Editor’s Note: This article has been modified from its original version, which was published on the LinkedIn page of Melody Fugazzotto.
“I'm retired” is a huge statement when you're parenting a preschooler and still have a good 30-plus years to make an impact on the world. It's stressful to realize that you've been working for the same business for over 20 years, with the odd internal job change and possible household move every three to five years. The gypsy life eventually comes to an end. While I officially had a few months to prepare myself and our family for my retirement, I'd really set myself up for a relatively smooth transition over a nearly 10-year period. How did I do this?
Based on my own experience, I want to share 10 points that will help you or someone you know prepare for life after the military, whether it's after five years or 20 years. These are personal and professional observations I've collected from my time as a sailor, an officer, and a retiree volunteer with my local service organization helping other veterans. You can do all of these steps while you're still in uniform and set the stage for your eventual exit.
1. Build a “me” book or binder.
Keep your important documents inside acid-free page protectors. These are files that can help you fill in your DD-214, the single most important document you'll get when you leave the military, as well as your cover letter and resume. You should have performance reviews in this binder, as well as a list of your duty stations and addresses. Keep letters of recommendations, training certificates, and your awards here, too.
2. Keep a detailed record of your accomplishments and military training.
If you are unexpectedly released from service due to the recent drawdown, or for medical or legal reasons, a record of your projects, skill sets, and major tasks throughout your career is useful for that resume. If you don’t yet have a resume, then head over to your local transition assistance program for guidance. The career guidance representatives can help you start on the right path to leave the military. Copies of important documents that you'll need after the military should be kept safe and scanned, if possible. You never know when papers will get lost, records will get wiped out of a database, or your awards don't make it into your service record.
3. Make good choices.
This goes without saying, but by the time you're in your last couple of years in uniform, your record should be spotless. What if it isn't spotless and you have a couple of questionable performance reviews that you can't change? Sometimes you end up in a job where your supervisor and you never saw eye to eye, or you were the victim of the classic ranking boards where not everyone can be in the top 5%. Ask your mentors for their contact information and letters of recommendation attesting to your professional skills. Keep a list of peers and supervisors who can give you a character or professional reference if needed.
4. Civilianize your job and your accomplishments while you're still working in that job.
This is easier said than done, but you'll have a much easier time in five or even 10 years trying to describe your roles and responsibilities if you keep track of them now. Your military supervisor wants to see specific words and phrases for your military advancement, so of course, do what's expected for that performance report. Just realize that while some of your military brethren may understand your service-specific lingo, the rest of the world needs a translator or a dictionary to understand it. Unsure about what your civilian counterpart is called? Try online programs like the one from online magazine Military.com and Monster veteran employment center. There are also some fantastic resume writers out there who can help you do this if you're unsure.
Related: How to write about your combat experience in your resume »
5. Search for your online profile.
Start with an online search of your name (or names, if you've had a name change in your lifetime). You'll likely be surprised at what you find on page one of your search results. Realize that it can take time for your online profile to change based on your online presence. For instance, if you're searching on Google, its affiliates (i.e., YouTube) will naturally have a higher standing. Your YouTube public profile, like your subscription channels, may be listed. If that’s something you don't want future employers to see, start doing something about it now.
Also, don't forget to compare notes on yourself in all the popular search engines, not just Google and Bing. You can look at the latest list at Alexa. What if you don't have an online profile? Should you start creating one? Yes. I understand if you don't want to be a slave to technology with multiple social media accounts, but if you don't do it, the Internet will eventually make a profile for you. Isn't it best to control what's out there? If you're interested in personal branding, take a look at the Online ID Calculator. I recently tried it and was happy with my “digitally distinct” results since I've been blogging for a decade.
6. Manage your social media activities and profiles.
Have you checked your privacy settings? If you're looking for a top-secret or high-profile job that requires above all else, good judgment and character, you may want to delete controversial photos and statements. Remember the public relations executive who tweeted a racist comment about AIDS in 2014 and for the 11 hours she was on an international flight, her tweet was blasted around the world. She lost her job and had to rebuild her career.
7. Gather contact information for those people whose recommendations you value.
Keep in touch with them over the years, whether with a quick email or text or better, a handwritten note. I'm thankful for social media as it's really helped bridge long distances over time, but I realize that I have professional contacts on LinkedIn who are not on other social media sites. If you need references for security clearances, you'll need a good list of people with their current contact information.
8. Conduct regular maintenance checks on your personal and financial information.
Take advantage of free annual credit checks. Make sure your addresses and accounts are correct everywhere, especially if you intend to apply to jobs that require a security clearance. For your military records, you should be reviewing them at least each time you transfer and when you have a change in your family status (i.e., marriage, divorce, etc.).
9. Take advantage of free or subsidized training while you're still in uniform.
If there's an industry that you want to work in after the military, look at the skills you've already mastered. If you're lacking in a particular area, see if you can get more training within the military or in a local college by using tuition assistance.
10. Seek additional tasks and training that can fill in skill gaps in your resume.
I once worked with a 28-year Navy dentist who had been in senior leadership positions for nearly half his career, decreasing his patient care time with each promotion. He wanted to go back to patient care, but knew that he needed more exposure to current practices and requested more time with patients in his last couple of years before retirement. While not everyone can have this option at the end of a career, if it arises, don't miss the opportunity.
I didn't know most of the list above when I first came into the military, but I listened and learned quickly from mentors. Their collective advice was filed away so that I knew what to do to be prepared for post military life.