Whether you're just ending your first tour of duty or facing retirement, making the decision to leave -- or not leave -- the military can be difficult. There are obvious benefits and downsides both to staying and separating, and the right decision for someone else may not be the right one for you. No one can make the decision for you, but you can follow these guidelines to help you determine whether to stay with the military services or return to civilian life.
Consider your military benefits
To make a sound decision, you have to fully assess the benefits you'll be losing and compare them to what might be available to you in the civilian world. If you're retiring, many of these benefits will still be accessible, but possibly at a higher cost or in a different form.
- Medical and dental insurance. Many nonmilitary employers will require you to make a contribution to your medical premium, and co-payments or deductibles could further increase your medical expenses. If you'll be starting your own business or there'll be a gap between when you leave the military and when your new insurance begins, you'll need to buy a more expensive individual policy. If you continue in the Reserve, you may be eligible for TRICARE Reserve Select, a premium-based health insurance program. Retirees have continuing access to TRICARE, but will have to choose from several different plans. For more information on TRICARE benefits, visit the TRICARE website.
- Life insurance. Servicemembers' Group Life Insurance (SGLI) will continue for 120 days after you leave the military. You do have an opportunity to convert your existing SGLI to Veterans Group Life Insurance (VGLI). You can find out more about VGLI at the Department of Veterans Affairs website.
- Retirement. Although you may be many years away from retirement, you'll want to compare the military's retirement plan with retirement plans of potential civilian employers. For more information on your military retirement benefits, visit the Office of the Secretary of Defense's Military Compensation website.
- Commissary and exchange privileges. Although retirees and Reservists can still take advantage of the cost savings offered by commissaries and exchanges, other former service members cannot. You'll need to consider the loss of these benefits in your budget planning.
- Education benefits. When you leave the military, you may be eligible to continue your education using the Post-9/11 GI Bill or the Montgomery GI Bill. You'll want to visit the VA's GI Bill website to learn about eligibility requirements and how long you have to use your benefits.
Changes you can expect as a civilian
Trading in your military uniform for civilian attire may not be the only change you'll face when you leave the military. You'll also be getting used to changes in the workplace, new friends, and the sudden ability to move anywhere you choose. Consider these possibilities:
- Job stability. In the military, your paycheck is generally guaranteed until your end of active service. Even if your job is subject to a reduction in force, you'll be moved to a new job or a new duty station. In a civilian job, you may not be so fortunate.
- Predictable income expectations. In the military, you don't have to negotiate your salary with each job change. You can also expect to be compensated for living in areas with a high cost of living. As a civilian, your future income may not be as easy to predict, and you'll need to develop salary negotiating skills.
- Camaraderie in the workplace. When leaving military Service, many service members miss the friendships they had with their fellow service members. And working with civilians may be a challenge after the military. The work environment in civilian companies can be much different from the military work environment.
- Social network. Your military friends are likely to have served as your extended family, babysitting your children or taking vacations with you. You may have to work to develop a social network and find close friendships in a nonmilitary environment.
On the other hand, making your own decisions about where to live and where to work can be very appealing. You may choose to move close to home, where you can renew relationships with your extended family. Or you may choose to start your own business. The ability to make these choices is often a critical factor in the decision to leave the military.
Talk with your family
Because your plans will have a significant effect on your family members, it's important to include them early on as you explore and weigh your options.
- Include your family in the decision-making process. Your family has a lot at stake in your decision and, more than likely, they've made sacrifices for your military career. Frequent deployments and relocations may have taken an emotional toll on them. But you might be surprised by what your family has to say. While your spouse may have complained about the constant moving, he or she may really enjoy the changes and would be disappointed if you left the military. Or your spouse may have put his or her own career on hold for the military and will be happy now at the idea of pursuing that career. Either way, your family's feelings should be part of your decision.
- Discuss how your lives will be different. Will your spouse need to find a new job or will your children have to change schools? Their lives will certainly change, and you'll need to take the time to discuss those changes realistically with them.
- Ask your spouse to attend pre-separation counseling with you. Pre-separation counseling is available on most installations, and you may attend the class even if you're not sure about leaving the military. The class will answer many of the questions you may have about medical insurance, relocation assistance, travel allowances, education benefits, separation pay, and unemployment insurance. Pre-separation counseling is available through your installation's Transition Assistance Program (TAP) office, Army Career and Alumni Program (ACAP) office, or the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).
Transitioning to a career outside the military
One of the main concerns for service members considering leaving the military is the prospect of finding a rewarding career. Before you make the decision to leave, it's important to assess your skills and learn about the job market in your chosen career field. Visit your installation's TAP office for help developing your transition plan, to include defining your career goals and researching employment opportunities.
Your decision strategy
Taking plenty of time to gather information, carefully consider your options, and weigh your own and your family's wants and needs will help ensure that you make the right decision.
- Review all the options. Write down all the options available to you -- and there are probably more than just two. Each option has both pros and cons, and no answer is perfect. But it will help you focus on the process if you have a list in front of you.
- Consider joining the Reserve. Although many service members are obligated to the Reserve for a few years after they leave the military, many others voluntarily join. The Reserve offers the security of a retirement income and health insurance, which may be important to you as you head into the civilian world.
- Don't make a rash decision. If you're thinking about leaving the military because you have orders to somewhere you don't want to go, or if you're thinking about staying in because you're afraid of finding a new job, take the time to step back and evaluate your decision rationally.
- Weigh the emotional effects. The emotions of staying in or leaving the military services can be difficult to assess. While your deployments may have been stressful, don't underestimate the sense of loss you may feel leaving the military way of life behind.
- Evaluate your finances. Can you afford the costs associated with leaving the military, such as living expenses while you look for a new job, moving expenses, and health insurance premiums? Be sure to consider whether you and your family can manage the financial burden.
- Have a back-up plan. Consider worst-case scenarios. What happens if you lose your new job after just a few months? If you've prepared for the worst, you'll be more comfortable with your decision.
- Stand by your decision. Once you've done your research and considered all your options, be confident about what you decide to do. Whether you choose to stay or leave, you've taken the steps necessary to make the best possible decision for you and your family.