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Military Separation: What to Expect When Your Service Member Transitions to Civilian Life

Your service member’s military career is winding down and civilian life awaits. As with all endings and new beginnings, this next stage may bring a mix of sadness, optimism, unease and excitement.

Learning what to expect during military separation and planning for what comes next can help ease anxiety, clarify goals and set your service member up for success.

How your service member may be feeling

Separating from the military isn’t merely trading one career for another; it’s a significant change that may affect nearly every aspect of life. It’s helpful to be aware of some of the ways your service member may be feeling before, during and after the transition. Your service member may be:

  • Excited about new possibilities outside of the military.
  • Overwhelmed by the number of choices ahead, including where to live and how to earn an income.
  • Mourning the loss of community, a reliable support system and the deep sense of purpose and camaraderie that comes with being in the military.

You can support your service member just by being available to listen as they sort through their feelings and work their way through the transition.

Supporting your service member during the transition to civilian life

Your service member may have clear goals for civilian life and a plan to meet each one. Or, your loved one may have little idea what to do next. There’s a lot to think about when separating from the service, so the earlier your service member begins planning, the smoother the transition will be. Some considerations include:

  • Where to live. For the first time since entering the military, your service member has unlimited choices of where to live. Will your service member return home to family? Settle in another part of the country? Rent or buy a home? You might help your service member think through the pros and cons of different areas, including employment opportunities and housing costs. Veterans may qualify for a home loan from the Department of Veterans Affairs, which may influence the decision about whether to rent or buy.
  • Whether to continue their education or enter the workforce. Some separating service members enroll in college full time, while others start their careers, launch a business or enter a training program or apprenticeship. Your service member may qualify for benefits to help with the cost of education, as well as services to help with the decision.
  • Which career field to enter. You can help your service member with this choice by talking about ways their military training, skills and experiences translate to the civilian workforce. You might ask about long-term goals, the education or training required to achieve them and which education and training benefits are available to help with the cost. With goals set, your service member can then research education or training programs and begin the application process. Or, if the plan is going directly into the workforce, the discussion points might include beginning to network, preparing a resume and identifying potential employers.

The Transition Assistance Program, or DODTAP

The Department of Defense and Department of Veterans Affairs offer many resources to help transitioning service members clarify their goals and understand which benefits they qualify for. Among these is the Transition Assistance Program, which is mandatory for separating service members who have served 180 continuous days or more on active duty. DODTAP offers a comprehensive curriculum designed to equip service members with the tools and resources to succeed in their civilian lives. It includes:

  • Individualized initial counseling during which your service member will complete a self-assessment and begin developing a transition plan.
  • Pre-separation counseling to learn about benefits, entitlements and resources.
  • A series of briefings focusing on managing the transition, translating military skills to the civilian world, financial planning, benefits and services from the Department of Veterans Affairs, and finding a career.
  • Instruction on finding employment, vocational training, higher education or entrepreneurship.

Service members must complete TAP no later than a year before leaving the military. Retiring service members should begin the process at least two years before retirement.

Transitioning to Civilian Life

View this webinar, which discusses steps to make the shift easier.

Other resources to help with the transition

  • The Transitioning Veterans Specialty Consultation from Military OneSource is tailored to your service member’s unique needs. The series of 45-minute consultations cover goal setting, benefits review, VA assistance, exploring education opportunities, workforce preparation and becoming familiar with online resources.
  • The Military Spouse Transition Program helps military spouses throughout their military journey, including the transition to civilian life.
  • Military OneSource is available to veterans and their families for 365 days post separation from the military. Military OneSource offers non-medical counseling, as well as help with career planning, relocation and housing, personal finances, tax filing and accessing benefits for veterans.
  • The Credential Opportunities On-Line program is offered by each service branch to help service members translate their training into civilian credentials.
  • The Veterans Benefits Administration website lists VA benefits available to veterans.

The military equips service members with skills, abilities and experiences that serve them well in the civilian world. These inner resources, along with the support of loved ones like you and the benefits and services available, will help your service member transition smoothly into this exciting next phase of life.

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