Uncle Sam has spent more than a few billion making it easy to get into the military.
Just head down to the recruiter's office, listen to his spiel, raise your right hand, and next thing you know, you're on a conveyer belt to your future. All you have to do is that weird duck walk at MEPS.
But where is Uncle Sam when you get out? He just dropped you off in his '72 Chevy with your bags, the G.I. Bill, and a haircut only the military would call professional.
It is up to you, not Gunny and not Uncle Sam, to take care of your transition. Do it right, and you've got more than a bright future. Do it wrong, well, get ready for some tough times. Here’s what you need to do.
Enroll in your Transition Readiness class | 12 months from your transition date
The Defense Department’s transition readiness process is still not the most user-friendly thing out there, but it’s way better than it was. The classes are now essentially mandatory, which is good, and honestly they’ll help you get a reality check on how much stuff you need to take care of. Don’t procrastinate on these things, and make sure you pay attention when you’re there.
Things you’ll need: This varies by service, but you should begin by speaking to your career counselor or leadership.
Figure out what you want to be | 12 months from your transition date
Think hard about what you really want to do, about what will create a good life for you and your family, and what it will take to get there. The last time you were faced with the question, “What do I want to do with my life?” you chose to serve your country. That was a noble and honorable decision that most people never have the guts to make, so you shouldn’t limit yourself now.
Things you’ll need: Check out career fairs, begin networking in person, and online. You’re in research mode, so the sky’s the limit. The most important thing is that you keep an open mind to new careers and then establish a realizable goal, make a plan, and execute it. That’s what a successful transition is about.
Narrow down your career choices and make your five-year plan | 9 months from your transition date
It really doesn’t matter if you want to be a novelist, a chef, or run an alligator farm. What does matter is that you’ve found something you want to do. Now, how do you get there? That’s your five-year plan.
Things you’ll need: It doesn’t have to be anything extravagant; hell, an envelope will work if you have tiny handwriting. Start at the end and work backwards until you get to where you are today. The more you frame that big, five-year goal in those small steps, the more realizable your goal is.
Make your master resume | 6-to-9 months from your transition date
Your master resume is pretty straightforward, basically a chronological list of everything you’ve done: key billets, accomplishments, awards, schools you’ve completed, all that stuff. Especially if you’re planning to work full-time immediately, it’ll help you in the application process and serve as a resource you can add to later. Make it thorough and put as much info as you can. You’ll tailor it later.
Things you’ll need: Your Verification of Military Experience and Training, your Joint Services Transcript (the Air Force does its own thing), award citations, supervisor evaluations, your chronological record, and your thinking cap.
Network and build your LinkedIn profile | 4-to-6 months from your transition date
Some of your military peers, mentors, and proteges have already transitioned out of uniform. Who better to give you some legit insight on what you need to do and help you along your way? It’s also a great time to start working on your LinkedIn profile, which you should turn into the professional representation of you for all the world (especially future employers) to see.
Things you’ll need: You should create, then snaz up your LinkedIn profile (or fix it if it’s broken), but most importantly, you just need to just start reaching out. The more people who know that you’re transitioning and what you plan to do next, the broader your network will grow.
Get your medical benefits and VA stuff in order | 6 months from your transition date
If you’ve sustained some kind of disability while serving, you need a final physical as soon as you can and start the claims process. The medical staff and veterans support organization will help you with this quite a bit, but you’ve got to follow the process and get stuff documented.
Things you’ll need: Go ahead and register at the VA’s eBenefits now if you’ve got a CAC because it’s easier that way, and make sure you set up a DS Login (password and username) as well. You can also go ahead and take a look at the medical history screening form and you should make an appointment today (like right now) if you’ve got something you’ve delayed getting checked out.
Start saving money | Right now. Seriously.
Eventually, to maintain the same quality of life you’ve got right now, you’ll need to take your basic pay and double it. That may sound like a lot, but remember, you won’t receive any kind of food or housing allowance, your taxes will probably be higher, health insurance isn’t cheap, and you’ll actually have to decide what to wear everyday. Don’t bank on anything, except what’s in your savings account.
Things you’ll need: A good budget and a hell of a lot of discipline.
Start your job hunt | 2-to-3 months from your transition date
Identifying types of work you want to do can be done anytime, but getting your heart set on a specific job nine months before you leave service probably isn’t going to work. Two-to-three months should give you a good lead to find real jobs, tailor your resume, and hone your interview skills. Even if you’re planning to go to school full time, consider working as well.
Things you’ll need: Give your references a head’s up that you’re on the hunt. It’s courteous and it will help them to come up with good things to say about you so they aren’t put on the spot.