This post is brought to you by Army veteran James Hinton. (If you’re interested in contributing at The-Military-Guide.com, please see our posting guidelines.)
In early 2007 things were looking pretty good. I had just redeployed back to Ft. Hood after my third combat tour. I was an E-6 who had just become eligible for my E-7 and was just waiting to see where I came in on the cut off list. I had nine years under my belt and was feeling good about being just months from being halfway to that 20-year letter. Life was good.
I did have one small problem though. I’d caught this nagging cough in Afghanistan and it just didn’t seem to want to go away. During my medical processing, I mentioned it on the appropriate form in my stack of forms and figured a little time free of combat would see it go away.
It didn’t go away, and a visit to Darnell resulted in my receiving news I was completely unprepared for in every way. My cough was the result of permanent lung damage from exposure to who knows what over there. My lungs were no longer military fit, and neither was I. My career was over. By summer I was wearing civvies and wondering what had happened.
I was getting a nice little disability check because of the damage, but it was not enough to feed an entire family on. I needed to get back into the civilian workforce as quickly as I could. Unfortunately, I quickly discovered I was, in many ways, unemployable. I didn’t have what employers wanted, and that meant that someone who’d had a bright future in the Army had no future out of it. It would take years for me to finally get fully settled comfortably, and those years were hard not just on me, but on my family as well.
I’m telling you this not because I have some sort of need for sympathy. I’m saying it because the next couple of years were an experience I hope that those of you still in uniform can learn from. I made mistakes while I was in because I assumed I would be staying, and that meant the next years were an avoidable struggle. There were several things I should have done and didn’t, and I’m going to tell you what they are.
Sure, plenty of people will point out that military pay isn’t the greatest thing out there. We all know that, however, that it’s also not the worst. It’s alright pay. When you combine that with things like access to the PX and AAFES, free medical care for the soldier (and Tricare for families), BAH/BAQ, etc, a soldier’s life is not a particularly expensive one. It’s easy to set money aside and save it.
I, of course, didn’t save much. There were TVs to purchase, game consoles, and a car. Mrs. Staff Sergeant Hinton and I enjoyed some fine dining on date night, and once I purchased a $2,000 laptop just for playing games. Sure, a little bit was put aside, but that was for in case the car broke down or someone broke a tooth playing too rough.
When I suddenly found myself out of the Army, needing work, and not finding any, I didn’t have much of a buffer. Even with my monthly government check, the savings ran out after only five months. From then on it was a significant struggle to pay bills. The credit card debt soared as a result of needing to cover the basics of food and gas, and it would only be last year I finally got those paid off.
So the lesson from this? Save. Everyone in the service has access to USAA Bank. You get to keep that account after you ETS. Put aside a couple of hundred dollars every month and don’t touch it. Let it just accumulate interest. If I had put $200 away every month from the point I enlisted, I’d have had close to $25,000 in the bank when I left, and that could have combined with my disability to feed my family and I for a good two years.
If you make it the full twenty, you can easily be looking at $60,000+. If you go all the way to 30 years then retire? Imagine having all of the benefits of a 30-year retirement and over $100,000 in the bank. If you don’t make it and find yourself suddenly separated by an injury? That’s breathing space while you get back on your feet.
I had no particular need to study. Sure, I could get bonus points towards promotion by having some college credits, but as someone planning to be a career NCO, all the education I really needed was offered by NCOES. I accumulated about a year’s worth of college here and there, but my interest in civilian study was lackluster.
When I entered civilian life I found that I was, in many ways, unemployable. Sure, I had leadership skills. But I didn’t have any leadership degrees. I had worked in Army Aviation, but I had no aviation certifications. People interviewed me, thanked me for my service, and then hired someone who had the papers civilians know how to read. I wound up spending three years attempting to find work and finishing a degree at the same time, all while struggling to pay mounting bills.
Look, we all have access to the GI Bill. We pay into it during our first year in the service, and then it is there for us. Use it. The Army lets you earn up to 100 points towards promotion through civilian education. If you’re planning to go career, that’s a leg up to the higher base pay that comes with higher rank. If you end up out of the service, you’re on your way to a degree that will land you jobs. Use the Military Skills translator to determine what degree might complement your MOS and start taking classes.
It may seem like a military career is not conducive to taking classes. You have exercises in the field, deployments, PCSes, and all sorts of other things that can interrupt the classroom schedule. That may have been a good excuse once, but it no longer was one even when I was in. Now? Major universities are offering online degree programs that may as well have been tailor-made for the military. These include schools like Norwich University, Case Western, or Ohio University.
If college isn’t interesting, try a different direction. Being in Army Aviation I should have taken the opportunity to get myself an A&P license. Had I possessed that I could likely have transitioned into civilian aviation quickly. It’s not just aviation types like me that can benefit from this. Paramedics, electricians, and many others beside can receive certification while in the military through programs like COOL.
Don’t wait until you’re out to start getting the education you need. Take advantage of all of the opportunities available and get the certification or diploma you will need before you get out.
The military can often seem like a small, tight-knit community, depending on your MOS. People know one another and that can often work to your advantage.
The civilian world can be similar as well. As large as it is, individual professions can be fairly small and just as tightly knit. While you are still in, even if you plan to stay in for a full career, you should cultivate possible connections.
There are two different directions you can take with this, and frankly, I recommend you use both. One is to connect with service organizations for veterans. The other is to get involved with professional trade organizations.
Many people think of the service organizations as being specifically for former military only. The fact is both the VFW and the American Legion take active duty personnel. Participation with these organizations can gain connections that can benefit you for a lifetime, in service and out. If you have been participating in either of these organizations and you suddenly find yourself out because of an injury, they can immediately step in to help you through the transition. Many of them have been there, done that. They can advise you, help you find programs that can help you, and provide you connections that can lead to possible civilian work.
Professional trade organizations can also be a good place to participate in, even if you plan to go career. They can be as “loose” as LinkedIn or as specific as the American Association of Pharmacy Technicians. Not only can membership earn you connections that could help you find work in the event of a sudden ETS, they can also provide you with civilian insights and knowledge that could improve your own ability to perform your MOS. Participate in discussions, write papers, engage in debates, and make yourself a familiar name. It can provide the connections you need after your military connections suddenly become a part of the past instead of the future.
I myself am a member of VFW Post 63. I joined only after I got out, but once I was in and had become somewhat familiar with them, it proved to be a lifeline. It was another vet who managed to find me a temporary position as a civilian contractor with the local National Guard. It wasn’t a career, but it was enough to take up the bills the disability check couldn’t cover for the time I needed to finish a degree that did land me full-time work later.
Hopefully, you won’t need any of this advice. You’ll be able to get that 20-year letter still hale and hearty. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen to me, and it might not happen for you. The military is constantly concerned with preparedness. Preparedness to deploy. Preparedness for exercises. Preparedness for PCS. You should be just as aware of preparedness for the time you leave the military, whether it’s tomorrow or twenty years off. Learn from my experiences and be prepared with a trifecta of savings, education, and connections. It’ll reap benefits well beyond just a retirement check.