Business correspondence: Enter the resume

Not long ago we started talking about the importance of making a good impression.  Not just in life, mind you, but in the context of starting a new career.  By now you should have some most excellent business cards that you can hand out while you are networking, but that is only the beginning of the path that leads to a  job.

By now you should have the first tool of networking, your business card, and you need to get ready for when networking pays off.  The next step is when someone asks to see your resume, and if you want to get the job that they are offering your resume had better be pretty tight!

Your resume is the core of your job-seeking business correspondence, and it is your opportunity to sell yourself to a prospective employer.  We’ll talk about cover letters and thank you notes later, but for now let’s get a bit more familiar with how to build a resume.

Getting a job is like going shopping in reverse.  When you go to the grocery store you are selecting the products that you want and need to feed your family.  When you go down the canned foods aisle looking for a can of baked beans, for example, you are presented with a whole lot of choices.  There are brands like Bush’s and Van de Camp’s and Heinz and Hunts and flavors that range from tangy and sweet BBQ to wicket hot Jalapeno.  Lots of choices!  You, as the customer, get to examine the dizzying display of cans and pick the beans you want.

Well, I hate to break it to you, but you are one can of beans out of thousands in the job market.  There are a lot of other cans out there selling themselves to potential customers who will hire them, and in order to break yourself out of the generic bottom shelf and into the highly desirable gourmet section you will need to differentiate yourself from everyone else.  That is where the resume comes in.

Your resume is essentially the professional you in two pages or less.  It is your one shot to sell yourself to a potential employer and get yourself in the door for an interview.  In the current economy there are literally thousands and thousands of other people out looking for work, and they all have been firing off resumes to try to land a job.  The competition is pretty fierce, so you really need to break out of the pack.

So how do you do it?

I’m glad you asked.  Before we get into writing resumes there are a few things you need to do first.  Let’s start with those.

A few posts ago we went through the four-sheet exercise to determine what you really want to do with your life, so now let’s take that a few steps further.  You know what you want to do and where you want to do it, so in order to find a job you will need to do some research to find out what opportunities are out there.

Start with the internet.  After all, you are smart enough to be reading this blog, so I think it is a safe assumption that you can use Google or another search engine to surf around and see what’s out there.  I recommend that you go to and punch in what you would like to do and where you would like to do it, and within a nanosecond (and for free!) you will have a list that shows opportunities in your search area.  You can also use a bunch of other sites, such as or as well.  I recommend that you spend an afternoon surfing the web and looking at what is out there –  not because you are necessarily going to apply for any of those jobs persay but in order to get a feel for opportunities.

Look at the lists critically.  What industries are hiring?  Where are they located?  What are the prerequisites?  You can drill down and see what the specific requirements for jobs similar to the ones you would like to find are.  This is important, because the research that you do now will help you build a resume that fits the bill for the job you want and will help you go from the “ignore” pile to the “call for interview” pile at the hiring manager’s desk.

Also play around with the terms that you put into the search engine.  Try different variations on the job title and keywords.  The point is to get a feel of the job market in the area that you are looking to enter.

The other thing you need to do is contact some real live people.  You are leaving the military, which means that you have plenty of compadres who you can tap into.  Although they themselves may not have much to offer in terms of experience in the outside world, they all have families and friends out of uniform.  If you want to go into financial services, who better to reach out to for information than your squadmate’s father who happens to be a banker?  The great thing about networking is that you can get access to people who would not speak to you if you cold called them, but are happy to share a cup of coffee or lunch with a peer of their son, daughter, cousin, or family friend.

Another way to get a feel for the area is to read the local newspaper.  Read it from the front page all the way to the end; that way you will get a sense of what is going on.  Is local unemployment up or down?  Are there any new business or manufacturing plants opening up?  What is the engine that drives the local economy?  What industries are in trouble?  What is crime like?  Where are the nice and not so nice places to live and work?

To get started on actually building your resume you need to some homework, otherwise your efforts will be unfocused, and to the hiring manager, uninteresting.  You need to get smart about the industry, the area, and the company where you want to work in order to create a resume that piques the interest of the Human Resources specialist who reads it.  Surf the net, talk to your friends, and read the paper.  It will greatly help you as you build your resume, which we will start doing in the next string of posts…


The other side of transition: finding a job part 1

The time has come.  You have made your decision to leave the military and now the reality of the whole situation hits you right between the eyes like a mallet on a croquet ball: you have to go get a job.

The military is a tough profession.  It is rife with conflict and stress and danger; anyone who finds wearing a uniform and easy way of life isn’t doing it right.  The hours are long if you are lucky enough to be at your home duty station and the deployments are even longer as Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines find themselves shuffled off to distant parts of the planet for months – and in some cases years – at a time.  It is a truly arduous line of work.

The one thing that military folks are not fighting for, however, is their paycheck.  As long as they are in the service they will receive their pay and allowances.  Unless they do something very wrong or fail to meet promotion requirements they can stay in until they decide to leave.  Generally speaking they cannot be fired; they may be relieved from their specific duties but they still are employed as they move to another job.  Unlike the civilian world there is rarely an existential crisis that finds military personnel wondering where or when their next paycheck will arrive.  Sure, they move around from job to job and from base to base, but always within the context of continued employment and service within the Department of Defense.

Then comes the day when your next job is not assigned to you by some faceless bureaucrat in Washington.  On that day you realize that the next job for you is the one that you find.


That can be very daunting!  I have previously posted about the Transition Assistance programs that the services offer, so I won’t go into detail on those programs.  What I will start going into detail about, however, is the process that you will need to follow in order to take advantage of your military experience and leverage it into finding a job, and who knows?  Maybe even a new career!

Too many people leave the service with the unfounded expectation that there are jobs-a-plenty out in the civilian sector and that companies are foaming the mouth to hire veterans.  After all, who has greater leadership skills and management expertise than someone who has led their peers and subordinates into combat or supervised teams of highly trained people and maintained millions of dollars worth of equipment?  Which firms wouldn’t want to fill their plants and factories and businesses with former military professionals and make them into run like little armies?

The answer to that is pretty simple.  Almost none of them.

The cold hard truth about the business world is that companies exist to do one thing and one thing only; they are there to make money.  Sure there are nonprofit companies that aim to accomplish other things, but they need money to be able to meet their lofty goals.  The coin of the realm, if you will pardon the pun, is the mighty dollar.

If you cannot show to a potential employer how you will help them make more money or how you can assist them with saving money then they really don’t need you.

It is quite a shocking realization to learn that no matter what your skills are, no matter how many deployments you made or how many medals you have nobody on the outside really cares.  Sure, they are respectful of your service and sacrifice and will gladly buy you a drink, but they are not going to put you on the payroll unless you can show how you can add value to their firm.

This is why it is critically important to do a couple of things before you start heading out into the job market.  Here are the most crucial things that you MUST do before you start jobseeking:

1.  Get over yourself.  You have served your country and you have gone places and done things that civilians will never experience.  Guess what- if they want to hear all about the military and what it is like to serve they will go to the movies.  You need to move on from being Colonel Soandso or Sergeant Highspeed.  I guarantee you will never find a good job if you cannot let go of your military past.  Employers want to hire you for what you will do for them, not who you used to be.

2.  Figure out what you want to do.  This is not as easy as it sounds.  I strongly recommend that you find the time to sit down for a few uninterrupted hours and really analyze what you would like to do with yourself now that you are out of the military.  Ask yourself a few questions, such as where do I see myself in five years?  Ten?  What am I good at?  Do I want to find work in the areas I am familiar with, or do I want to strike out in a totally new direction?

3.  Start planning.  Now that you have an idea of which direction you would like to steer your ship you need to chart a course.  What companies are doing work that interests me?  Are they hiring?  Do I need to get some specialized training or education in order to pursue those goals?

Once you have worked through these three points you will be much more ready to start looking for a job.  In my next post we will focus on step 2: figuring out what to do.


Lessons Learned:

1.  Getting a job once you get out is not easy.  It takes work, and you will waste a lot of time and suffer from some pretty significant blows to your ego if you think that the civilian world owes you something for your service.  They don’t.  If you want a job, you have to get out there and earn it.

2.  You need to do three things before your first interview:  Get over yourself, figure out what you want to do, and start planning.  We will talk about these in greater detail in future posts.

3.  Take a deeeeeeeep breath.  It’s going to be OK.  Trust me.

Finding an advocate…

A part of the separations process for every veteran is the medical evaluation that all veterans go through in order to determine whether or not they rate disability benefits.  It can be a confusion and overwhelming process even if you are healthy and don’t have any lagging medical problems, but it can get downright impenetrable if you have issues or have service-related disabilities.

It is not because the VA is an uncaring monolithic government agency – they are really doing their best to help out the hundreds of thousands of veterans who need their help.  They are doing the best that they can, but despite the ongoing modernization of various systems within the VA and a decent budget, they are simply buried by the sheer volume of veterans who are either already in the system or are now joining it.  It is likely to get worse in the near term, too, as the services begin the post-war drawdown that has been announced by the administration.

That is all well and good for the VA, but what about the individual veteran?  Is he or she on his or her own to try to navigate the bureaucracy?  No.  Fortunately there are some great organizations out there to help you, the veteran, ensure that you receive the benefits you are entitled to.  In addition, they will act as your adviser and advocate as you wend your way through the benefits claims process.

Several months ago I wrote a post about the TAP/TAMP process (, and in that post I wrote about the guy who reviewed my medical record.  Although I didn’t really understand the significance of meeting him at the TAP/TAMP course now that I have been working my way through the process for several months I get it.  Alan represented the Disabled American Veterans (DAV), which is a nonprofit organization that exists solely to help out veterans –  and not just those with a disability, but any vets out there who are in need of assistance.  At the TAP course Alan explained this all to me, but it was such a blizzard of information over those five days that I really didn’t pay as close attention as I should have.  I did listen to him when he asked me to sign up for the DAV as my advocate because it allowed him to review and prescreen my medical record before I was evaluated by the VA.

So what is the DAV?  Here is a blurb from their website (

The 1.2 million-member Disabled American Veterans (DAV) is a non-profit 501(c)(4) charity dedicated to building better lives for America’s disabled veterans and their families.

The DAV was founded in 1920 by disabled veterans returning from World War I to represent their unique interests. In 1932, the DAV was congressionally chartered as the official voice of the nation’s wartime disabled veterans.

In addition to assisting veterans with myriad issues that they face after they leave the service they are an advocate for people like me who are being evaluated by the VA for possible medical disability benefits.  This is a great help because they have a lot of people with a lot of experience in dealing with the ins and out of the process, and they will go to bat for you in case you run into snags or are given a disability rating that does not reflect your actual physical condition.  They make the confusing process manageable and will help you through it, which is a great relief to those who have absolutely no idea what to do as they transition (like me!).

At any rate, Alan prescreened my record and in doing so set me up for a smooth evaluation process when I finally did receive my VA medical exams several months later.  He identified problems and issues that I had forgotten about but were relevant in the claims process because they could easily manifest themselves later in life, and if they are not identified in the VA physical then I would be ineligible for VA medical coverage to deal with them.

They also help with all kinds of other things that are veteran related; things like job placement assistance, counseling, and representing your interests to Congress.  The DAV is there for you, so when you go through TAP/TAMP, make sure to track the representative of the organization down.  He or she will gladly help you through the process, and you will be amazed at how much you will come to rely upon them to make it through.


Lessons learned:

1.  There are a lot of organizations out there that will help you with veterans issues and the transition to civilian life.  I am working with the DAV, but the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) and American Legion are also great organizations that can help you out.  There are literally dozens more.  They all have slightly different charters, so do some research and see which one works best for you.  Even better, join as many as you can- they are not competing with each other and they all want to help.

2.  Even if you are certain that you will have no disability rating it is still important to affiliate with a veterans advocacy group.  There are a lot of benefits that are outside the medical realm that they can help with, and if nothing else they are a great bunch of people you can rely on if you need advice or just somebody to talk to.

The GI Bill

As I wrote in my last post I am pursuing my MBA at the University of Southern California’s Marshall Business School, and I truly appreciate all of you who helped out with my research project.  Getting an education is expensive these days, and fortunately for me, and for all honorably discharged veterans, the VA is there to help out with the Post 9/11 GI Bill.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the GI Bill, here is a quick rundown of how it came about and evolved into what it has become today:

The GI Bill originated with the end of the Second World War.  In 1944 the U. S. Government passed the Serviceman’s Readjustment Act.  Apparently calling the new law by its formal name was a mouthful, so it quickly became named after the people it was designed to help- the GIs returning from the war (GI was slang for anyone in uniform, coming from the term “Government Issue” or “Galvanized Iron”, depending on which story you believe).  Anyhow, the veterans coming home from Europe and the Pacific were able to take advantage of a wide array of benefits which included home, small business, and farm loans, unemployment compensation, and educational benefits.  As a result of the program a staggering sum of nearly 8,000,000 veterans (almost half of all who served during the war) pursued higher education.

Over the following decades GIs went to war again and again, and as they did the GI Bill was there to help veterans when they came home from places like Korea and Vietnam.  In the 1960s benefits were opened up to veterans who did not serve in war, and over time the GI Bill dwindled until it was a shadow of its former self, essentially offering a small stipend to help defray college expenses.

That changed with 9/11 and the subsequent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  With hundreds and hundreds of thousands of Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines serving tour after tour in harm’s way the Congress passed the Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act of 2008, which quickly became known as the “Post 9/11” or “new” GI Bill.  It focuses primarily on educational benefits for veterans (as shown below, which I adapted  from their website  at

– The GI Bill will pay an eligible veteran’s full tuition & fees directly to the school for all public school in-state students. For those attending private or foreign schools tuition & fees are capped at $17,500 per academic year.  For those attending a more expensive private school or a public school as a non-resident out-of-state student, a program exists which may help to reimburse the difference (the “Yellow Ribbon” program).

-For those attending classes at the greater than ½ time rate, a monthly housing allowance (MHA) based on the Basic Allowance for Housing for an E-5 with dependents at the location of the school. For those enrolled solely in distance learning the housing allowance payable is equal to ½ the national average BAH for an E-5 with dependents ($673.44 for the 2011 academic year & $684.00 for the 2012 academic year)

-An annual books & supplies stipend of $1,000 paid proportionately based on enrollment.

-A one-time rural benefit payment for eligible individuals.

As you can see, the new GI Bill is pretty generous.  Not everyone is eligible, however.  In order to take advantage of the benefits the veteran must meet the following criteria:

-You must have served at least 90 aggregate days on active duty after September 10, 2001, and you are still on active duty or were honorably discharged from the active duty; or
– released from active duty and placed on the retired list or temporary disability retired list; or
– released from active duty and transferred to the Fleet Reserve or Fleet Marine Corps Reserve; or
– released from the active duty for further service in a reserve component of the Armed Forces.
You may also be eligible if you were honorably discharged from active duty for a service-connected disability and you served 30 continuous days after September 10,2001.

In my case, I was originally eligible for what was known as the Montgomery GI Bill when I enlisted back in the early 1980s.  I used it to help pay for tuition and fees for my undergraduate work, and I received payments of about $150 a month or so, depending on how many credits I was signed up for.  Now that I have transitioned out of uniform I am eligible for the new GI Bill, but there is a catch.

Of course!

There is always a catch.  It turns out that veterans are only allowed to take advantage of GI Bill benefits for a total of 48 monthly periods.  If you are in school for a full year, then you use 12 months of benefits.  If you take summers off, you use up nine months.  In my case, I used up 45 months of my benefits while I was enlisted, and that didn’t leave much for me to use after I got out!

Fortunately, the new GI Bill recognizes that there are a lot of us in that position.  The VA authorizes an additional year (12 months of benefits) for vets like me who used up a lot of their alloted time.  For me, the fifteen or so months works out pretty well because my program is nineteen months long.  Fortunately I had been saving some money to prepare for my post-military education –  otherwise I would have been out of luck.

So the GI Bill is a tremendous benefit for veterans who are eligible.  I highly encourage any separating or retiring servicemember to look into it, and to do so soon.  It is an expensive proposition for the government to pay for such a generous program, and it probably won’t last forever…


1.  As with any VA program you must register for benefits.  Go to and complete the VONAPP (Veterans On Line Application) in order to get started.  You can complete the paperwork at any time, so get started as soon as you can in order to draw benefits as soon as you start school.

2.  There are different rules for public and private schools.  Basically, the VA will pay up to the highest state school rate for the state you attend college, but for private schools there is a cap on tuition and fees.  Make sure to surf the VA GI Bill website to find out what pertains to your situation.

3.  A great benefit is the housing allowance that you receive while attending school.  It only pays while you are in class (no spring break or summer payments) and it is also not allowed it you are still on active duty.  It may be to your advantage to start your education after you get off terminal leave if you want to receive the full benefits available.

Behind the curtain: The VA Claims Process

In my last post I wrote about my experience with the Veterans Administration during my physical exam process.  It took a few months to get through the paperwork and and to actually see doctor or two, and now I am waiting for the results.  And I am now in month three of waiting…

So why does it take so long?  Sure, there are zillions of us new veterans entering the system, but there must be a method to their madness.  After doing a little research, I found out that there is indeed such a method and that is what this post is about: the VA Claims Process.

My faithful readers have already seen the first part of the process in previous posts, but to make sure nobody gets left behind I will recap my adventures up to this point for those who are just joining the party:

The purpose of the VA medical evaluations and claims process is to document any injuries or physical issues that were caused or exacerbated by military service.  The evaluation is important for two specific reasons; first, if a servicemember is injured while on active duty it is important for that injury to be documented in case it requires treatment after they get out of the military and second, in cases where the servicemember has incurred chronic conditions or disabling injuries they are eligible for financial compensation.

If a veteran breaks his ankle while on active duty, for example, and gets out while while he is still going through physical therapy he isn’t out of luck.  His injury still requires treatment, so it is annotated during the physical exam and he will be able to use the VA medical system to get through the necessary physical therapy and get back on his feet.  Once he is better he goes on his way and he may never need the VA again.  However, since the VA evaluated his ankle and documented the injury, in case the veteran needs future treatment he is in the system and can still have that service-related injury treated by the VA in the future.  Taking the example further, if the veteran with the broken ankle is left with a limp for the rest of his life he will likely be evaluated as having incurred a disability.  Depending on the rating that the disability is assigned (I will devote an entire future post to disability assessment and ratings- don’t worry!) he may be eligible for a small disability check every month.

So being evaluated by the VA is important!

Back to my case.

I started my VA evaluation process as soon as I went on terminal leave, and before my EAS I had completed all of my physicals.  As I posted earlier, however, I slowed down the evaluation and claims process because I submitted the incorrect DD-214, which was caught by the case manager and rectified after I sent in the correct copy.  Although it seemed a bit random to me, there actually is a pretty well defined process that claims go through, which shouldn’t have surprised me because after all the VA is a governmental agency that runs on thoroughly bureaucratic processes.

Here is a breakdown of just what those claims processes are, starting from when my claim was initiated in my first meeting with the VA representative after going on terminal leave:

“Claim Received” – Your claim has been received by the VA. If you applied online with VONAPP (Veterans On Line Application – the web based application for VA benefits) Direct Connect, you should see receipt in your list of Open Claims below within one hour. If you applied through the U.S. mail, please allow mailing time plus one week for us to process and record receipt of your claim.  (Note – the process steps and descriptions are from the VA website)

“Under Review” – Your claim has been assigned to a Veterans Service Representative and is being reviewed to determine if additional evidence is needed. If we do not need any additional information, your claim will move directly to the Preparation for Decision phase.

It is during this phase that my errant paperwork was discovered.  It took about a month, but the system works because the claims representative discovered that I had submitted the incorrect paperwork and notified me.  It cost me a little time, but once I sent in the right documentation, my claim continued along to the next step.

“Gathering of Evidence” – The Veterans Service Representative will request evidence from the required sources. Requests for evidence may be made of you, a medical professional, a government agency, or another authority. It is common for claims to return to this phase, should additional evidence be required.

“Review of Evidence” – We have received all needed evidence. If, upon review, it is determined that more evidence is required, the claim will be sent back to the Gathering of Evidence phase.

I was contacted during this phase to provide a more detailed description of how I incurred an injury while in Iraq.  Again, the system works because the VA identified, through their due diligence, that I did not have enough documentation to support a portion of my claim.  So I filled out the form and described the situation in greater detail, and with receipt of the completed form my claim moved further along the path to completion.

“Preparing for Decision” – The Veterans Service Representative has recommended a decision, and is preparing required documents detailing that decision. If more evidence is required, the claim will be sent back in the process for more information or evidence.

This is where my case currently sits.  It has been there for a couple of months.  I did receive a letter last week from the VA apologizing for the delay in processing, so I know that my file isn’t lost behind a filing cabinet or being used as a doorstop.  I do appreciate that they took the time to let me know that they were just behind schedule and that they were still working on my case.

“Pending Decision Approval” – The recommended decision is reviewed, and a final award approval is made. If it is determined that more evidence or information is required, the claim will be sent back in the process for more information or evidence.

“Preparation for Notification” – Your entire claim decision packet is prepared for mailing.

“Complete” – The VA has sent a decision packet to you by U.S. mail. The packet includes details of the decision or award. Please allow standard mailing time for your packet to arrive before contacting the call center.

So I have three steps to go, and hopefully it won’t take too long!  The good news is that I am eligible for VA healthcare because I am a veteran regardless of when they complete my package.  Having it done will be helpful, however, because then all of my information will be in the system.  It will also be good to know if any of the mileage that comes with a 27 year career in the Marines results in a disability rating…


Lessons Learned:

1.  It takes time.  A lot of time.  I have been working through the process for six months, with the clock starting with my first VA appointment.  It is important to meet with the VA as promptly as possible once you have your DD-214 in your possession because the process is so lengthy.  You procrastinate at your own peril…as I wrote about in a previous post, if you can get your case initiated within 60 days before your EAS you will have your case reviewed by the locally by the VA instead of having it sent to their main evaluation center.  The anecdotal difference is about eight months- I was informed that it should take about four months after all of your information is provided for a local review as opposed to a year or so for a national level review.  It pays to be prompt!

2.  Get all of your ducks in a row before you initiate your package.  Missing or incorrect paperwork will stymie you progress, so avoid having the VA go through the nutroll of contacting you to update the package.  In my case, I provided the incorrect DD-214 and had to provide greater detail about an injury, and both of those transactions took time.  I recommend that when you fill out the pre-appointment paperwork that you go into excruciating detail in regards to any injuries that you suffered. The few extra minutes that you take filling out the form may save you the loss of a month in processing time later.

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 Gap

Marines don’t serve for the money.  You can’t put a price on the hardships, the time away from your family, the danger, or the camaraderie that comes with wearing the uniform in the defense of the nation.  The pay is enough to live comfortably, but certainly no one in the service is getting rich on their military paychecks.

Although you aren’t becoming wealthy on payday you are getting paid for what you do.  The government does a great job of ensuring that you receive what you are entitled to by dropping half of your monthly salary by direct deposit into your bank twice a month.  Despite the fiscal challenges that the nation faces the thought of not paying the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines who keep the country safe makes lawmakers squirm and infuriates taxpayers.  Suffice it to say that just like clockwork your paycheck will find its way into your bank account on the first and fifteenth of the month (unless those dates are holidays or weekends, in which case you get paid a few days earlier – which is always nice!).

Those checks just keep on coming, at least until your last day in uniform.  Then things get a little more complicated.

The military pay cycle is pretty simple.  In employment terms, all military personnel are government employees who are paid a base monthly salary in addition to any additional benefit payments that they are entitled to.  The base salary is taxed at the normal federal and state rates, but the benefits are not.  Examples of benefits include things like Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH, which subsidizes off-base housing) and Basic Allowance for Subsistence (BAS, which is a meal stipend).  There are many more, like jump pay (for those who find falling out of perfectly good airplanes on a regular basis as part of their job description) and combat pay (that not-so-huge amount of extra money you receive for going to places where bad people shoot at you).

So, all of these things are added up, resulting in your gross monthly pay.  Taxes and any other allotments (allotments being automatic withdrawals from your pay for things like Serviceman’s Group Life Insurance or savings bonds) are then subtracted, and the result is the money that is due to you for your service.   That amount is divided into two equal payments, which are in turn dropped into your bank account on payday.

It is important to remember that the month is divided into two portions, with the first half of the month being paid for on the fifteenth and the second half of the month being paid on the first of the following month.  This is very important to remember as you transition, because if your last day in uniform is the end of the month then your last paycheck is due the next day, and it will include all of your service up to the day of transition.

Well, it’s supposed to.  It’s not that simple.

Your last paycheck most likely will not show up when you expect it to.  Unless you are very fortunate, it will be delayed for a few days or weeks.  Although each service has slightly different regulations on your final mustering out pay, they all have the same basic requirements: the final paycheck must include all pay and benefits due to the separating servicemember minus any obligations that he or she owes the government.

This can be pretty surprising if you don’t expect it.  What obligations can you owe the government?  The obvious ones are any fines that you incurred by getting in trouble, but if you stayed on the straight and narrow you should be good, right?

Not necessarily.  The bean counters hold your final paycheck in their possession until all of the possible ways that you could owe money are doublechecked.  These include (but are not limited to) charges for any equipment that you may have lost (remember turning in all of your gear to the Consolidated Issue Facility?) or adjustments to benefit payments (for example, it is not uncommon for your combat related payments to be properly adjusted for a few months after you return from theater, and any overpayments will be recouped by the government).  Your final paycheck will also settle up any additional amount that the government owes you for things like unused leave.  The long and the short of it is that your final settlement paycheck is most likely not going to show up on the same schedule as you are accustomed to.

If you are relying on that check to pay for necessities then you are in for a rude surprise.  No amount of begging or complaining will make that paycheck show up any faster.  You can help yourself, though, by making sure that all of your ducks are in a row as you check out.  Make sure that all of your gear is turned in, for example, and include the receipt showing a zero balance with your checkout paperwork.  Stop by your admin shop and make sure that your pay and allowances are correct before you check out- deal with any problems up front and you won’t have to wait as long for your final paycheck because you are making the bean counter’s job that much easier.

In my case, my final paycheck took 26 days from when my terminal leave expired and it showed up in my bank.  Welcome to “the gap”.

The retirement pay cycle is monthly, as opposed to the bi-monthly system that active duty personnel enjoy.  Your first retired check is due on the first of the month after you retire, which means that you are not going to receive a paycheck at all until a full month after you get out.

This can be quite disconcerting if you don’t plan for it.  When you retire you are going to have a month without a paycheck so make sure to be ready!  Don’t put yourself and your family in the sad position of having to eat sawdust and oatmeal until you retirement check shows up.  Sock a little extra into savings ahead of time or mooch a few bucks from your relatives to bridge the gap, but make sure that you are prepared to go for a month without a paycheck.

Don’t say I didn’t warn you…


Lessons learned:

1.  Your final paycheck will be held up as the accountants settle up all of your accounts.  If you are relying on it to cover immediate expenses then you are in for a tough financial time.  Plan ahead!

2.  Your final paycheck will be reduced by any payments you owe the government and increased by any payments the government owes you, so it will most likely be an amount that may differ significantly from your normal pay amount.

3.  Unlike the bi-monthly active duty pay cycle, your pension is paid monthly with your retirement check arriving the first of the following month.

The Big Day

New Year’s Day is a day for change.  You get to break out a new calendar and do your best to keep those resolutions that you made between glasses of champagne the night before.  For me, January 1st 2012 is particularly important because it marks an incredibly significant day in my life.

New Year’s Day was the day that I became a civilian.  27 years and 21 days after I raised my right hand to swear an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States I found myself back to where I was that December day in 1984.  I officially became a former Marine; “former” because once you become a Marine you are one forever.  There is no such thing as an “ex-Marine”.  Ex-soldier, yes.  Ex-Marine, no.

New Year’s Eve was a party.  It was a celebration with friends that marked the end of a tiring and, for many, a challenging 2011 and the bright beginnings of a new and shiny 2012.  We rang in the New Year with a lot of noise and a lot of champagne – in particular an enormous bottle that was given to me by my great friend Chris to mark my transition.  My headache the following morning indicated that I had indeed made a dent in the reservoir of bubbly that it poured!

Waking up the next morning was a little odd.  I have been a Marine for the better part of three decades, and despite my newly found “Former” Marine status it was striking that I no longer had any official tie to the Corps.  I would be receiving a pension, which is great, but no longer would I be watching the news with the same level of interest in world events as I had been.  The probability that I would find myself in some pestilential third world hotspot suddenly became zero, and the odds that I would have to leave my family for months on end for a deployment disappeared.  I was now back in the society that I had served for so long, with all of the benefits that make it the greatest nation on the planet.

It is a little like being that 17 year old kid who enlisted while still in high school.  I have the rest of my life in front of me, and I have the opportunity to choose what comes next.  It is almost like being given another whole new life; I can do anything I want.  Except maybe professional sports.  I’ll cede that option to the practical realities of starting life over at the age of 44!

I leave my military career with a wall full of plaques and a mind full of memories.  Being a career Marine was the best career that I could have pursued because it took me places that I would otherwise have never seen and challenged me to levels that exist only in the most dire of circumstances.  I have made lifelong friends and learned more about life than I thought possible at the ripe old age of 17 when I signed up.

So it is with a certain level of eagerness that I look forward to the next great adventure.  I am not certain where the road ahead will lead me, but I am excited to take the first steps in a pair of tennis shoes.  Like me, my combat boots are retired from active service.  Time to try something new…

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.

Checking out (4), or doing my best Captain Jack Sparrow impression

So what do Captain Jack Sparrow and a Marine checking out of his unit have in common?  They both want the same thing: to follow the map all the way to the end and uncover the treasure that lies waiting there.  The treasure is different, but the goal is the same.  Jack Sparrow wants what his heart most desires (usually accompanied by rum) and a Marine wants something equally as important; the final signature on his checkout sheet.

Just as the “X” that marks the spot where pirate treasure always seems to be buried the final signature on the checkout sheet marks the spot where a Marine can officially take the form to his administrative section and turn it in.  Once turned in, the Marine receives that most special and treasured document- his official set of orders that will take him into retirement.

But before you can go ashore for the last time you must first obtain that last and most important signature.  Before the holder of the sacred pen will scribe his or her mark on your sheet you must get all of the other signatures first….and therein lies the rub.  Just as Jack Sparrow must endure adventure after adventure to find the buried chest-o-gold, so must a Marine follow the twists and turns of the map that is the checkout sheet.

My case turned out to be a little unusual.  Most Marines check out of the unit they have served in for a few years on their way out the door, which makes sense.  For me, though, things were different.  I had turned over command at the start of the summer, and had several months between leaving the best job I ever had and departing active duty.  While in charge there was no time to start my transition, so I put off all of the things that I needed to do until I had passed the mantle of command to my successor.  Immediately after turning things over I left the building (much like Elvis, I suppose) and headed out to the higher headquarters unit where I would perform my outprocessing.

The difference between the two is pretty astounding.  Being the commanding officer of a Marine Corps unit is undoubtably the greatest honor an officer can be entrusted with, and it comes with some pretty nice perks.  One perk in particular makes the whole business of checking in and checking out pretty simple- the Marines in the unit bend over backwards to make sure that everything the CO could possibly need is done as quickly and efficiently as possible.  In a previous post I lamented about the drudgery of turning in my equipment- that drudgery was a function of no longer being in command.  As a commander I had only to mention something and it would magically happen.  Take my unit issued equipment for example.  One of the mounds of gear I used overseas was specific to the unit that I commanded- we were fire supporters, so we had special binoculars, laser range finders, infrared target designators, and a host of other neat widgets that we got to lug around the battlefield and use on the Taliban.  Anyhow, as the CO I had only to mention that I needed to turn the stuff back in and within an hour a couple of Marines showed up at my office and took it all away.  No lines to stand it, no annoying paperwork to get signed, no arduous accounting for each item- it just happened.  Kind of the opposite of Christmas, with the jolly Marines of the Supply and Armory sections taking away my mountains of gear and leaving me with a lot less to worry about.

Contrast that with being warehoused in the headquarters unit.  Nobody knew who I was, and nobody really cared.  I was just another Marine with a checkout sheet, and the fact that I was a senior officer was interesting but largely irrelevant.  There were rules to follow, places to go, and specific hours to go there.  No jolly elves here.

I did, however, have the tool to get me through the checkout process- my checkout sheet.  So, just as intently as Captain Jack Sparrow followed his chart I turned to and started working my way down the list.

There are some low hanging fruit on the list as well as some annoyingly difficult places to go as well.  Being a creature of habit (and in no particularly huge rush) I started with the fruit that was hanging lowest and closest; that fruit being the various offices and buildings around the in and around the headquarters.  A quick gander at the checkout sheet revealed about a half dozen offices just down the hall and up the stairs from where I was standing, so off I went.  The operations section ensured that all of my required training was complete (not that I need anything special on the way out the door) and to my great relief the legal section confirmed that I wan’t pending a court martial.  The Substance Abuse Control Officer (SACO) confirmed that my most recent urinalysis was clear of drugs (good thing they don’t check for gin and tonic) and the Family Readiness Officer happily stamped my sheet after a nice chat.  Things were progressing nicely!

So much for low hanging fruit.  Time to work my way up the tree.

I tracked down the Uniform Victim Advocate.  I don’t know what that person does, really, but without obtaining the red squiggle from the official pen of the UVA office I would be stuck.  So, after a quick “Hello- can I get your autograph?” followed by the scratch of a pen on my sheet and a  “Sure, have a nice day!” I left none the wiser as to the purpose of that particular office.  I wandered across the camp to the armory and supply sections, where I waited until the time listed on the signs for checking out (at lunch until 1300!), and upon their return from the chowhall (or Subway) I queued up and after a few minutes racked up a few more stamps and squiggles on my sheet from the largely bored Marines who were the keepers of the sacred stamps and pens.

Higher up the tree I climbed.  Jack Sparrow had nothing on me!  I chased security specialists down to turn in my “secret” access badge and get them to ink my paper.  I snuck into the Commanding General’s wing to garner the mark of the Chief of Staff.  I drove across base to turn in the gas mask that I had (thankfully!!!!) never used outside of annual training.  I sat in the dentist’s chair for my final checkup and was poked and prodded next door at the Group Aid Station for my final physical.  I met with the system administrator and turned off my email accounts.  I met the mail clerk and completed a forwarding address card even though I had never received any mail there  and I knew that I never would, but a checklist must be followed and the mail clerk to his credit was adamant.

On and on it went.  Days turned into weeks, but before the weeks could turn into a month I finally obtained each and every stamp, mark, and squiggle needed to complete my quest.  Were I Captain Jack Sparrow I would be chortling over a chest of gold with a bottle of rum in each fist- but I was more gleeful than he could possibly be at that moment because I had done it!  My checkout sheet was complete!  With a happy heart and a smile on my face I drove down to the Installation Personnel Administrative Center (IPAC for you acronym connoiseurs) and met with the holder of the pen that would scribe the final signature on my checkout sheet: my retirement counselor.  More on that soon.


Lessons learned:

1.  Checking out takes time.  A lot of time, and the time is not yours but instead belongs to the people on the other side of the checkout counter.  Unless you are a General or a CO you must get in line with everyone else.  That isn’t bad, though, because you meet a lot of great people along the way.

2.  Make sure that all of the prep work is done.  Bring everything you need to turn in and make sure that any required documentation is done ahead of time so that you don’t have to go back several times to get the stamp.

3.  Be nice!  The Marines and Sailors that are on the others side of the counter are doing their jobs.  They will be much more friendly and forthcoming if you are friendly to them first.  The golden rule surely applies!

4.  Follow the rules.  Show up during the times listed for checking out because the Marines and Sailors who man the checkout counter only do so during those times, and if you show up and throw your rank around then you are taking them away from their other duties.  And you will look like an arrogant jerk.