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!

Calling the VA. Again.

In theory, I have undergone all of the physical examinations, evaluations, pokings, and proddings that are part and parcel of transitioning from Active Duty to becoming a veteran.  After over a dozen trips to various clinics and hospitals at the end of my time in uniform and during my first year or so of post-military life I have been informed that all of my examinations are complete.  To make sure that they were all indeed finished, I logged into the VA website regularly to see if my status had changed.

To my utter lack of surprise, it didn’t.  Growing tired of logging in and viewing at an unchanging screen on the VA’s eBenefits webpage, I looked forlornly at the telephone on my desk and resigned myself to another early morning attempt to get through to the VA.

So, early the next morning, I grabbed a cup of coffee and staggered into my office.  I punched in the VA’s telephone number, and much to my surprise (not really) found that even though it was a couple of hours before the rooster would crow (on the West coast, at least), all operators were busy.  I was, however, offered the option of having a VA representative call me back the following week at a time that would be convenient for me.

I figured that the following Monday at about 0900 was convenient enough, so I hung up and waited for the weekend to pass.

It did, and sure enough my phone rang at about 0905, with a live human being on the other end!  Very exciting indeed.  After providing my social security number and other identifying information, the nice lady on the other end asked how she could help me.  Although deep down I didn’t think that there was much help to be had, I asked anyway.

“Can you tell me the status of my case?”

After a few moments of furious typing on the other end of the line, my VA friend replied:

“It’s under review.”

Which is exactly where it has been for nearly nine months.

We talked for a few minutes, and then I hung up.  In order to spare you from the rather boring conversation, I’ll just cover what she had to say.

1.  All of my examinations are complete.  That said, if they find something that they need to look into I will again be headed off to the examination clinic.

2.  My results are somewhere between the clinic and my case file.  Even though it has been nearly two months since my last exams, the results have not made it to my case team.  Not surprising, but still disappointing.

3.  Once my team receives my results, they will merge them with my file and put it in the queue.  When my file comes to the top of the pile they will evaluate it and let me know the result.

How long will that take, I asked?

“Nine to twelve months.”

Sigh.  Good thing I’m not in a rush.

The call I was waiting for from the VA. Really!

It finally happened!  The VA called and scheduled my final disability evaluation appointment.  Hooray!

For those who are wondering why this is a big deal, here is a quick backstory.  My veteran’s disability claim has been turgidly moving through the system for nearly a year and a half, and during that time I also entered the VA medical system.  As I learned, the VA has two distinct and different sides when it comes to disability claims and healthcare, and they do not talk.

This became a problem for me because I did not understand that important fact.  My disability claim was partially settled six months ago, and with the notification letter came the promise of a call to finish the process.  Soon after, I was contacted by the VA on numerous occasions to schedule and attend various appointments at the local clinic.  Foolishly, I thought that the clinic and the disability claim evaluation were one and the same.  As I said earlier, they aren’t.

As it happens all of the calls from the VA clinic were for the medical side and were unrelated to the disability claims side, and none of the appointments had anything do to with my claim.  Good news for my medical coverage, but still a lot of frustration on my disability claim.

So, months of frustration, I called the VA.  After a few weeks of phone tag, my case was reviewed and I was again promised that I would be receiving a call to schedule my follow up appointment.  I was not optimistic.

My pessimism was abated when they called.  Actually, they contacted me by mail. I received a letter that explained that I needed to be seen by the VA’s contract provider for a few things that were not completely documented by my initial visit, and with the letter came a questionnaire regarding the issues in question.  I filled out the questionnaire, and within a day or two I received a call from the provider’s office to schedule an appointment.

Yesterday I went to the contract provider that takes care of the claims side of the VA house.  It was the same provider that I had seen a year earlier, and to their credit they were very efficient and polite.  I was in and out of their office in less than 45 minutes, which was a pleasant surprise as I had anticipated spending the afternoon in the waiting room.  With that appointment I had, in theory, finished up my claims process.  I hope it is done.  According to the VA representative that I had spoken with earlier the only items remaining in my case were the evaluation from the contract provider and a few administrative corrections in my file.

The evaluation is done.  Now I just have to wait for the administrators to correct my file and then my disability claim should be completed.

I’ve heard that story before.  We’ll see…and I’ll keep you posted!

__________

Lessons learned:

– The Medical side of the VA is completely separate from the Disability claims side of the VA.  In my case, the clue to the difference was that all of the medical issues were addressed by my local clinic while all of my disability evaluations were performed by a contracted provider.

– Be proactive.  Call the VA and determine your status.  I think it helped, as my case was languishing for months until I made some inquiries.

– As always, be patient!

Learning a new skill: Salary and benefits negotiation part 1

In the military one learns a good many things:  How to stand at attention and march smartly about.  How to carry and shoot a rifle, and how to live out of a backpack for weeks on end.  How to fix a tank or fly a jet.  Lots and lots of things.

One thing that you don’t learn, however, is something that everybody else in the business world learns with their first job: how to negotiate.

Negotiation is a very important part the employment process.  When a candidate is offered a position with a company he or she begins the discussion of compensation with the hiring manager, where things like compensation, benefits, hours, vacation time, career progression, retirement plans, insurance, and countless other things that are part and parcel of employment.  In the corporate world all of these items are negotiable, and both job providers and job seekers know it.

In the military the situation could not be more different.  When a young man or woman joins the military they are provided a comprehensive pay and benefits package, but it is one that is set by law and regulation.  There is no negotiation for a better salary or more flexible hours — in fact, there is no negotiation at all.  The pay, allowances, and benefits for military folks are no secret, either.  The pay scale, which is based on rank and time in service, is readily available on the internet as are all of the other  benefits, special pay conditions (such as jump and dive pay), and housing stipends.  When you join the military you get what you get, just like everybody else in uniform.

As a result of the defined pay and benefits in the military those in uniform never engage in the process of employment negotiation, and that can place them at a disadvantage when they hang up their uniforms and enter the civilian world where everything is negotiable.

Everything from the salary you will earn to the amount of vacation you can take to where you can park your car is on the table.  It is up to you, the job seeker, to get the best offer that you can, and if you don’t know to engage in the back and forth of negotiation then you risk leaving valuable things on the table.  There is one guarantee in negotiation: you will never get things that you don’t ask for.

Fortunately, you can arm yourself for such a negotiation by doing a little research and preparing for it.

The research bit can make an enormous difference in the negotiation process because it can provide you with valuable information about the company and what you can and can not ask for.  You can surf the internet (at sites like www.glassdoor.com or www.payscale.com) and ask your friends and contacts (especially those in the industry you are entering or work at the company) about what the average salary for your desired position is as well as the benefits package that the firm offers.

As the job seeker you have leverage in the negotiation up until the point that you accept the job offer and the terms that it contains.  Once you say “yes” the negotiation is over, and you are highly unlikely to be able to change anything.  At that point anything that was left on the table will vanish like a thief in the night.

So what are the types of things that you can ask for?  Here is a quick list of twenty things that many companies will entertain and which may or may not be similar to military benefits:

1.  Performance bonuses.  Can you make more money if your performance merits it?

2.  Flexible hours.  Maybe a four day week with longer workdays?

3.  Work location.  Work from home?

4.  Overtime pay.  How much will you be compensated for working extra hours?

5.  Retirement plans.  What kind do they offer?  How much will the company match in a 401K?

6.  Vacation time.  You received 30 days a year in the military, and the base in the civilian world is two weeks, unless you negotiate for more.

7.  Travel expenses.  Can you get  company car?  Mileage compensation or a gas station credit card?

8.  Non-monetary compensation.  Can you earn stock options or fully valued shares of the company’s stock?

9.  Career flexibility.  Can you create a path that starts in one area of the company and then move to another?

10.  Time off.  How about personal days?  Sick days?

11.  Health care.  Is health insurance included?  What are the deductibles?  Is there an on-site clinic?

12.  Insurance.  You had SGLI in the military at a steeply discounted rate.  Does your employer offer life insurance?

13.  Meals.  Is there a company cafeteria?  Are meals subsidized?

14.  Child care.  Can you bring your child to work?  How about a nursing room for those who wish to nurse their infants?

15.  Tech equipment.  How about a company phone or laptop?

16.  Discounts.  If the company produces goods, can you purchase them at a discount?  Is there a company store?

17.  Memberships.  Will the company provide memberships to a health club or gym?

18.  Travel.  Will you be expected to travel in coach, business class, or even better when you travel?  How about upgrades?

19.  Education.  Will the company pay for you to pursue an MBA or other educational opportunitity?

20.  Relocation expenses.  Will the firm pay for you to move your family to the city where you will work?

These are only the tip of the pay and benefits iceberg.  If you don’t do your homework and come to the bargaining table knowing what you can and should ask for you will get less than you could have.

In my next post we will prepare for the negotiation by rehearsing and doing a little self examination to make sure we do the best job possible at the bargaining table.

__________

Lessons learned:

– Military benefits are set.  Corporate benefits are not.  To get the best salary and benefits possible you are going to have to negotiate for them.

– Not all companies offer all benefits.  You need to do some research to see what the company offers, and then be prepared to ask for them.

– Salary is usually the biggest aspect of the negotiation, but it is not the only element.  Unlike the military, many corporate benefit packages are tailored to the individual employee.

– Use your network of contacts and the internet to research what will likely be on the table during the negotiation.  Don’t look foolish by asking for something the company does not offer, and don’t forget to ask for something that they do.

Interviewing, part 3: Curveballs and questionable questions

The purpose of a job interview is to determine whether or not you are suitable to join a company’s team.  How the interviewer figures that out, however, can be unusual, uncomfortable, and sometimes downright odd.  It can also be illegal.  You need to be prepared for when the interview goes in an unexpected direction.

You expect to be asked about your experience, skills, education, and training during a job interview.  You may not be expecting some of the tools that companies use in their hiring process to find the best candidates for the job,  though.  Some companies will ask you to take a personality test (to see what you are really like), submit a handwriting sample (to be analyzed by handwriting experts), have your picture taken (so that others who are involved in the hiring process can see what you look like),  or something equally strange.  These questions and tests are perfectly legal, even if they seem a bit unusual.

What about questions that are not legal?

There are some questions that are not permitted, by law, to be asked of an applicant.  Although they vary from state to state, they generally fall somewhere in the following list:

  • Age
  • Gender, sex, or sexual preference
  • Race, ethnicity, or heritage
  • Disability
  • Faith or religious beliefs
  • Marital status
  • Pregnancy or children

There are a few more for serving military veterans:

  • Classification of discharge
  • Military related disability status (particularly PTSD)
  • Post-military benefits status (healthcare, pension, etc.)
  • Whether you are in the National Guard and Reserves

Professional interviewers are well aware of which questions are permitted and which are not.  Not all interviews are conducted by professional hiring managers, though.  Many are conducted by small business owners, retail store managers, restaurant chefs, or anyone in business who needs to staff a position in their organization.  These interviewers may ask a question that they shouldn’t without realizing it, but even though they don’t know the law they are still required to follow it.

There is another possibility, too.  The person conducting the interview may be asking you questions that they know are illegal but they ask them anyway.

Regardless of the circumstance, when one of these questions is laid on the table it is up to you to figure out what to do about it.  You have about a millisecond to decide whether you will answer it or not.  How much do you want the job?  That it what it all boils down to in the end.  If you stonewall, refuse to answer, or debate the legality of the question with the interviewer the probability of you landing the job will rapidly approach zero.  However, if you feel that the interviewer is crossing the line intentionally, then perhaps the company is not really a place where you would like to work anyway.

You have to ask yourself the simple question: “Is answering that question worth getting a job with this company?”  If you answer yes, then do as you are asked.  If not, then don’t.  It is a simple as that.  The downside is that you are certainly guaranteeing that you won’t get the job.  Do you have to answer an illegal question or fulfill an odd request?

Nope.  You can say no.  And probably not get the job.  It is up for you to decide.

__________

Lessons Learned:

– Not everyone conducting an interview is a professional.  They may ask questions that they shouldn’t out of ignorance.

– There are illegal questions, unusual questions, and uncomfortable questions.  Regardless of where those questions lie on the spectrum, it is up to you as to whether or not to answer them.

– There are some questions that pertain specifically to serving military and veterans.  Your military and VA benefits are personal in nature, as is any pension of disability payment that you receive.  Disclosing any of that information is up to you, should any such questions come up.

– It all boils down to how much you want to work at the company.  Questions may be asked innocuously, and making a big deal out of it will likely cost you a job offer.

Final Physical exam finally finished!

I left you, my constant reader, pensively hanging after my last post about my Veterans Administration physical.  How did everything turn out, you wonder?  Well, I am still wondering how it all turns out too.

The VA has become a very busy governmental agency during the last few years.  The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have spurred the dynamic growth of all of the armed services, and now as combat in Iraq has ended and Afghanistan winds down there are many thousands and thousands of new veterans leaving the service.  The burgeoning numbers are compounded by the government’s budget deficit and military belt tightening as the growth that the Army, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard, and Marines experienced in the latter part of the last decade retrenches and the population of the armed forces shrinks back to pre-war levels or lower.  Add all of us new veterans to those from World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm and the Cold War and pretty soon you have a pretty huge population of veterans for the VA to oversee.

At any rate, the meteoric rise in the VA population has slowed some things down, and one of those things is the completion of the disability rating evaluation.  The disability evaluation is performed by the VA to document and, if required, compensate veterans for physical or mental conditions that were caused or aggravated by their military service.  The process is a pretty fair one but it requires the veteran to put some effort into ensuring that all of the documentation is in their record and that they attend all of the required appointments.

In my case, I initiated the process right after I checked out of the Marine Corps and started my terminal leave.  On that day I turned in all of my required files (including my original medical and dental records) and received my orders back to civilian life as well as two versions of my DD-214, known as “Member 1” and “Member 4”.  With these documents in my hands I then went to the Veterans Affairs office on base and made a walk-in appointment to see what to do next.

After waiting about a half hour to see a counselor, I went in and professed my utter ignorance of what to do and laid myself before the mercy of the VA.  Fortunately, the lady who took my case had seen plenty of knuckleheads like me before and she professionally ran me through the requirements.

“Do you have your DD-214?”

I handed it over.  Well, actually I handed her a copy.  The original is probably the most important document you will receive during your transition because it is the only universally recognized form of proof that you served in the military, and it is your ticket to the dance that is the VA.  As an aside, when you check out make sure to ask for a half dozen or so “Certified True Copies” of your form because some agencies will not accept a FAX or photocopy.  The admin shop will make copies and stamp them as certified, which will come in handy later.  Trust me.

“Do you have your medical record?”

I patted the thick folder on my lap.

“Have you been pre-screened?”

I explained that my record had been evaluated by the Disabled American Veterans counselors during my Transition Assistance Class, and I showed her the form that they filled out.

“When do you EAS?”

I told her that my last day was New Year’s Eve, and she paused.  In a speech that she had obviously given hundreds of times before she explained how the timeline for VA claims works.  It is important to file at the right time, she said, because depending on when a vet files has a tremendous impact on how quickly the case will be evaluated.  Based on your EAS if you file too early, your package gets sent off to a regional evaluation center and it may take up to a year to get evaluated.  In my case, since I was three months from my EAS I fell into the “too early” category.  If you file too late your package gets sent off to the same place and it will likely take a year.  Too late is defined as after your EAS.  She explained that if you submit your claim 60 days or less before your EAS then your case will be evaluated by the local VA office, and that the turnaround rate is about four months.

My choice.

She smiled at me across the desk and sweetly inquired if I would like to submit my claim today or if I would like to submit it in a month or so….

A month later I was sitting across the same desk from the same nice lady.  Since I was now in the “sweet spot” of claim submission I presented her with all of my information and got started.

Here is what she needed to get initiate the claim:

1.)  Photocopy of my medical and dental record.  These accompany your claim during the evaluation, and you will eventually get these back.

2.)  Copy of the pre-screening checklist that was performed at the Transition Assistance Class.

3.)  Copy of your DD-214.  Not just any copy, mind you, but the “Member 4” copy.  Why do I know this?  Because I submitted the wrong one, of course, and had to resubmit the correct one a month later (which slowed down my claim).

With the thick packet in front of her she began making some phone calls.  Although I had completed my military physicals I now had to have my VA evaluations completed.  After ten minutes or so of coordinating dates and times, she handed me three appointment reminders for the three evaluations that I would need to complete in order for my case to be adjudicated.

These three appointments were totally on me.  I was required not just to show up, but to complete the pre-appointment paperwork, which was basically a questionnaire that asked about each and every item that I had identified as a malady or injury that was incurred during my service.  Things like a dislocated shoulder (When did it happen? How?) to a broken ankle (what treatment did you receive?  Any surgery?).  The paperwork was a little daunting, but without it your claim will not see the light of day.

Anyhow, I made it through all three appointments, and by the time my EAS came and went my claim was wending itself through the local VA office.  It has been about four months now, and I have been eager to see what the result will be….

…and yesterday I got a letter in the mail from the VA.  Wow, I thought, she was right!  Less than four months and I got my results.  Sweet!  Smugly I opened the letter.

Not so smugly I read what it said.  “Dear Michael,”  it read, “we are sorry to inform you that your case is still under review….”  D’oh.  It looks like I still have a month to go, but that’s OK.  The good thing about being retired is that time is not necessarily one of my problems.  I can wait.

__________

Lessons Learned:

1.)  Talk to a VA counselor as soon as you can.  Make an appointment while you are still on active duty if you can, because even if they can’t help you until you go on terminal leave they can explain the processes and procedures that you will need to follow to obtain evaluations and benefits.

2.)  Schedule a meeting immediately after going on terminal leave.  You can officially start your evaluations and benefits requests when you have your DD-214 and final orders.  It really behooves you to start as early as you can because the VA is a bit overwhelmed with the huge number of new veterans applying for benefits.  If you wait all you do is compound the problem.  It is a first in, first out system that is irrespective of military rank or position.  Don’t think that your uniformed high ranking muckety-muck status means anything to the VA because it doesn’t.

3.)  Get as many “certified true copies” of your DD-214 as possible.  I have had to give out several so far, and it is easy to get them when you check out.  Much less easy later, trust me.

4.)  Make sure to provide the correct documentation to the VA.  It cost me a month because I submitted a “Member 1” vice a “Member 4” DD-214 with my claim.  What’s the difference?  As far as I can tell there is one additional block of information on the “Member 4” version.  Apparently it is a pretty important block!

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.

Joining the herd

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

__________

Lessons learned:

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

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

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

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

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

Getting schooled…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

__________

Lessons learned:

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

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