Five Transition Tips from Two American Heroes

Marine Corps General James Conway and Master Sergeant Blaine Scott. (Photo: Ho Lin, Military.com)
Marine Corps General James Conway and Master Sergeant Blaine Scott. (Photo: Ho Lin, Military.com)

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You could say that General James Conway and Master Sergeant Blaine Scott have a passion for military transition. As former Commandant of the Marine Corps, General Conway has overseen the movements and well-being of hundreds of thousands of Marines, while Master Sergeant Scott had a distinguished service career in the Corps, even after getting severely wounded by an IED in Iraq. Both have found themselves a new purpose since leaving the military: helping service members, particularly wounded warriors, adjust to civilian life.

Both Marines are now associated with the Semper Fi Fund, an organization that assists wounded Marines in need. “My first memory of the Semper Fi Fund, I was still in the hospital,” Scott recalls. “My wife came up to me and said, ‘Hey, have you ever heard of the Semper Fi Fund?’ ‘No, who are they?’ ‘I don’t know either, but they just handed me a check.’ They came up to her and said, ‘We want you to be with your husband and take care of him, we don’t want you to worry about bills, car payments, house payments, all of that stuff. Here’s X amount of money, and just worry about your husband.'

“The Semper Fi Fund is part of our family now. My wife works for them, I work for them part-time... I feel like my family and I are mentors to people now, and it’s great to have that feeling of giving back and helping out.”

Military.com recently joined General Conway and Master Sergeant Scott during a trek through the great outdoors organized by the Semper Fi Fund and its Transition Program partner MoneyLion. The central topic of discussion? Making the great leap to the civilian world. In a wide-ranging conversation, they provided key tips for veterans seeking to avoid the transition blues.

1.Get Your Financial House In Order

It’s easy for transition to sneak up on you – make sure that your financial affairs are in order before you’re back in the civilian world. “The one thing I suggest is not to leave the [service] broke,” Scott says succinctly. “Too many guys have so much debt that it’s hard to dig out of. Being out and trying to find a job and pay the bills, it’s rough.”

Conway adds that you don’t have to work with a large amount when it comes to setting yourself up financially. “Even a small amount with compounding interest over time gives you the ability to build a pretty nice nest egg,” he says, “whether it be for your child’s college education, if that’s your motivation, or saving to buy a house, or just having that money to fall back on during transition.”

In that vein, put together an investment program that will accumulate savings over time. A good place to start is the military’s Thrift Savings Plan (TSP), which allows you to save money much like a 401k contribution program does. Also consider using powerful financial tools like MoneyLion (www.MoneyLion.com) to measure your financial wellness, and help you start a new path to a financially stress-free future.  

“You know it’s going to come, so prepare yourself,” says Scott. “Save that money up, apply for VA [benefits] as soon as you can. Most guys wait until they’re out to do it, and then it sometimes it takes six to eight months before you get an appointment, and it’s going to take a little while after that to get [compensation], so some guys don’t get it until a year afterwards.”

2. Your Next Mission: Have a Plan

Do you have a good idea of what you want for your civilian career? Do you want to go back to school first? Where do you and your family want to relocate? These are all major decisions, and it’s best to tackle them far in advance. “It’s called not letting go of the ladder,” says Conway. “If you want to go out and do something that’s great, but have that something ready so that you don’t let go of the ladder. If you want to go to college, be enrolled. If you want to go to welder’s school, be signed on. You don’t find yourself suddenly disrupted without a plan if you have one before you go.

“You need to have some feel for what it is you want to do, and you don’t wait until the day you pass your final salute and walk away to start executing that plan. You don’t want that period of uncertainty there in terms of how you’re going to feed yourself, and potentially your family.”

Conway recommends service members perform a “self-survey” to determine what their goals and priorities are. If you’re on the road to transition, ask yourself questions such as:

  • Do you plan to go straight to college when you get out, or will you search for a job?
  • Do you intend to get a job and go where it takes you, or are you going to go where you want to live and then find a job?
  • Is your primary goal to get a job that makes you a lot of money, or would you prefer getting a job you enjoy, and gives you a better quality of life?
  •  Is raising your family and being around them – because maybe you weren’t able to do that when you were in the military – more important than a large sum of cash?
  • Where are you in your life? If you are an older veteran or military retiree, do you have an insurance plan in place to cover your family should something happen to you?

Based on how you answer the questions above, you can start developing a career and financial plan. For instance, if an enjoyable job and quality of life are more important to you than a high-paying job, you should start budgeting, saving and investing money, so you and your family will be financially stable.

3. Use Your Resources

Many who leave military service don’t utilize all the resources available to them, whether it be the military’s Transition Assistance Program (TAP), Veteran Service Organizations (VSOs), or assistance programs such as the Semper Fi Fund. Not making use of these resources is essentially cutting yourself off from benefits you’ve earned through service.  Get familiar with these organizations, and find new ones through your contacts and superiors – you’ll be surprised at how much help they can offer, whether it’s making sure your veteran benefits are in order, walking you through preparing a resume for a civilian career, or connecting you with other organizations and veterans that can help.

 “One thing the Semper Fi Fund has is the Veteran to Veteran program,” says Scott, as an example. “It’s someone they can call who can help them navigate the VA system, school, life insurance, health insurance, resume writing  – anything that a veteran needs.”

4. Keep in Touch with Your Buddies

It’s often said that the military’s greatest resource is its people, and that holds true even after life in the military. It can be disorienting to negotiate the ins and outs of the civilian world by yourself – but keep in mind that other veterans have gone through the same process, and are ready to assist you.

“There’s a survey that says that 60 percent of people who are in jobs that they enjoy, got that job through someone they know,” says Conway. “Networking is very important. Let people know you’re going to be leaving the service, and [maybe] they know someone who can hook you up and get you started on your next career.”

Scott, who often hosts wounded warriors at his home in Texas, says that just knowing your comrades understand and support you can be a major boost.

“Anytime you get to help somebody out, and you tell them your experience, and where you’ve been, chances are they’ve been in the same boat as I was,” he notes. “I got this far, there’s no reason you can’t. Guys with PTSD, I tell them my story, where I’ve been, and they come away with a little different outlook, which is great. They call me up and ask me how I’m doing. I tell them, ‘I’m doing great, how are you doing?’ They just need someone to talk to.”

The kinship service members have for each other remains past active duty, and this support network is important for transition. “I keep in contact with a lot of my old Marines,” says Scott. “They call me up, and ask me for advice to this day, and I help them out as much as I can. That’s networking right there. And if I don’t have the answer, hey, give me a day or so and I’ll find out and get back to you.  When I was ready to get out, I had people I knew to help me out with whatever I needed help.

“You want those guys to succeed. If a Marine got out without going to a school or getting a job, I’ve failed him.”

5. Stay Positive

Just as an initial plan for a mission rarely survives first contact with the enemy, it’s likely that transitioning veterans will encounter bumps in the road, whether they be mental, emotional, physical, or financial. If hard times come, focus on the positive, and make use of the planning techniques and resources mentioned above to change your trajectory if needed.

“Just take it one issue at a time, and be proactive in everything,” says Scott. “No matter how bad it gets, there’s always a way out of it. When it comes to PTSD, when it comes to finances, when it comes to marriage issues, child issues, there’s a way out of it. That’s [how] the Marine Corps has helped me. You just gotta do what you gotta do.”

Conway stresses that transitioning veterans have been trained to be the best of the best, and encourages them to take that knowledge and confidence into civilian life. “Surveys show that only three out of ten who graduate high school are qualified to join the U.S. military,” he says. “And then you add training and discipline, and maybe most importantly, you add this element of responsibility. We push down authority as much as we can in the Marine Corps, and [as a result] there is a level of responsibility young people have to do great things.

“You’ve got corporals running squads at 19 and 20 [years old], so that sense of responsibility and accountability makes you a more mature person. And so when people decide to leave the service and transition to civilian life, they have a lot going for them. They have many more experiences than the average youngster coming out of high school or maybe at the end of his first job.”

Above all, Conway hopes that transitioning veterans can take a sense of pride in their military contributions, and extend it to civilian life. “I realize the day-to-day grind can be very difficult,” he says. “[Veterans] should realize they stepped forward at a time when their country needed them to do so, they served, and they’ve borne the battle scars of all of that. There’s not many people in the room who can say that.

“I’m delighted that our fellow Americans continue to choose to help them anywhere and everywhere they can. But there should always be this element of pride, that they served just like our forefathers have served down through the years, and now they’re a part of that legacy.”

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Military Transition