The Pentagon's troop-to-veteran transition program is riddled with low participation, delays and unwarranted denials, according to a government watchdog report, issues that were repeated by recently separated service members.
The transition from service to civilian, and how the military supports that change, has been a point of criticism and friction for years for service members, Congress and veteran service organizations.
The Defense Department's Transition Assistance Program, or TAP, was ordered by Congress in 2019 to help make the transition a little easier for soon-to-be veterans during a period when suicide rates and risks for substance abuse are higher, employment processes may be unfamiliar, and uncertainty permeates a veteran's life.
The effort includes a number of programs intended to help transitioning troops gain employment, navigate hiring processes, understand higher education options and -- in some extension programs -- provide hands-on experience in various jobs.
The Government Accountability Office, Congress' watchdog, found in a report released Monday that 90% of transitioning troops participated in TAP counseling overall, but one-quarter did not attend a mandatory two-day class that covered vocational training or entrepreneurial or higher education pursuits. Many troops weren't able to attend those specialized classes, and the vast majority who did participate did so well after the recommended start date.
Military.com spoke to five recent veterans, all of whom transitioned out of the military after 2019, some agreeing to speak anonymously for fear of reprisal from their newfound post-military opportunities. The TAP report matched their anecdotal experiences of difficulty with the program, and difficulty finding time to take the classes.
Chris Atkins, a veteran who served as a hospital corpsman for nine years in the Navy and transitioned out in June, said he could have used that support.
He got a call from his leadership on his day off when he was taking care of his daughter.
"He said, 'Hey, you need to get your TAPs completed today.'
"So my TAPs process was me standing at the kitchen table in my dining room table while my daughter was playing, and I had three different screens open with the TAPs program open and just clicking through."
So far, he has been unable to find a job and continues to be saddled with additional burdens from the Navy -- like recouping money for a domicile he was made to stay at while he waited for his separation paperwork -- that have consumed his time.
"I'm still not where I want to be because I should have been able to do all of this stuff while I was still at my duty station," he said.
One junior enlisted National Guardsman agreed and, while they found some aspects of the program helpful -- like physically setting up Department of Veterans Affairs benefit gateways, their transition from active to reserve and preparing for the next civilian step took a back seat, not only to their unit's mission but also to the dozens of other tasks required to separate oneself from the active military.
Some of the troops who spoke to Military.com described the special two-day classes as inadequate to what service members need for transition overall.
"It's like a cover your ass," Payton Warner, a former Marine officer, told Military.com over the phone Tuesday. "It's like, 'OK, we have all these programs, so there's nothing you can complain about,' but as soon as you say, 'Hey I want to go actually use those programs,' the opinion of you changes from everybody.
"As soon as you decide to get out, everyone's opinion of you turns on a dime," she added.
One former Army officer with prior enlisted experience told Military.com that TAP "is really just a giant liability write-off for the military to be able to say, 'Well, we gave you all these PowerPoint classes, you should be fine now.'"
Troops Like the Info, But It's Not Enough
Over half of the interviewed service members in the GAO report said that they had a positive experience with the program, but gaps in its content and the way it is implemented were glaring, especially according to TAP staff.
Many had identified that the program seemed to cater to active-duty troops, and that the TAP program for reservists -- who likely have civilian jobs already -- was inadequate. The GAO also pointed to the COVID-19 pandemic as a barrier to providing appropriate services, with many installations closing down their offices and opting for virtual classes or a hybrid.
The report emphasized that those closures or virtual training particularly affected VA benefits training.
Fifty-three percent of troops were denied attendance by their service branches, according to the report. And of those who did participate, 70% did not start the program until a year away from their separation from the military, a general deadline identified by the report.
One recently transitioned officer told Military.com that their TAP kept getting delayed because of field rotations and their command's insistence that the now-separated officer was necessary for those rotations. Ultimately, while they were never outright denied, they never found the time to attend.
"I pencil-whipped TAPs," they said, alluding to some of the online requirements for the program, but said they did not participate in any in-person or virtual instruction.
The veteran was able to get into a higher education institution without assistance from military counseling, but much of their transition time that revolved around understanding veteran benefits and other counseling was done close to their terminal leave period.
"If I hadn't gotten into school, I would have been f---ed," they said. "I was absolutely panicking. … I was walking out of the Army with f----ing nothing."
They also said that it could have been helpful even if the specific instruction was not, as a way to learn about other programs that TAP facilitates.
"It's a gatekeeper to other programs," they added. "You have to do the two-day program to do other things."
For many troops and veterans Military.com spoke too, one of the most beneficial programs that the Defense Department offers is the SkillBridge program, an extension of the military's overall transition program that offers troops a chance to participate in vocational training on their way out.
But that program is not always available to troops. The former prior enlisted officer who transitioned within the last year said that "it kind of screwed up my whole transition," referring to five-month vocational training he was not allowed to participate in. "Mostly because it took nearly four months for them to deny it."
All Branches Are Not Created Equal
The GAO report showed an imbalance in how the different service branches are using the program.
The services differentiate how much help a service member will need for transitioning, with those in "tier 3" deemed in need of maximum assistance and required to attend TAPS classes.
The GAO report showed that Marines who needed the most transition assistance skipped the two-day class at a higher percentage than any other branch, followed by the Navy. The Army made up 14% of tier 3 non-attendees, while the Air Force had just 119 service members not attending the classes at 8%.
Warner, the former Marine, pointed back to the perception of outgoing service members turning their back on the organization as a reason for why many troops, in her case Marines, did not participate.
When asked what she would say to those who argue that the mission should come first, Warner said she understood that argument.
"I used to be that person. … We have a mission regardless," she said. "And if you're on the payroll, you've got to do what you got to do, which means to me that the system we have in place was built to fail."
One current active duty non-commissioned officer described a scenario where the flow of personnel, paired with the rigid deadlines for TAP, could leave a unit unable to do its fundamental job. If four troops arrived out of basic training at the same time, and were transitioning out at the same time, “You lose four soldiers that won't even begin to be replaced for six months,” the NCO said.
“Now take into account all of the other taskings and you're basically combat ineffective."
The report made eight recommendations to the services, namely that each branch "should better leverage TAP performance information on 2-day class attendance to develop and implement a corrective action plan for improving attendance, as appropriate, particularly for servicemembers deemed to require maximum transition support."
The watchdog also recommended that the branches better utilize their data to improve when troops actually start their transition under the program, a concept that both Atkins and the former officer agreed was a catalyst for their stress and a barrier to their success.
"You're seeing everyone fail. Make it to where it's set in the schedule, have something concrete into a schedule allocating this time for the individuals," Atkins said. "Because it's not happening."
The Pentagon concurred with the recommendations, according to Cmdr. Nicole Schwegman, a DoD spokesperson.
"The Department of Defense is committed to ensuring that the Transition Assistance Program (TAP) provides information and training to ensure Service members transitioning from active-duty are prepared for their next step in life --- whether pursuing additional education, finding a job in the public or private sector or starting their own business," she said in an email to Military.com on Tuesday.
-- Drew F. Lawrence can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @df_lawrence.