Troops Must Start Planning for Transition Out of Service Sooner to Be Successful, Advocates Testify

Military personnel attend a Transition Assistance Program class
Military personnel attend the Transition Assistance Program class in preparation of separating from active duty service at Naval Station Rota, Spain. (U.S. Navy Photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Benjamin Lewis)

Advocates told lawmakers on Capitol Hill on Wednesday that the military still falls short when it comes to making sure troops have enough time to prepare for transition to civilian life.

The 200,000 service members who leave active duty each year are required by law to start the military's Transition Readiness Program at least one year before their expected departure. But that's not happening for at least 70% of troops, according to the Government Accountability Office, a federal watchdog.

"A solid transition can set veterans up for success after service," Ryan Gallucci, executive director of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, told members of both the Senate Armed Services and Veterans' Affairs committees during a joint hearing. "Conversely, a failed transition could lead to devastating consequences like unemployment, homelessness, even suicide."

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Senators on the two committees challenged officials from the Department of Veterans Affairs and Defense Department on what steps they'd take to get more troops to transition classes sooner.

Both VA and DoD officials, who also testified, acknowledged most troops are starting classes too late: The recent GAO reporting found that transition classes were waived for more than half of troops leaving the service. Of those, 25% were considered "at risk" for transition challenges like unemployment or homelessness.

Ashish Vazirani, acting under secretary of defense for personnel and readiness, said obstacles to on-time course completion include unit mission requirements, involuntary separation and personal discretion.

But it wasn't clear what corrective steps the department or the military plans to take.

Missing classes one year before separation can have lingering repercussions. Many veterans also miss the short three-month window to file for VA claims while still on active duty, Gallucci added, leaving them to navigate a lengthy process later.

Overall, many troops simply underestimate how difficult navigating the adjustment to civilian life can be. More than half of veterans leave their first post-military jobs within one year.

Advocates said the VA still needs to improve how it notifies veterans and soon-to-be veterans of the availability of benefits. During the hearing, American Legion employment and education expert Kevin O'Neil, touted the VA's Military Life Cycle modules, online videos that detail benefits, but noted that only 30,000 people used the resource in the last year.

Part of the problem is that the military needs more evidence-based approaches to transitions, advocates said. Transition courses are overwhelmingly one-size-fits-all.

To make up for that, the military should focus on working with civilian-led groups that specialize in industries such as tech or business.

"We cannot feasibly contort the TAP curriculum to meet the unique needs of everyone leaving the military," Gallucci said. "This is where countless organizations that offer community-based services play a role."

One unconventional solution for better transitions, according to Arthur DeGroat, executive director of Kansas State University's Office of Military and Veterans Affairs, might be to rely on military retention specialists to also serve as transition experts.

"One opportunity is to just use the existing military infrastructure and retention counseling ... unit line leaders, who know those soldiers best," DeGroat said, adding that leaders shouldn't be afraid that talking about a service member's transition will lead them out of the service.

In fact, he said, those conversations could force more reflection about how hard a poorly planned transition will be, and that may lead troops to stay in uniform a little longer.

Related: How Long Should It Take a Transitioning Military Member to Get a Civilian Job?

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