Vietnam Veterans of America
It seemed apt that the Transition Assistance Program workshop I attended in October was held at a facility that faces Naval Base San Diego on one side and the city of San Diego with its freeway to the wider world on the other. The very purpose of TAP is to assist separating service members in their transition from the structure and security of the military back into a sometimes uncertain civilian life.
“So much is daunting for me. One of the biggest things is the fear of the unknown,” said Marteverick Shears, a U.S. Navy operations specialist who took the five-day course. “So much has happened from the day that I first joined to now. I’m married now; I have a kid on the way; I’m much older. That puts a lot of stress and a lot of anxiety, and just a bunch of pressure on my shoulders.”
Introduced in 1991, the Department of Defense-led TAP is designed to make the unknowns of transition less intimidating, with instruction in everything from resume writing to personal budgeting. It offers counseling on VA benefits, higher education, entrepreneurship, and more. It’s intended to ensure that an individual’s service is a foundation for a fulfilling life out of uniform—a far cry from the downward spiral that many Vietnam War veterans experienced upon discharge, when such support was almost non-existent
TAP was established by Congress in the National Defense Authorization Act of 1991 at a time when hundreds of thousands of service members were being involuntarily separated as part of force structure drawdowns. At the same time a wave of celebrations following America’s victorious 1990-91 Gulf War markedly changed both public and political attitudes toward the treatment of veterans.
“It was basically, when people left the military, how well prepared were they for a successful transition into furthering their lives and being able to maintain the livelihood they were accustomed to and go even further with that,” said Stan Beason, the Metro San Diego TAP Contract Transition Team Manager. “For numerous reasons, there was a lot of uncertainty about that, and it reflected in the statistics, so far as employment and employment availability.”
Likely with a lingering awareness of the issues experienced by many Vietnam veterans—to this day, nearly half of America’s 67,000 homeless veterans are Vietnam veterans, many of whom also suffer from substance abuse and mental health issues—congressional interest in TAP has remained high, particularly in regard to troops who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Administered by DOD in cooperation with the VA, Labor, Education, Homeland Security, the Small Business Administration, and the Office of Personnel Management, the program appears to be having a strong impact.
“You look at the difference from when they came out in Vietnam until now,” said Charles Reed, Metro San Diego TAP Contract Transition Specialist. “Vietnam saw a lot of homeless. If they had alcohol or drug problems, they had nowhere to go. Well, with this transition program, they do know where to go. That’s a real big difference.”
With some 200,000 service members transitioning annually, TAP is a substantial concern. These new veterans have varying skills, levels of education, experience, and family status. In the San Diego area alone five TAP workshops run simultaneously, serving some 6,000 transitioning sailors each year. The program costs are split between the partner agencies, with an estimated total annual cost of around $100 million.
The program was significantly overhauled after Congress passed the VOW (Veterans Opportunity to Work) to Hire Heroes Act in 2011. This made a pre-separation counseling program mandatory for all those with at least 180 continuous days of active duty, with TAP participation beginning as soon as possible during the 24 months preceding the anticipated retirement date.
That same year, the Obama administration established the Veterans’ Employment Initiative Task Force with DOD and VA. This body redesigned TAP, introducing the Transition GPS (Goals, Plans, Success) program. This includes a Military Life Cycle component that starts preparing service members for civilian transition even as they begin their military careers, and at certain milestones (such as deployment or promotion) throughout. At each such milestone, service members are made aware of Career Readiness Standards—a set of career preparation activities they must complete to depart from active duty and be considered “career ready”—and given the opportunity to review and adjust personal financial planning goals and individual development plans.
“[In 2011] there was an unemployment rate of the first year after separation from all the armed services, of upward to 25 percent—and that was just totally unacceptable,” Beason said. “Now the unemployment rate is somewhere between 3 and 4 percent for that same demographic.”
In addition to the classroom-based instruction, TAP now includes four hours of pre-separation counseling. The program’s core curricula consists of DOD-administered workshops of 8-10 hours each, VA benefits briefings, and a three-day DOL employment workshop. Participants may opt for additional two-day Transition GPS (TGPS) tracks in Accessing Higher Education (administered by DOD), Career Technical Training (VA), or Entrepreneurship (SBA).
A capstone event serves to verify that service members have met the DOD’s Career Readiness Standards. If they haven’t, they learn what additional measures they need to take to achieve the standards. It also includes representatives from the VA, employers (federal and private; local and national), and armed forces support programs such as the Navy’s Fleet and Family Support Program, to facilitate what’s known as “warm handovers” from the military to partner agencies that can provide follow-up resources for transitioning personnel.
“If I’m a sailor and I’m thinking about getting out, I sit down with my chain of command and I make a decision at about the 365-day mark to go to school or to go back to school,” said Beason, by way of example. “If that’s my decision, I have just made a path for myself, and so in that path there’s going to be some expectations that I need to prepare myself for that endeavor.”
Chatting with eight sailors on their lunch break during Day Two of a TGPS course at the Anchors Catering and Conference Center right outside Naval Base San Diego, many expressed misgivings.
“I’ve been dealing with a lot of anxiety around my transition,” said nuclear electrician’s mate Lauren Freeman. “TAP has been really good for finding a lot of resources about how to compare the cost of living [in different areas], how much I need to move, and how to figure in health care. I’m trying to make sure that my life is not taking a step backwards because I’m transitioning.”
Some of the TGPS attendees envisioned civilian careers similar to their Navy roles, while others planned drastic professional reinventions. Freeman plans to use her naval experience of technology maintenance in a career working with the electrical power grid or in corporate data centers. Rachel Adams, a hospital corpsman, intends to stay in the medical field as a nurse practitioner. But David Royal, a boatswain’s mate, wants a future in broadcasting; Ken Peralta, a helicopter mechanic, intends to become a real estate investor; and electrician’s mate Audrey Stromberg plans to work for the U.S. Postal Service while establishing a publishing business with her mother.
Others expressed a desire to reconnect with themselves away from the military and to achieve a more even work/life balance. Interior communications electrician Michelle Treganowan, for example, will be taking an eight-month backpacking trip before tackling a master’s degree in wildlife biology.
“Whether you are a person who has only done one tour or whether you have thirty-plus years [of service], for that period of time you’ve had this umbilical cord attached to you, and the Navy has done a great job of taking care of your daily and monthly needs,” said Beason. “Now that’s all going to be you.”
The challenge for many is that the person they were upon enlistment is very different from the one who’s re-entering civilian life—a phenomenon that can be more pronounced in long-serving military personnel.
“You would think that a senior person who has been in the Navy for twenty, thirty-plus years doesn’t have that much anxiety about separating,” said Beason. “And that’s the farthest thing from the truth—they probably have more anxiety than junior sailors do.”
The TGPS class I witnessed comprised some forty-five sailors from their early twenties to middle life. The animated DOL instructor who led the class, augmented by projections and whiteboards, repeatedly engaged sailors with questions about their specific situations.
As lunch approached, the phrase “Identify Your Skills and Values” was projected onto a screen. This is one of the central themes of TGPS: to teach service members to recognize skills and other attributes picked up during their service and to translate them into attributes that will impress a prospective employer.
For example, boasting about one’s prowess as a tank gunner at a corporate interview might be met with bemused silence. But describing that experience in terms of teamwork, the ability to excel under pressure and to master advanced technologies, could create a very positive impression.
The mandatory TGPS classes are more generalized. But the optional tracks and one-on-one follow-up counseling offer more personalized advice and resources.
“It’s been very specific to everybody’s needs,” said Adams. “Although they do cover the general aspect of everything that applies to all of us, there are different avenues that they’ve really covered that have been incredibly useful.”
While some students said that the workshop was something they’d have attended voluntarily, others admitted they were there because it was mandated—but that they’d nonetheless been pleasantly surprised by what they had learned.
My San Diego visit came at a time of change for TAP, after the John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act mandated many changes to the program, beginning on October 1, 2019. Transition from the military to civilian life must now begin no later than 365 days prior to transition, and a mandatory DOD Pre-Separation Training Day will include curriculum modules on building resiliency and financial literacy. And there are now four optional two-day tracks: the DOL Employment Track, DOL Vocational Track, DOD Higher Education Track, and SBA Entrepreneurship Track.
The overarching takeaway from experiencing the Transition Assistance Program first-hand is that Congress, the Department of Defense, and its program partners have an ongoing commitment to better equip separating personnel for life after the military—a commitment that contrasts sharply with the experience of many Vietnam veterans.
“More than anything else, it’s doing right by the transitioning service member,” Beason concluded. “We can’t just dump you off after your enlistment and say, ‘Get out there and do as best you can.’”
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