Millions and millions of dollars are being spent every year on the military transition process, yet unemployment rates for veterans continues to exceed their civilian counterparts.  Nearly a billion dollars is being spent by the DOD on unemployment benefits for those unemployed veterans.  You would think that somebody would connect the dots between the efficacy of the military transition programs and their effect on the unemployment rate, but sadly the most readily available resource of feedback is largely being ignored.  Nobody is asking the vast majority of people who have gone through those transition programs and entered the civilian workforce about their experiences and how the transition programs could be improved.

The answers are out there.  Too bad nobody is asking the right people the questions.

In yet another shameless plug- I can never get enough data in the Orders to Nowhere Military Transition Survey.  So if you have transitioned from the US military (it doesn’t matter when), please take the survey!  If you have take it, I thank you.  Please ask others to take it too!

Some preliminary results

Thanks to all of you who have read my posts about the transition survey that I using to conduct some research into the military transition process.   A lot of you have helped me out, and I truly appreciate your time in taking the survey and for sharing it with others who can help.

That said, I can never get enough data.  If you are a veteran or a military person going through transition, please take my survey here: Military Transition Survey .  Thanks!

So far the data are showing some interesting trends.  The Marine Corps is the best represented so far, so for those of you in other branches here is your chance to catch up and beat the Marines….

About half of the respondents are combat veterans, and veterans from every conflict since the Korean War have taken the survey.  My first look at the data shows that there are many more programs available today than were out there for earlier generations of veterans, with many of our Vietnam, Korean, and Cold War veterans responding that they had no formal outprocessing resources.

More recent veterans report that there are a lot of different programs currently available, and that they produce a wide disparity in results.  Some are reported to be great, and others are reported to be useless.  I am looking forward to diving more deeply into the data to learn more.

The split between veterans who did and did not serve in active combat is about even, as is the ratio between enlisted and commissioned respondents.  Very few warrant officers have weighed in, though — so if you are a warrant officer, please jump in!

I will start analyzing the information in greater depth next week, and I’ll keep you posted.  Till then, keep sharing the link and get as many of your peers and friends as you can to take the survey.

Thanks!