The process of separating from the military is complex and can become overwhelming for service members. Ensuring every box on a checkout sheet is signed off on takes time and effort from transitioning service members. Service members only have one chance to get this process right and create the best conditions for success in the civilian world. While the current formal transition model is already flawed, it is not agencies like the departments of Defense and Labor alone that are contributing to a suboptimal process of turning service members into veterans. Military leaders from noncommissioned officers through high-ranking commanders can have a greater influence on the individual experiences of their subordinates than any agency. Military leaders and commands regularly fail to provide the right climate for transition and offer little support once service members decide to separate rather than reenlist.
For many, military transition is highly dependent on the climate that exists within their commands. The attitudes toward those exiting the service vary. Many of the Marines I served with felt their enlisted leadership offered them no support when it came to transition. As those Marines saw it, their staff noncommissioned officers no longer viewed them as an integral part of the unit and would not make any effort to assist them. This unwillingness to help out separating service members took several forms. Leaders would not allow their Marines to leave work early for a job interview or the command might refuse to sign off on special liberty to visit a distant college campus. The majority of service members leave the military after their initial contract ends. Unfortunately, many career service members fail to understand this and do little to accommodate those who do not want a career in the armed forces. It must be acknowledged that command climates are highly variable, some are extremely accommodating while others put up unnecessary barriers in the separation process. This alone is a problem. A service member’s post-military success should not hinge on what leaders happen to be above them while they separate.
Whether or not leaders feel that their attitudes and actions are being correctly interpreted by their subordinates, perceptions that leaders are hindrances rather than assets has a detrimental effect on the transition experience of service members. It is reasonable to think that leaders who otherwise serve as valuable mentors may not be able to provide effective assistance when it comes to a process they have not themselves experienced, but is unacceptable that they should serve as roadblocks in one of the most important processes of an individual’s military career.
In my experience, separating Marines were often viewed as disposable assets that can fill roles that were necessary, but undesirable to perform. I know Marines who were placed on barracks duty in their last week before picking up separation papers, denying them valuable time to finish the checkout process and prepare to leave base one last time.
Similarly, Marines would be forced to go through time-consuming processes without leaders considering critically the necessity of soon to separate Marines fulfilling such tasks. My second deployment was to Okinawa, Japan. One of the features of this deployment was that Marines did not travel between the United States and Japan with their field gear, meaning the equipment issue and return was handled within Japan. Marines had no equipment checked out at the time they returned to the states. For transitioning Marines, this was initially viewed as a blessing since it meant that one of the major chores of the individual’s separation process was already complete. Yet, this attitude changed when all Marines in the company were made to check out an entire gear issue once again, regardless of the time left on their contract, creating a new set of obligations for short timers without regard to the utility of their compliance with this order.
Commanders and enlisted leadership must be held accountable for the transition experiences of their subordinates. Denying them the ability to attend an off-base career workshop so that they can supervise a working party or go on a company hike may satisfy the unit’s desire to have its Marines in uniform and engaged in military work, but it serves the long-term goals of no one and is harmful to soon-to-be veterans.
There are a number of potential solutions to this. Clear service-wide orders regarding what duties can and cannot be expected of service members within so many days of separation would be a starting point. Creating transition units, perhaps companies at the regimental level, and placing service members in them within so many days of their separation date would remove the ability of leaders at all levels from viewing transitioning service members as sources of easy labor and obstructing individual transition plans. Such units could be folded into the formal transition process, allowing for more in-depth and tailored programs to be conducted. They could also be looked to to provide more direct feedback about formal transition programs.
A common refrain within the Marine Corps is, “Mission accomplishment, then troop welfare.” This prioritization is used often as a justification for denying the requests of Marines if leaders view those requests as interfering with a mission. This habit extends to separation-related requests. In the case of military transition, troop welfare should be the mission. Leaders need to know that how the service treats its members during the transition period is important. The Marine Corps’ biggest recruiters are not necessarily those who are working in recruiting offices. They are active Marines and veterans. We have influence and our experiences shape how that influence is exerted on those considering military service. While much of this article has focused issues that arise within the Marine Corps, the problems I have identified exist in some form across all services. The solutions I have proposed, once tailored to an individual branch’s needs and concerns, can enhance the transition experience of soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines.
Leaders owe it to those they lead to create the best circumstances possible for their post-military success.