3 Shortfalls to the Changes in the Transition Assistance Program - and What You Can Do About It


So, I guess the big question is: How will this turn out?  When I read the press release from the Transition to Veterans Program Office announcing changes to the Department of Defense Transition Assistance Program, I was left shaking my head. My initial reaction was negative - very negative. They just don't get it. I saw several posts on LinkedIn from veterans and veteran advocates asking for thoughts and opinions about the forthcoming changes, and a part of me felt the urge to regress into angry email mode. I thought better of it. Because I didn't want my emotions to bias the argument, I stepped away from the keyboard. I took some time to craft a more thoughtful response to the changes, and well, here goes . . .

I came up with three reasons why the changes will not result in meaningful improvements to the process of military transition and civilian reintegration, and I offer three recommendations for transitioning service members to address the shortfalls. First, the program (still) fails to address the identity attachment issue at the core of the transition challenge. Second, the program increases command accountability instead of empowering the individual actually going through the transition. The third issue is one of perspective - one that recognizes that military service is just a part of a lifelong path of growth and service to the nation. I applaud the willingness to change, but ultimately, a successful program of transition assumes a personal approach that encourages individual responsibility for self-actualization and professional fulfillment in life beyond the military.

Shortfall Number 1: Use the Right Resource to Achieve the Desired Effect

Having service members complete a transition assistance checklist a year before separation won't achieve anything if you don't first address the inevitable crisis from identity attachment. After years or decades of military service, the authentic identity of the individual becomes indistinguishable from the soldier identity from the uniform. How can you begin to figure out what you want to do after the military if you first don't recognize who you are and who you want to be when you can't be the soldier anymore? Breaking this attachment is at the heart of the social, emotional, psychological, and even spiritual challenges of the transition process, and it remains a task ill-suited for transition advisors, career counselors, recruiters, and human resources consultants.

A professional coach is the best resource for transitioning service members to uncover their values, unpack their belief structure, set empowering intentions, and discover purpose in life beyond the military. The emotional and psychological challenge of transition comes from the inability to uncover and distinguish the authentic identity story when that story is longer defined by the uniform. In case you wonder what makes a coach a "professional" coach, I defer to the standard set forth in the statement of work for executive coaches contracted through the Army War College for General Officers - namely someone who has been trained through an Accredited Coach Training Program (ACTP) and certified through the International Coach Federation (ICF). ICF professionals adhere to a code of ethics and a standard for service delivery. Why not offer the best resource to address the greatest challenge in the process?

Why is there a different standard for coaching General Officers from what is provided as "coaching" for men and women leaving the service?

Forming new habits and setting intentions requires training and understanding in the application of positive psychology. While it is true that most successful leaders and transition advisors apply many of the skills used in professional coaching, assuming that a career services or human resources specialist can address the identity story at the same level as a professional coach is like assuming that someone skilled with a rifle could replace a professional soldier just because they're a good shot. Transition advisors, career counselors, and human resources specialists are important assets in the process, so focus them on what they do best. Use the right asset to achieve the best effect.

Shortfall Number 2: Individual Transition is an Individual Responsibility

One of the flawed assumptions about the Transition Assistance Program is that low participation is somehow the fault of the command (only 15 percent of enlisted and 9 percent of officers take advantage of specialized transition workshops). That's not it. First, the changes assume service members have some idea about what they want to do before they know who they want to be (see Shortfall Number 1 above). Second, the transition program fails to take into account the differences in qualification, education, training, or experience between service members sitting in these mandatory briefings. Instead of diversifying the program to meet the different needs of the audience, we are simply going to increase the burden on the command to ensure attendance - whether they want to or not.

Let's be clear: Bringing their soldiers home safely to their families is how commanders take care of their people. When it comes to safeguarding the sons and daughters of our nation, how would you prefer military leaders focus their efforts with what little time they have available? Personally, I'd rather see leaders spend their time ensuring these men and women are best prepared to deploy, fight, and win. This isn't a commander's responsibility. Having them sign off on a checklist at 90, 180, or 365 days won't do a damn thing for the individual leaving the military. These changes assume a better outcome simply by placing another task on a command already inundated with superfluous administrative requirements.

Out of curiosity, what correlation - by rank - exists between attendance in these mandatory programs and veteran success at the 2, 5, or 10 year mark after transition?

If you want to improve attendance, then improve the program. Make the content relevant and specific to your intended audience. Trust me, if we think it's worth our time, we'll show up. Ensure that the individual delivering the content is credible to their audience. A veteran who never worked in the civilian sector or a government employee whose expertise is employment benefit programs is not the right messenger for field grade officers with masters degrees looking for corporate leadership opportunities. Set the conditions to inspire and empower the transitioning service member, and you won't just improve the attendance at these programs, you will also improve the outcomes from the transition process.

Shortfall Number 3: Take the Long View

The last issue is one of perspective that is exposed through the transition process. The center of gravity for successful transition occurs after the service member removes the uniform, and yet everything about the transition program occurs before the service member removes the uniform. We treat military service as something distinguishable from civilian society - a perspective that defies the very foundation of the citizen soldier and all-volunteer force. Military service is just one part of a larger leadership journey in greater service to society.

Professional Military Education and leadership development focuses primarily (and perhaps exclusively) on what it takes to be successful in the military. While this is the priority, we need to expand that perspective to include what it takes to be successful over the course of your life. Everyone will leave the military at some point, and the best advocates for accession are veteran leaders in society. We shouldn't limit ourselves to service in the military and consider the broader impact that military leaders could have over the duration of a lifetime.

With the best trained and led military in the world, why should any service member need to validate their technical training or leadership experience to attain civilian employment? Why isn't that part of the training process already?

Practically speaking, this means that we counsel, prepare, and set the conditions for lifelong success for service members over the entire duration of their lives. Waiting until you begin the separation process is too late. Leadership is a universal construct. Most technical skills for each MOS have a civilian counterpart. We should create a culture and standard where "Be All You Can Be" extends beyond the military career into a lifetime of service. The inevitable transition from the military should be a consideration for training and development that begins on the first day of basic training. Much to our demise, we focus too myopically on what a recruit can do during a term of service or enlistment at the expense of what he or she can do over the course of a lifetime of service to the nation.

3 Ways to Fill the Shortfalls

Given these shortfalls to the proposed improvements to the Transition Assistance Program, what options are available if you stand on the threshold of driving out the main gate for the last time? Here are three recommendations for transitioning service members:

  1. Own it. Your commander and your unit are not responsible for your transition and reintegration back into society. You are. This is your life, your transition, and ultimately, your responsibility.

  2. Play the long game. The military is only a part of your journey to make an impact as a leader in society. You don't start over when you leave the military, you take the wisdom and experience from the military and repurpose what you've learned toward greater service to society. Perspective matters. Don't focus exclusively on the first year of transition at the expense of your full potential for the remaining 20, 30, or 40 years of your professional life.

  3. Invest in Yourself. If existing programs are not suited for you, find ones that are. Get comfortable with the idea of making a personal investment in you. How much is the second half of your life worth? When it comes to your journey, don't assume you will get the best resources and services for nothing. When you see yourself as worth the investment, don't be surprised if others start to see it as well.

In summary, I recognize the attention and effort to improve the transition assistance program. I also appreciate the many people who work to help veterans succeed in life beyond the military. That said, I'll offer this final assessment from the perspective of a military operation: The program uses the wrong assets to achieve the desired effect, it lacks self-awareness regarding its own capabilities and limitations (see yourself), it doesn't attack the center of gravity of the transition and reintegration process (see the enemy), and the approach is not connected to the larger end state for civilian reintegration. For what it's worth, that's my opinion about the forthcoming changes. Given your best judgment as a military professional, how do you think this will turn out?