What Do You Owe Your Troops During Military Transition?

red IOU stamp over soldiers saluting

If the military was an ordinary job, you could just quit. You would not need a big ol' military transition. You would not owe anyone anything. In civilian life, you pack up your stuff, collect your last paycheck and say goodbye. If you are nice, someone takes you out to lunch. Most of the time, it is just a job.

If you served, though, you know the military is more than just a job for so many people. If it was just a job, you would not have a sticker on your car bearing the name of your old company. You would not wear a ball cap with its logo at the assisted living center 30 years later. Your kids will not pore over your old records to figure out what you did at work during times of war and unrest.

If it was just a job, you would not have a nagging sense that you owed the troops, the crew or the squadrons something before you could leave.

I see this happen all the time as Military.com's transition master coach -- especially among senior military members (both enlisted and officers). While there are service members out there who are acting like it is OK to be retired on active duty, I see many more people working crazy hours right up to the last minute because the demand signal is so strong.

Making Transition Excuses?

Now that just could be making excuses, right? No matter what career stage you are in, pretty much all tasks required to find a civilian job are guaranteed to make you feel overwhelmed, anxious and unready. Putting off those tasks for "the good of the crew" seems super noble.

Start Transition Early and Make More Money

But what about you? And your family? Research shows that service members who start transitioning around the one-year mark not only end up having a smoother transition, but they make more money on the outside.

For years, I wondered why this info did not make transitioning military pop out of bed ready to write a resume, schedule informational interviews and network out the wazoo. Look at what is in it for you, people!

What Is Stopping You?

The person who changed my mind most on this topic is Jim Hawkins, who retired as an Army colonel in 2019 and now works in emergency management. He told me in an interview that when he was about to retire, he thought his job was to work at full speed until the last minute.

"In retrospect, I was wrong," Hawkins said. "It is part of your job to retire. It isn't part of your duty to be the person who busts into the personnel office at 4:30 on a Friday before your retirement, demanding that everyone stay late to help you."

He said that at the time he knew he should be doing the work of transition, but it seemed unimportant compared to the job at hand. "I had a hesitancy to do it because that was the end," Hawkins said. "Subconsciously, I must have been thinking if I don't do the paperwork, it won't end."

Which makes perfect sense to me. For so many people up and down the chain of command, the military is so much more than a job. It has become part of your identity, and it is very hard to let go.

You Owe It to Your People

The key to moving forward on your transition tasks is to stop framing it as taking care of yourself -- especially if that is an alien, unmotivating concept for you.

Instead, start framing a good transition as something you owe your troops. Every single one of them eventually will get out of the military. Show them how to take time to transition without letting it become an excuse for not working.

Here are three actionable things you can do:

1. Block out a time

There are a million competing demands on your time, but in every unit, there is one day of the week or some time of day that things slow down. In your last year of service, set a block of time on your calendar on the slow day to do a transition task. It can be as little as one or two hours a week. It can be a half-day once a month. Even if this time gets taken occasionally, the fact that it is on your calendar makes it more acceptable for other people to do the work of transition, too. Once you get through the initial reluctance, it gets easier.

2. Prep for their transition

I get told all the time that active-duty members didn't understand transition until they started doing it themselves. In your last year of service, think about your troops someday looking at their fitness reports and evals, officer evaluation reports (OERs) and enlisted evaluation reports (EERs), officer performance reports (OPRs) and enlisted performance reports (EPRs) and needing to find numbers for their resumes. Stick a stat or two on there and help them out.

3. Say yes to their SkillBridge request

I know you can't say yes to everyone who wants to do a SkillBridge internship. You should know, however, the placement rates for veterans in approved programs under the Defense Department SkillBridge umbrella is remarkably high. So the opportunity should not be used more frequently by officers and senior enlisted in your command than young enlisted or midlevel professionals. Make a clear command policy about how your troops can get a yes on their transition request.

"The last great act of your career is to retire effectively," Hawkins told me. I believe it. The moment you walk out the door, and the new guy takes over, your troops will forget you -- as well they should. So secretly watch out for their transition. It can be your "thank you" to them for all they did for you.

Jacey Eckhart is Military.com's transition master coach. She is a certified professional career coach and military sociologist who helps military members get their first civilian job by offering career-level Master Classes through our Veteran Employment Project and on her website, SeniorMilitaryTransition.com. Reach her at Jacey.Eckhart@Monster.com.

Learn More About the Veteran Employment Project

To get more tips on how to make a successful military transition, sign up for one of our free Military Transition Master Classes today. You can view previous classes in our video library. Questions for Jacey? Visit our Facebook page.

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