It’s here! Orders to Nowhere is now a book!

It’s finally here!  The first edition of Orders to Nowhere is available in print.  It will be six to eight weeks before it shows up in bookstores, and a week or so before it hits Amazon.com.  If you want to avoid the wait, you can order it straight from the printer by clicking the cover:

Orders to Nowhere

Since you are a loyal reader and follower of the blog that got it all started, you can use the discount code ZVGYFQ28 and save 10% off the cover price.

Thank each and every one of you for reading and following my journey through transition!

The little things, part 1: A new ID card

So it had finally happened.  The big day had arrived and I found myself suddenly thrust back out into the real world.  Crossing the threshold of transition is more than just metaphorical, however.  There are still quite a few things that have to be accomplished before the process of becoming a civilian again is complete.

One important “little thing” is obtaining the official token of retirement: the blue identification card.  It is the key to your benefits after leaving active duty; benefits like health care, shopping at the base exchange or commissary, and the proof of your service that allows you to drive onto base.  Unlike your active duty ID card, however, it doesn’t require renewal every three years.  It expires on your 65th birthday, where upon I suppose I will have to drive down to the Pass and Identification office and obtain a new card (65 is the magic age when retirees become eligible for Medicare, and thus require a new form of identification).

So it is important to get one’s retired ID card as soon as possible after the last day of terminal leave has vanished into the night.  Technically, if you don’t, you are violating the law because the Armed Forces Identity Card has a few features that your random state issued ID or driver’s license doesn’t.  For example, it is a “smart card” with a chip inside that can be used to access government computers.  Not that you can really do anything particularly nefarious with such access, but with your transition comes the end of your right to get on government computer systems.  It also contains your official Geneva Convention status in case you are captured by the enemy (although this is particularly unlikely in Southern California, you never know when it might be useful).  In my case, I was Category IV, which meant I was a commissioned officer.  When I was enlisted was a Category III.  I know that because it said so right on my ID card.  Again, not a huge deal, but with my retirement I became uncategorized.  Had the US been invaded on New Year’s Day and I had been captured and the invader checked my ID card then I would have been  thrown in a POW camp instead of being released.  That in and of itself is reason enough to get my new ID.

So off to the Pass and ID office I went.  It seemed to be a straightforward process: go to the office and turn in your active ID for a retired one.  It was straightforward, but in typical fashion it wasn’t so simple.

I showed up and signed in on the clipboard that sat beneath the proclamation “SIGN IN HERE”.  I then sat down in a government issued plastic chair with about a dozen other people who were waiting for new identity cards.  I was halfway through reading the September issue of Consumer Reports (always a good read) when my name was called.

I walked up to the counter.   “Can I help you?” asked the clerk.  “Sure.  I need to turn in my active ID card for a retired one,” I answered as I reached for my wallet.

“OK.  Two forms of ID please.  And your DD-214.”

D’oh.

ID’s I had.  My DD-214 I didn’t.

The DD-214 is the single most important document that a separating serviceman or woman will ever receive.  It is the source document that proves your service; it shows when you entered and when you left active duty as well as the recording your eligibility for VA benefits, healthcare, reenlistment (in case you can’t handle civilian life and want to get back in) and apparently also a retired ID card.

I resigned myself to another trip to the Pass and ID office.  I should have known better, but I didn’t.  The thing about being on active duty is that you tend to take a lot of things for granted; after all, you are in every computer data base imaginable.  All anyone has to do is look at your ID card, input your social security number, and pull your data up.  Unfortunately, once you retire the great big data eraser comes in and purges you from the system, as was the case for me on the first business day after the New Year’s Day weekend:

03 Jan 2012 @ 0243  MOL  LTCOL GRICE, MICHAEL D. was dropped from your unit

With that pithy little message I was erased.  With my erasure rose the importance of the DD-214, because it was an artifact of my service that could not be summarily deleted.  And without it, as I found, things were much more difficult or impossible to accomplish.

So the next day I returned with my two forms of ID and my DD-214.  I was able to finish reading the September issue of Consumer Reports (good thing, too!  I was wondering which bottled water I should be drinking) before I was beckoned back to the counter.  With a cheery smile I turned over my documents, and within a few minutes I had a shiny new retired ID card.  Complete with a cheesy picture of myself that I  would be looking at for the next few decades before I turn 65 and the proclamation of my newly earned RETIRED status.  No POW camp for me!

__________

Lessons Learned:

1.  Your DD-214 is the most important document you will have after you transition.  I recommend that you keep a copy of it with you at all times when you are conducting transition relate business.  Have the administrative shop that completes your transition provide you a few extra copies, and make sure that they are stamped “CERTIFIED TRUE COPY” at the bottom.  That will ensure that you don’t have to make extra trips like I did.

2.  Buy a binder or folio (nifty word for folder that has a zipper on it to hold all the stuff inside) and keep all of your working transition paperwork inside.  That way you can whip out your DD-214 or whatever other document you need at a moment’s notice and avoid going back and forth to get things done.  You will need other documents, too, like your checkout sheet, medical appointment reminders, etc., and having an organized notebook will help a lot.

Final (?) Physical Exam. Or is it? Part 2.

A little while ago I wrote about the importance of lists.  Rather naively I thought that I was pretty much done with them as I approached the completion of my checkout sheet.  As usual, I was wrong.

The mighty checkout sheet, about which I wrote several posts, is the administrative key to the other side of transition.  To my dismay, however, I found that the checkout sheet alone wasn’t mighty enough to set me free.  That required that I complete my final physical examination, and just like everything else involved with transition there was so much more to it than meets the eye.

My last post about the final physical left us at the Regimental Surgeon’s office, where I learned about the complexities of the mother of all physical exams: the vaunted Final Physical.  It is the mother of all examinations because it is no simple or cursory survey, but instead an inexorably thorough inquisition of one’s bodily health and mental condition that left nothing uninspected.

It is for good reason, as I learned from the good surgeon.  My final physical serves as the last chance for me, the soon to be departed from the Marine Corps, to avail myself of military medicine and fix those things that had heretofore been unfixed or ignored in typical macho tough-guy fashion.  While the thought of military medicine may make the reader shudder, it really isn’t bad- in fact it is very good, because military health care providers are well resourced and have had a lot of real world practice over the last decade of war.  The perceived problem with it stems from poor management and care several decades ago- problems that have long been corrected.  The point to the physical was to get me into the best shape possible  before showing me the door, whereupon the Veteran’s Administration would take up the responsibility for my health and wellbeing.  I will write more about the VA later, but suffice it to say that the surgeon’s description of the process made me a believer in the process.

“It’s up to you, sir,” he said, “but you’d be foolish not to take advantage of everything you can.  It’s free, and you have the time to take care of anything that may crop up.”

A wise man, that surgeon.

“You would be smart to contact every [health care] provider that you have seen in the last few years.  They will re-evaluate your condition and record it in your health records.  That will help you in the long run, especially with your disability claim,” he continued.

Disability claim?

Visions of walking canes, wheelchairs, and blue parking spaces rocketed through my head.

He saw my look of horror and chuckled.

“You’ve been in for a long time,” he said as he flipped through my medical record, “your knees are bad, your ankle is bad, your feet are a mess….”  He trailed off as he continued to review my case.  “You are going to be rated with some disabilities, and it is important that the ratings are done correctly.  Don’t worry about it.  It’s a rough life being a Marine, and you are going to be evaluated to make sure that you are taken care of.  Here’s my number.  If you have any problems, have them give me a call.”

As Indiana Jones said to Marion in “Raiders of the Lost Ark”:  It’s not the years, honey, it’s the mileage.

With a firm handshake, I left his office with my records in one hand and a newly printed checklist in the other.

The checklist was very thorough.  It ranged from lab work (shots anyone?  A vial or two or seven of blood for testing?) to audiograms for my artillery-assaulted ears (What? What did you say?) to an EKG to make sure my ticker still ticked and a chest x-ray to look at my ribs or something else that is equally important.  How was I going to get any of this stuff taken care of?

In true Navy fashion, I had not walked ten feet before a motivated and professional Petty Officer took pity on me and beckoned me to the counter.  “Hi, sir!  Lemme see that,” he said as he pointed to my checklist, “we’ll get you squared away.”

And he did.  With the dexterity of the queen of the typing pool and the suavity of a Tiffany Jewelry salesman he typed, called, cajoled, and printed appointment after appointment for me.  Within ten minutes he had teed up meetings with specialists and medical providers across the base.  Not only did he hit the basic requirements, but also those specialty clinics and providers that I had seen over the last few years- orthopedics for my feet, physical therapy for my knees, optical for my eyes, audiology for my ears….and so on.  With a smile and a cheery “here you go, sir!” he handed me a sheaf of appointment reminders and turned back to his duties.

That’s why Navy medicine is great- they really bent over backwards to make sure I was taken care of.  I have never seen anything like that at a civilian HMO, that’s for sure!  I looked over the appointment reminders and was surprised at just how long it was going to take to knock this final physical out- all told it was going to take over three months to hit all of my appointments.  Three months!  Yikes.  Navy medicine may be helpful, but it isn’t particularly speedy I guess- especially for those of us getting our outprocessing physicals.  Oh well.  Fortunately I had the time.

So, with a feeling of great relief (and a little trepidation, to be sure!) I walked out of the Regimental Aid Station and set out on the journey that would be my final physical.

__________

Lessons Learned:

1.  Start EARLY.  I began my outprocessing physical about four months before I went on terminal leave with the naive expectation that it would be a quick and easy thing to do.  Not so much!

2.  Plan ahead.  Take the time to write a list of all the things that are bothering you or that you have been treated for over the past few years.  Most Marines just “suck it up” and refuse to show weakness by getting medical care, which is good when the Taliban are chucking hand grenades at you but not so good when you are about to get out.  If you do not have your problems recorded in your record then they do not exist.  Simple as that.  And if they do not exist, they cannot be evaluated for disability purposes or for future care in case they get worse.  And they always get worse….

3.  Go into your initial final physical appointment with your notes and with your complete medical record.  You will get out of it what you put into it.  If you blow it off then you will get a rubber stamp with nothing behind it, and possibly lose out on medical benefits or monetary compensation in the future.  The time to be the big tough Marine ends at the hatch to the aid station!

4.  Take notes as you go.  This is important, because you will ultimately have a second set of physicals with the Veteran’s Administration to determine your disability rating.  If you forget what the doctors tell you during their examination you can’t pass that information to the VA, which will weaken your claim for benefits.

Reflections

This past weekend I had occasion to go back to where it all started, well, at any rate where my life as a Marine began.  As a resident of the greater San Diego area I am bounded by Marine and Navy bases and stations pretty much on every side, and during my years in uniform I have been fortunate to serve aboard many of them.  This includes the Marine Corps Recruit Depot, where I shed my civilianhood as a petrified teenager only to return nearly two decades later as a senior officer who helped run the joint.  Oddly, during the course of my career I had gone from being an inmate within the mustard colored walls of that hallowed institution to one of the metaphorical fat men behind the curtain who made the whole thing run.  Upon my graduation from bootcamp I had sworn a solemn oath never to return to the wretched shores of San Diego, but like most youthful bents I disregarded it, came to my senses, and ultimately returned.

The Depot sits next to the Lindbergh Field, which is San Diego’s major airport.  Any Hollywood Marine (as graduates of MCRD San Diego are known) can tell you, it is endlessly torturous to be suffering the indignancies of being a worthless recruit while watching airliner after airliner take off from a runway only a few hundred yards away- the very personification of the elusive freedom that they have sworn to defend but relinquished when they arrived at bootcamp.  It was one of those planes that brought me back to the depot.

My father in law had been down for a visit, and as it was time for him to head home I took him down to the airport.  With the kids in the back seat, we headed down to drop him off, and as we drove past the unmistakable  architecture of the training grounds I noticed that I was running low on gas.  After a few hugs and handshakes, he headed for the gate and we hit the road.  Never one to pass up the chance to save a buck or two on gas, I drove over to MCRD to take advantage of the PX.

We approached the gate, and I saw no small number of teenagers no different than myself some quarter of a century ago waiting for a taxicab ride by the entrance.  Each seemed accompanied by a small mountain of luggage that comes only from an all-expenses paid vacation to such an establishment; seabags (duffel bags for non-nautical types), garment and gym bags in the mottled green that matched the camoflage of their field uniform, and the ubiquitous black satchel that contained their orders and other important papers.  Like a thunderclap, I was instantly transported back to when I was one of them- a young man eager to step out on an exciting journey.  Just as quickly as a thunderclap passes, though, my reverie was broken by the Marine guard at the gate brought me back to reality.  Suspiciously eyeing my longish hair, he offered a salute and a thoroughly professional “good morning, Sir!” as he saluted and waved me through.  It was not as though my life passed before my eyes, but my psyche was twisted with the realization that I was no longer looking forward to my life as a Marine, but instead was passing the baton to those who were.

I cruised over to the gas station and filled up.  My kids had been here many times before, so when I asked if they wanted to see my old workplace they eagerly agreed.  Besides, I needed to get my last haircut (!), and it is seemingly apropos that the last hair that I part with in the service of my country should go into the same trashcan as my first- with the only real difference being that it is a bit more silver now, and maybe just a little less in the dustpan than when I started.

After getting my hair cut (a snappy ‘do called a “low-regulation” – indeed the “lowest low-regulation” that I could talk the barber into) we headed out to see the sights.  Our first stop was that small fitness area behind the “RESTRICTED AREA” sign that marked the hallowed grounds of the Drill Instructor School.  I had served as the director of the Marine Corps premier leadership school some years ago, so I invoked executive privilege  and we snuck over to cavort a on the pullup and dip bars.  Even though I am still a senior officer on active duty, and even though I was the director of the school, I still got chills up and down my spine as I violated the rule to stay out of the restricted area.  Such is the power of the training that recruits endure on the path to become Marines; I still dreaded the thought of a drill instructor finding us where we weren’t supposed to be and taking his revenge upon such dangerous rule breakers as myself and my two rambunctious kids.

I breathed a sigh of relief as we left Drill Instructor School behind and walked up and down the arcade, which is a half-mile long open portico that is the distinctive hallmark of the base.  The smells and sights crossed the chasm of time; the place looks almost unchanged despite the years that have passed since I first stepped foot onto the yellow footprints.  Across the parking lot, on the parade field (or “grinder” as it is universally known), we saw a platoon of camoflage wearing recruits frozen in mid stride,  surrounded by a blur of Drill Instructors in their service uniforms who seemed to be everywhere all at once.  They were being evaluated on their ability to conduct Close Order Drill, or COD.

Again, the time machine between my ears kicked into overdrive and I was back on the grinder, younger, leaner, and terrified that I would make a mistake and incur the painful wrath of my Drill Instructors.  With a shudder, sat on a bench and pulled my kids over.

“What are they doing?”

“What kind of guns do they have?”

“Are they your friends?”

I answered their questions (“Drilling”, “M-16 Service Rifles”‘, “we are all friends”) and watched the magic happen.  It was cathartic to see the next generation of Marines being made before my eyes, and oddly enough it looked exactly as it did when I was here back in the mid ’80s.  It is what makes and keeps the Marine Corps great; the tireless dedication to duty, the selfless passion to the institution, and the certainty that being a Marine is something momentous are all sparks that ignite the burning flame that lights the soul of each and every wearer of the Eagle, Globe and Anchor.

As I watched them march by, it was clear to me that the next generation was as good as mine, and that the passing of the torch ensured that it would burn bright and clear for the next year, the next decade, and indeed forever.  The soul of the Marine Corps is the soul of each Marine, and it rests deep within each and every man and woman who has earned the title “Marine”.  I observed a part of that soul being born, and was proud be be a witness.

To them I say good luck, but make sure to enjoy the ride.  Too soon they will be sitting on a bench watching the generation that follows them march into their destiny just as I did this past weekend.  Despite the hardships, the terror of combat and the boredom that accompanies standing watch in the middle of the night, I would trade places with any one of them and do it again.

Semper Fidelis!

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 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.

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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.

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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!