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My Marine Corps squadron came back from Afghanistan shortly after Thanksgiving 2012. I had spent the last few years as part of the enlisted aircrew on UH-1Y attack helicopters, which meant working on aircraft and operating the machine guns mounted on them. I knew my purpose for enlisting had finally been fulfilled, as joining our nation’s ongoing war against terrorism seemed a sacred duty to me from the day I watched the Twin Towers fall.

I thought I was ready for whatever came next in life. I thought I was prepared to look toward the great unknown of the civilian world. Needless to say, I had a very arrogant approach to the next 10 months during demob, before I actually got out. And like most Veterans, I had a transition full of unnecessary stumbling blocks as a result.

Shock and Awe

We had to maintain a relatively high operational tempo after my unit returned. This meant training up new members of our squadron and ensuring that all the new aircrew got enough flight hours to be trusted without instructor supervision.

Because of the rigorous demands of these final military duties, it was difficult to find the time and energy to properly prepare myself for a successful transition. Sure, I went to the mandatory transition classes, but those felt like drinking from a fire hose. Retaining it all was difficult, and discerning what was important and relatable to our particular post-military dreams was hard.

But these career worries just scratched the surface of my problems. At the time I got out, my personal life was a mess, and my mental health was in poor shape at best. Our squadron had dealt with the loss of several Marines, we had recently returned from a very active combat deployment, and, just like half of all married Marines today, I had recently gotten divorced.

While you’re in the military, you don’t have much time (or need or interest) to sit down and actually address your personal problems. Yet when you’re holding a freshly printed DD 214 in your hand, time is all you seem to have.

Redefining Freedom

My active duty service time officially ended in October 2013. I drove off Camp Pendleton in Southern California on my last day, ecstatically smiling, blaring music from my car. I was a free man with no idea what came next.

I ended up in San Diego in the spring of 2014. I attended community college to knock out prerequisite classes before transferring to a four-year university to pursue a business degree. While I was grateful for the support of my girlfriend Kelly (also a Marine) during this period, it was at this point that I realized I needed more professional help and guidance. I simply wasn’t prepared to start a new life and assume a new civilian identity. I didn’t a have a plan.

My experience is that, while you’re in the military, you take for granted that a schedule exists — written by someone else — to ensure that you’re completing purposeful tasks each day. When you exit, you have to rediscover a purpose to keep yourself moving forward. You have to stay accountable — not to a unit full of friends who will call you out on your stupidity and whose lives depend on you in the field, but just to your own self. You have to discover who you are again, outside the identity you cultivated as a member of the armed forces.

These tasks can be much more daunting than they sound. During your final year on active duty, you may be better off if you start deciding which habits are important to you. Then, be sure to maintain those habits after you leave the military. Don’t neglect the daily routines that helped bring you success during your time in service. The habits of disciplined work hours, physical activity, and maintaining high standards are easily transferable to any goal you set your mind to once you get out.

Luckily, the Post-9/11 GI Bill was an unexpected saving grace for me. The classes I attended — and the income I received from it — provided me with some much-needed structure and financial breathing room to get my priorities straight. Without a real plan and nothing internal driving me anymore, having my bills paid and going to class created at least a hint of order, even if not of my own design. This underutilized military benefit helped me to start moving in a positive direction professionally, which in turn gave me the time to focus on rebuilding myself personally.

Facing Inner Battles

Like many combat Veterans, I was having a hard time with insomnia, anxiety, anger, and survivor’s guilt from the memories I had repressed during my enlistment. I also had serious unresolved pain in my back, knees, and right shoulder. After talking to a few other Marines I respected, I decided to reach out to the VA for support.

I was referred to an official Veteran advocate organization, my local VFW, which assigned someone to represent me for a medical claim so I could get the mental and physical support I needed. I had been intimidated by the process before, and I had heard so many nightmare stories that I didn’t want to even start. I was worried that the VA would lose my paperwork, take months to see me, or even deny my benefits altogether. I was also used to choosing self-administered care over going to Medical during my enlistment and risk depleting its precious resources for those who seemed to need it more. But with someone who had been through the VA process dozens of times before by my side, I felt much more confident.

Today, I’m thankful that those initial negative thoughts didn’t override my desire to improve. It took a few months, but I ended up getting the help I needed. This was all because I simply decided to stop listening to my self-destructive negativity and took action.

During this period, it became apparent why people re-enlist after they get out: They miss their military family, and they realize that the military culture simply doesn’t exist in the civilian world. Many of us — myself included — let ourselves get pulled into isolation as a result. In my opinion, this isolation is the most dangerous aspect of the Veteran transition. It’s where people fall into depression, self-pity, hopelessness, and just a general purposeless existence.

The solution to avoiding this isolation can be as simple as reaching out to your friends and family, even if it feels strange at first. Knowing that you’re not alone in this world — that you’re neither the first nor last person to feel these things — can also make the mental obstacles we face much easier to conquer. Remember: You didn’t fight your battles alone while you were in the military. Don’t try to do it when you’re out.

Returning to Human

Discovering who you are and what drives you — after suddenly separating from the only life you knew for the last several years (if not longer) — is no easy task.

For me, this discovery started to take place only after I got the support I needed. These resources gave me the chance to look both inward and outward, toward the future. Who was I now (not 12 months ago)? What did I value? Who did I want to become?

I think these are all very common questions we face as human beings. But they are especially poignant when you’re forced to assume an entirely new persona than the warrior you once were.

The path I took to find these answers involved a lot of reading, self-reflection, and identifying the people I admired and the traits or habits that made them great. From people as varied as the great Stoic Marcus Aurelius and the Holocaust survivor (turned psychologist) Viktor Frankl, I learned to find meaning in life and purpose in suffering. From the daily examples set by fallen Marines in my unit like Corey Little and Eric Seaman, I reflected on what it means to be kind, optimistic, and determined.

But it was also the way music spoke to me, the way the artists expressed themselves honestly and fearlessly that helped me find my own voice. And it was the examples of courage and sheer will displayed by people like Elon Musk that inspired me during this time, as he dragged humanity kicking and screaming into the future. I came to realize that there is no one-size-fits-all solution in the transitioning process, but there are plenty of people and traits worth emulating to ease the journey.

Committing to Forward Motion

With all the changes that new Veterans experience, it can be easy to grow paralyzed with indecision — a sort of “analysis paralysis.” But this resistance to progress must be fought through. My experience is that it doesn’t really matter what direction you’re making progress toward, as long as you stay in motion. My recommendation is to identify what type of person you are and what circumstances let you thrive both personally and professionally. Then, make a plan to get there.

For me personally, I found that helping others through their own hard times gave me incredible energy. I found that learning new concepts and teaching them to others was surprisingly empowering. Equally important, I found that spending time with my dogs (away from people) renewed my spirit, and that my motivation to fight global injustice in Afghanistan could be repurposed to right everyday wrongs as a civilian.

Whatever invokes a strong internal reaction in you as a unique individual is something you can start to take note of as a critical element to your future happiness and success. Rather than ignore those traits within yourself, start making them work for you instead.

Looking internally for broad answers first can help. Do you love structure, clearly defined rules to clearly defined games, and the feeling of predictability? Then you will probably do well working in environments and for companies that provide those elements for you. Does the thought of taking orders again crush your soul? Then you might (like me) do better on a more entrepreneurial or nontraditional path, for example, in business.

As you consider your future life, think back on the times when you experienced a sense of “flow” at work, during a hobby, or in your personal life. What were you doing? What kinds of actions were you taking and skills were you using? I personally found leveraging various people’s natural strengths to achieve a common goal highly addicting, so I looked for those opportunities in a career. Asking yourself these questions will help you define the person you want to become and the kind of life you want to live.

For me, these reflective, intentional steps made all the difference in my transition out of the Marines. I started as someone who knew nothing about myself — other than the fact that I was lost, aggressive, and angry. Only gradually did I transform into someone I could be proud of today. I fought the nightmares, the horrible memories, the broken relationships, and the lack of direction until I had beaten them into submission.

The transition from military to civilian life can be done successfully. But you have to know what you want from life, and you have to be willing to work hard to get it. The only way you do that is by listening to the voice inside, while committing to yourself and those around you that you will make your biggest dreams into your reality.

EDUCATION TRACK

Transitioning into higher education after years of military service can seem overwhelming. But SAVI’s Education Track is designed specifically to support Veterans like you from start to finish — academic advising, walkthroughs of your VA education benefits … and everything in between. 

All transitioning Veterans in SAVI’s programs gain access to our carefully developed tools for post-military students, including the SAVI Student Transition Incubator℠, Student Track Transition Program℠, and Student Benefit Assessment Service℠, as well as our personalized career path determination assistance. Each of these services is vital to a whole life approach to the military-to-civilian transition. 

EMPLOYMENT TRACK

Continuing on your professional journey after military service can be an amazing opportunity to find a new career that fulfills you and lets you thrive. Yet civilian workplace etiquette and the hiring process can be much different than what you’re used to as a service-member. The job search and performance evaluation processes are much more employee-driven, for example, and the workplace can be more isolating without the shared objective of high-stakes national defense.

SAVI’s Employment Track delivers start-to-finish support to help Veterans navigate a new career. From skills assessments to professional networking strategies, SAVI offers custom-built tools — including the SAVI Employment Transition Incubator℠, Job Networking & Search Service℠, and Employment Benefit Assessment Service℠ — as well as job retention and mentoring services to help you every step of the way. Each of these services is vital to a whole life approach to military-to-civilian transition.

ENTREPRENEURSHIP TRACK

Chasing your dream of self-employment can seem daunting after years of a highly structured military life. But SAVI provides the resources to help you turn this dream into a fulfilling reality — and so that you don’t have to go it alone.

All transitioning Veterans on this track receive our comprehensive tools for personal business success: the SAVI Entrepreneur Transition Incubator℠ and Entrepreneur Benefit Assessment Service℠, as well as our opportunity consulting and our funding exploration  support. Each of these services is vital to a whole life approach to the military-to-civilian transition.

RETIREMENT TRACK

After serving your time in the military, it’s time to look forward toward your retirement. SAVI is here every step of the way to help you transition from service-member to thriving retiree. We’re here to ensure you don’t have to muddle through the financial, personal, and emotional aspects of retirement on your own.

All transitioning Veterans on this track receive comprehensive tools for a successful retirement: the SAVI Retirement Transition Incubator℠ and Retirement Benefit Assessment Service℠, as well as our one-on-one ongoing assistance and assessment services. Each of these services is vital to a whole life approach to the military-to-civilian transition.


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Getting Connected with Your Local Veterans Organizations

If you’re a military Veteran, then you’re a part of a very niche group. Active military personnel make up less than 1 percent of the total U.S. population today, so it’s not surprising that so many Veterans feel isolated as they start their transitions into civilian life.

Yet this issue isn’t a new one. Since 1899, organizations like the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) and The American Legion were created to offer Veterans a place for camaraderie, to feel empowered, and to help boost troop morale for those still in the service.

Fast-forward to today and Veterans groups have emerged in nearly every community in the country and boast a wide variety of scope and missions — such as the career program by the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America and the suicide prevention work by The Military Veteran Project. The benefits to getting involved with one of these local groups include much more than just gaining buddies to swap war-stories with. Veterans can also get assistance with job placements, career counseling, emotional support, and finding resources for disabled Vets.

Not sure where to begin to find your local Veteran connections? Here’s a list of a few national Veteran groups with various local chapters across the nation.

The American Legion ​
AMVETS
Disabled American Veterans
Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America
Korean War Veterans Association
The Military Veteran Project
Paralyzed Veterans of America
Veterans of Foreign Wars
• Student Veterans of America
• Vietnam Veterans of America

For a more comprehensive list of military charities, organizations, and government contacts, click here.

Get Squared Away: A Comprehensive Checklist for Transitioning Service-Members

18 Months Before Your Discharge
• Review GI Bill and tuition assistance benefits
• Review GI Bill transferability requirements (Transferring your benefits may require re-enlisting or incurring an additional service obligation.)
• Use the DoD Online Academic Skills course to prepare for the SAT, ACT, GRE, or GMAT Exams
• Take a skills/interest assessment through your local ESO or career counselor
• Consider taking CLEP exams to complete your general education requirements
• Reach out to your SAVI mentor for tips from someone who has lived through the transition experience -Start developing your personal and professional networks
• Review your post-separation budget, and start planning for your financial transition
• Register on LinkedIn to get ready for networking opportunities
• Research the job potential, affordability, and community where you plan to live

12 Months Before Your Discharge
• Start developing an Individual Transition Plan
• Review your Pre-Separation Checklist (DD 2648)
• Get your Verification of Military Experience and Training (VMET) document (DD 2586)
• Research the cost of living where you plan to live as a civilian-Learn about your VA home benefits -Make an appointment with your local Transition Counselor
• Attend a Transition GPS five-day workshop -Check job boards, and start exploring the right career options for you
• Start exploring the right degree and college for you -Request “house hunting orders”
• Enroll in a SAVI Transition Incubator℠
• Use a skills translator to begin developing a civilian resume

9 Months Before Your Discharge
• Continue building your networks through LinkedIn and elsewhere
• Consider an employment assistance program
• Start writing your resume
• Search for jobs in your field and area to see what’s out there
• Arrange for HHG transportation counseling -Research your healthcare options, including Employer-Provided Civilian Care, CHCBP, Transitional Health Care Benefits, and CHAMP
• Make a budget, and prepare to pay for health insurance coverage

6 Months Before Your Discharge
• Start applying for jobs -Start building a wardrobe for the civilian workplace
• Continue to expand your career networks
• Attend career fairs
• Review and update your will and financial documents
• Consider whether to take terminal leave or sell back your balance
• Schedule appointments for household goods (HHG) shipment and storage
• Schedule final medical checkups for all family members
• Visit the Legal Assistance Office for help updating your documents
• Determine if you’re eligible for separation pay or early retirement
•Begin your PCS and housing checkout procedures -Begin looking for VSOs to join

3 Months Before Your Discharge
• Consider job placement services
• Use the VA Pre-discharge program to determine your eligibility for VA Disability Compensation
• Review your finances to ensure your budget will work in civilian life
• Compare SGLI to VGLI and other life insurance options
• Get to know more about where you plan to live
• Contact your Military Treatment Facility, and get copies of all of your health records
• Complete a physical with your MTF or a VA Medical Center
• Take advantage of the two-day TAP GPS program for education and entrepreneurship support

1 Month Before Your Discharge
• Finalize your relocation appointments, and review your benefits
• Arrange for inspection of any government housing
• Choose your transitional healthcare plan

Enrolling in VA Healthcare

1. Make it easier on yourself: Start with support from VA’s Concierge of Care. Enrolling in VA care isn’t as tough a process as it used to be. In October 2017, VA launched its Concierge for Care (C4C) program to enhance its support for transitioning Veterans in getting VA healthcare. The C4C initiative educates and empowers Veterans while simplifying the healthcare application and enrollment process. This means that, shortly after you separate, you’ll get a phone call from a representative who can answer questions, process your VA healthcare enrollment application, and schedule your first VA medical appointment.

2. Get notified of your application status. After your application is submitted, you’ll receive another phone call from VA to let you know whether your enrollment is approved. VA will also send you a Veterans Health Benefits Handbook with information on your healthcare benefits, Enrollment Priority Group, copay status, and other information you’ll need as a new enrollee. Handbooks also include information for appealing a decision if your initial application is rejected.

3. Get your Veteran Health Identification Card (VHIC). Only Veterans enrolled in the VA healthcare system can receive a VHIC. Once your application is verified, contact the enrollment coordinator at your local VA medical center to arrange to get your picture taken for the your card either in advance or at your next VA healthcare appointment.

4. Keep your information current after you enroll. Enrolled Veterans can update your personal information (such as income, address, and insurance information) by completing VA Form 10-10EZR online, by visiting a local VA facility, or by calling 1-877-222-VETS between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. ET, Monday through Friday.

Project You: Top Self-Development Courses to Take

Create a Perfect Morning Routine
You will learn how to create a morning routine filled with purpose, presence, and peace. You’ll be more energized, productive, and content — all before the start of your workday. Start your morning by doing things that feed your soul and make you happy.

Finding Your Life’s Purpose by Eckhart Tolle
If you’ve been searching for your true purpose in life, Eckhart Tolle has some straightforward advice: Stop struggling. This is because the primary purpose of every human being is simply to be: Be fully engaged in this moment, and be aligned with the natural flow of reality itself.

Mindshift: Break Through Obstacles to Learning and Discover Your Hidden Potential
This course is designed to show you how to look at what you’re learning, and your place in what’s unfolding in the society around you, so that you can be what you want to be. You’ll see that by using certain mental tools and insights, you can learn and do more than you might have ever dreamed.

Achieving Personal and Professional Success
You'll learn how to find your passion and core values, how to apply these values to your own life, how to work well with others, how to communicate effectively, how to set goals, how to use influence to achieve these goals, and even how to say you are sorry. Through exercises, self-diagnostic surveys, quizzes, and many case studies, you'll discover how to define not only what you want, but also the best way to get it. These courses provide key insights into successful personal practices, whether you are in the office or in your home. We all bring ourselves to work every day, and these courses will help you be your best self wherever you are.