It is almost here. That joyous moment when you sign out on terminal leave and skip away with DD214 in hand. For many, separation from the military is a time of excitement - an embarkation on new careers, college attendance, and myriad other opportunities. For others, it is equally exciting, but without many plans or direction. It is not as easy as simply “getting out.”
After five years, I decided to leave the Army and become a civilian. I was proud of my service, but I wanted to do something different. I thought I had a fine-tuned plan and decided to move to New York City with my fiancé. I made this decision about a year before my ETS date and thought my plan was solid: go to college full-time and work part-time to supplement the VA’s compensation.
I packed my stuff, drove to Brooklyn from El Paso, and moved into a small apartment. I had yet to hear back from a city university, so I decided to go find a job. I naively thought that a DD214, a couple of good NCOERs, and my veteran status would land me a pretty nice job. After two weeks I had not received a word back, which started making me a little anxious. To make matters worse, I waited until a couple of months before I left the Army to apply for education and disability benefits from the VA. I did not realize that it could take up to a year to receive my results. After depleting my savings and working a few under the table jobs, I realized I had made a huge mistake!
Even in places as large as New York, jobs are in high demand and many qualified people are applying for the same position you are. With the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, large bubbles of veterans have hit the job market, some more qualified than you. Be prepared to continue competing against your peers in the civilian sector.
I encourage job searches and applications about one year out. Begin perusing job sites and local listings. For those looking at government jobs including police and fire, the entire hiring process from application to first day of work can be up to a year or more. Furthermore, jobs with the Federal government require very specific resumes and applications. Enjoy navigating the minefield known as usajobs.gov. Get started early.
Applying to a college or trade school can take as long as getting a job. Fortunately many schools have veteran’s departments staffed by fellow vets. They can help you through the application process and explain how VA education benefits work. (I owe my college veteran’s department a few cases of beer.)
Apply early and to different schools. I expected to be accepted and did not bother looking at another college. It was a huge mistake because some gifted intellectuals will have no problems with this, but some of us whose mothers played soccer while pregnant (thus jostling our little brains against our little noggins) may have a tougher time. Do not throw all your eggs in one basket.
I would like to sum this entire topic up with an emotion that is slightly angry, a little bit confused, and somewhat surprised. The VA has had some bad press lately, partially because they have done some not-so-stellar things. With that said, you are probably aware that dealing with the VA is extremely tiresome and frustrating. Take a deep breath, grit your teeth, and jump right in. There really is no other way.
The best advice I can give is to begin this process as soon as you are eligible. Applying for education benefits is the least painful and quickest process. Applying for disability is more of a hassle. Make sure you have multiple copies of your medical record and be prepared to send it to them repeatedly. This process can take up to a year or more to get an answer. Be patient. Some services’ separation offices help with this process so make use of all possible resources to ease the pain. You will be glad you did.
This is not an exhaustive, “all-problems-solved” list, but it does give some direction and general idea of what to plan for and expect. The best advice is to plan ahead and think of contingencies. Even getting out and living on mom’s couch is not as easy as you may think. Use veteran resources and ask questions from those of us who learned the painful way. It will be of great help. Good luck and thank you for your service!
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