Saying goodbye to military life can come as a welcome relief: getting to choose where you live and staying there for more than three years, no more early morning PT sessions in the rain, and growing an enviable post-military beard. But facing the next chapter in your life can also feel daunting when you think about everything you need to accomplish before joining the civilian ranks.
As someone who has been there, done that, I’ve compiled a must-accomplish list of priorities to set you up for success.
1. Know your benefits
Many veterans are hesitant to take advantage of the multitude of medical, financial, and education benefits available to them through the Department of Veterans Affairs. What I hear fellow vets say most frequently is that they don’t think they deserve benefits because so many other vets had it way worse in the military. But none of these are handouts. They are benefits you earned through honorable service. And if you served our country with honor, then you deserve care for your service injuries. Navy Mutual, America’s oldest, federally recognized veteran service organization has a team of advisors available to help their members and veterans understand what they’re entitled to and to help them navigate the disability claims process.
2. Start planning for retirement
Cliché as it may sound, it’s never too early to start saving for retirement. Even if you’re going to be receiving pension or disability payments, setting up a retirement savings plan like a Roth IRA can ensure you’re able to retire comfortably when the time comes. Even though Roth accounts have relatively low growth rates (7-10 percent interest typically), if you contribute annually you will see significant growth over time. You’ll thank yourself in 40 years.
3. Find a new life insurance plan
Your one-size-fits-all Servicemembers’ Group Life Insurance won’t cover you once you leave the military, so you’ll need to get a new plan before you separate to avoid any gaps in coverage. Navy Mutual is also a great place to start for your life insurance needs (and yes, you do need a life insurance policy. Welcome to being a responsible adult). They have policies* for every budget and stage of life and as an added bonus, there are zero hidden fees.
4. Think like a civilian
Creating a professional resume that is truly reflective of your knowledge, skills, and abilities can be a lot of work, especially if you’re still in a military mindset. Military-specific jargon and acronyms can potentially be huge roadblocks for an employer trying to understand what you bring to the table. While your skills with various weapon systems may be admirable, they don’t necessarily translate on a resume. Focus on things that make you an ideal employee, like leadership and coaching subordinates, timeliness, the ability to work autonomously or on a team, and being able to handle multiple competing priorities in fast-paced environments.
5. Choose a healthcare plan
Tricare offers a generous 90 days of continued coverage after separation to give you time to find a new healthcare plan. But even if you’re retaining Tricare benefits as a retiree, you’ll still have to apply to continue your benefits, which is something I found out the hard way. Most insurance plans have waiting periods before your coverage starts so make sure to sign up with an insurance provider with ample time to spare before you lose coverage. Many employers offer insurance options in their benefits packages, so explore your options before committing.
6. Trust your training
Whether you realize it or not, the military has oh so generously given you the gifts of resiliency and adaptability through your training and education. You’re most likely not a stranger to hard work and getting stuff done at ungodly hours or being resourceful in the face of scarcity and taking care of the people under your charge. The things that made you a good service member have the potential to make you a great civilian employee. Take the best of your training and experience with you and leave the rest behind.
7. Don’t be afraid to ask for help
We don’t always talk about how hard it can be to leave the military and take on civilian life. Whether it’s a loss of identity or getting used to a much slower pace of life, there are a garden variety of mental obstacles we can encounter along the way. I swung wildly between swaggering confidence and crippling self-doubt trying to get on my feet after the military and wish I would have reached out for help sooner. Whether it's connecting with a former battle buddy or finding a good therapist, there are people and resources available to help reorient your compass and soldier on.
Remember, at the end of the day, there is no one size fits all plan for your transition. Be sure to be flexible and be prepared to adapt. It also helps to work with an organization that’s federally recognized as the nation’s oldest veteran service organization. Navy Mutual has been assisting veterans in their transition for over 140 years. Reach out to their team to learn more.
*see https://www.navymutual.org/ for eligibility information