Six Months Before Retirement… Preparing for a Military Retirement

Ideally by six months before retirement the big decisions have been made. The rest is “just” a matter of executing your plans and handling the surprises. Before you start into your checklist details, take a moment to review your progress.

By now you and your family have discussed the complicated issues. While there may not be perfectly harmonious agreement, you’ve probably made a decision to retire and another decision about a bridge career. You’ve reviewed your finances and talked through where you want to live. You’ve filed the request and made sure that it’s being processed. Your family, relatives, shipmates, coworkers, and friends are all aware that you’re retiring and everyone has dealt with their initial reactions. By now any family or command resistance should at least be grudging acceptance (if not cheerful cooperation) and everyone’s making appropriate plans.

Attending the Transition Assistance Programs (TAP) training

A year or two ago, when you first started thinking about retirement but before you filed your request, you would ideally have attended your service’s transition assistance planning. (The retirees are laughing heartily about this suggestion while secretly wishing they’d had this opportunity.) The reality is that it’s hard to schedule time away from the mission when you haven’t even made a retirement decision. You might be reluctant to tip your hand by going to TAP when you’re supposed to be a hard-charging leader, and most commands don’t really make time for your absence until you’ve already requested retirement. So we’ll start with a review of the contributions that TAP can make to your retirement checklist.

Whether you’re seeking a bridge career or planning to be a surfer bum, the Department of Defense wants to ensure that you understand your benefits and are aware of their timing. (No one wants to see veterans sleeping under highway overpasses or standing in line at the food bank.) You’re going to be stuck at TAP until the instructors are satisfied that you’ve been trained.

The briefings may be fascinating but they could also end up covering topics that you already know, so bring plenty of material to keep yourself quietly entertained while you’re waiting for new information to come up. Even if you’re offered the opportunity to complete your review online instead of in person, it might be better to plant yourself in a conference room with fellow TAP attendees for a few days. This is one of the few times during the next six months where you’ll be left alone to focus on what needs to be done and when it needs to be finished. Make the most of your “me time”!

Or make the most of your “us time”– try to coordinate your schedules and attend TAP with your spouse. Even if you two have already made the important decisions, one of you is sure to notice a detail that’s been overlooked. You’d much rather have your spouse at TAP to talk about the briefs than to try to go over it later from your notes, and you’ll both feel more comfortable going through the process together. If your spouse isn’t completely on board then TAP will go a long way toward settling your differences.

TAP is a wonderful wake-up call. It’s required for all separating/retiring veterans, so you can’t go home without it. Your chain of command has to leave you alone for a few days and you have to leave your IN box back at your office. (Put away that smartphone, too!) Your spouse can attend with you, so two pairs of eyes and ears can help make sure you don’t miss anything. Your fellow TAP attendees will also share their stories and the counselors will be able to help you research the answers to your specific questions, so it’s a much better resource than randomly browsing military websites.

While you’re at TAP, be alert for any mention of tasks that need to be completed before you’re formally retired. You’ll have your command checklist but you’ll have to modify it for your situation and your schedule. As inconvenient or even painful as some checklist items may appear to be on your last day at the command, they’ll be extraordinarily more difficult after you’re a retiree. Some retiree updates and corrections may take months to be processed if you’re no longer on active duty. Others just can’t be done, even if you’re willing to pay the expenses.

At an absolute minimum, spend your free TAP moments reviewing your service record and medical/dental records. Make sure that all of your reports or evaluations are present and that the dates cover all of your service. Verify that your medical/dental records contain every health concern that you may be taking into retirement, and make a list of questions to discuss during your exams. If your issues aren’t addressed before you retire then you may have to start all over again with the Veteran’s Administration.  Military retirees will quickly tell you that this is no way to start a retirement.

Self-assessment software & worksheets

If you haven’t made a decision about a bridge career, TAP is a good place to research the question. The curriculum and the training aids are all designed to help you identify a field and find a job that meets your criteria. The instructors will be very familiar with the self-assessment tools and they’ll also be able to discuss a job search. Just talking about the process may convince you that it’s not as difficult as it seems– or you may decide that employment is definitely not in your future.

Once you’ve squared away your records, take the time to explore the self-assessment programs and documents. Even if you’re convinced that you’ll never work again, you may be surprised by the wealth of knowledge you’ll gain from the personality & temperament surveys. The interest questionnaires can also help you decide how you feel about perpetual travel, moving to a new area, volunteer work, and new hobbies.  Talk to the staff about your concerns and tailor the resources to your needs. This may be the last time for months that you can reflect in quiet exploration and contemplation.

If you’re attending TAP with your spouse, try to take the assessments and surveys together. The results may surprise you– in a good way! Even if the TAP schedule doesn’t have the time, you may want to revisit these tools to help make sure that you’re both in synch with your retirement plans.

What TAP can’t do for you

Human beings tend to resist change, and leaving the military is perhaps the biggest life change since we entered the military. The most important benefit of the transition programs is to prod you to take charge. You can determine whether your finances will support your new life. You can be responsible for your own entertainment. You can start a bridge career if you want to or you can take some time off. Sitting in that transition classroom will make you realize that you have to make the transition for yourself instead of letting your chain of command take care of you for the rest of your life.

Unfortunately the transition programs can’t do the work for you. You may be handed a notebook with a generic checklist, but you’ll have to add the details that apply to your specific situation. You may learn about medical and vocational assistance, but you have to research your records and make the appointments. And while they may be able to help you figure out how big your pension will be, you have to determine if that’s enough to make you financially independent.

WHAT I DO: I help you reach financial independence. For free. I retired in 2002 after 20 years in the Navy's submarine force. I wrote "The Military Guide to Financial Independence and Retirement" to share the stories of over 50 other financially independent servicemembers, veterans, and families. All of my writing revenue is donated to military-friendly charities.

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