5 Mistakes Troops Make When They Transition

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Sgt. Raymond A. Acevedo navigates the Incline Wall, April 9, 2014.
Photo by Sgt. Justin A. Moeller

Your transition out of the military can be complicated. It seems pretty easy at first: complete your out-processing checklist, get your DD-214, maybe say a little “hooray” as you drive out of the gate. But what comes after those things can be difficult or confusing.


Unlike military life, there are no first sergeants, regulations, or operations orders to tell you what to do. It’s now up to you to figure things out and there’s a lot to figure out --- from where to live, to where to work and what to wear, to how to pay for health care. It’s easy to make mistakes.

Related: Make your transition a breeze with these 6 steps »

Here are five common mistakes transitioning services make, a few of which I made myself:

1. Thinking the Post-9/11 GI Bill is all there is.

The Post-9/11 GI Bill is a fabulous option --- tuition and fees, housing allowance, books. But it isn’t the only option and it isn’t always the best option. Before you elect to give up that Montgomery GI Bill, be sure to investigate the other education benefits out there, such as Guard and Reserve options, vocational rehabilitation and even scholarships and fellowships, to make sure you’re making the right choice for you and your situation. You can find details on the various education benefits on Department of Veterans Affairs website.

2. Not researching health care.

No one ever wanted to be the one going to sick call, but it was there when you needed it. Preventive checks, flu shots, or 800 milligrams of Motrin --- it was always available and always free. Civilian health care is much more complicated and shockingly expensive. Even if you’re retiring from the military and staying with TRICARE Prime, what was covered when you were active duty and what will be covered when you are a retiree are not the same. For example, eye exams on Active Duty are paid for every year, while retirees and their families are only authorized one every two years. Making sure you know your options can save you a lot of money down the road. And, of course, even if you choose not to use it, you should go straight to your local VA clinic and get into the VA system.

3. Waiting to file your VA claim. 

We all know the VA claims process can take quite some time. Delaying your filing date, or not staying on top of your claim once it’s filed, is only going to make it take longer. Even if you’re still waiting on one doctor to get you a copy of your record, file your claim anyway. You can always send that record in later, but the date from which VA is going to pay you is based on the day you submit the initial claim. You can find details to get you started here.

4. Not establishing residency. 

We get very used to using the term “home-of-record” while we are in the military. We get so used to it that it seems normal to have a home-of-record of Florida, a driver’s license from Virginia, a car registered in California, and be registered to vote in Ohio. But home-of-record only applies while you are on active duty. Once you leave active duty, you have to establish residency in a state and that often requires registering a vehicle, buying or leasing a home, registering to vote, and other actions that indicate you intend to stay --- and pay taxes --- in that state. Residency can become a big issue when it comes to tax exemptions, in-state tuition rates, and other state benefits, like unemployment, and should be addressed before your date of separation. Details on establishing residency can usually be found on your state’s Department of Motor Vehicles or Department of Transportation websites.

5. Being unprepared to go it alone. 

In the military, we get very used to being surrounded by people who are dressed like us, who have the same mission as we do, who consider themselves part of the same team, and who are, generally speaking, there to help us out if we need it. Every installation we went to came with a built-in support network; the civilian world doesn’t work that way. There is no sponsor or gaining unit waiting at the end of your final move, no one to show you the ropes and make you feel like you belong. You have to go out and find your new teammates, or you have to be prepared to rely on yourself. Don’t be afraid to reach out; your fellow vets had your back when you were serving, they’ll have your back now, too --- you just have to go find them.

Becoming a civilian isn’t as easy as simply taking off your uniform. There are a lot of moving parts and it’s going to take time and energy to feel like you’ve successfully made the transition. Avoiding some common mistakes, though, can make that transition a little easier.

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