9 Things Veterans Wish They Knew Before Leaving the Military

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by Bianca Strzalkowski

Do as I say, not as I did.

Hindsight is 20/20. When most people have the opportunity to reflect on past experiences, they are able to glean some helpful life lessons and pay that information forward. The same is true for veterans who entered their post military lives and can pinpoint what they could have done better, should have done better, and what they wish someone would have told them sooner.

Active duty Marine Greg Palmer is currently in the process of retiring from the military after 20 years of service. He has attended the required transition assistance classes, which he says cover some topics too fast and others feel like more of a check-in-the-box. There are three things he wishes he knew sooner in his career:


1. Be organized with medical documents.

Make sure you have everything documented in your medical records. If you saw a doctor out in town at any duty station, call and get a copy of those records and add them to your personal file. Your medical records are going to be what justifies anything you claim with Veteran Affairs (VA). If it is not in your records, it didn’t happen. With that, if you have been one of those people for 17, 18, 19 years that has refused to go to medical for anything — go now.

2. Establish your savings

Start saving money now if you haven’t already — the process for disability and retirement pay is not immediate and if you are not prepared for it, you will get caught with no source of income that first month out. Also, if you rate disability, that process can take six to nine months after you retire, unless you are medically retired. Then, maybe as soon as three months.

3. Get your education, or, at least start it

If you haven’t started school, start now. You need some type of formal education to back-up your experience. Odds are, if you did not take advantage of free school while you were in, you are not going to do it once you get into the civilian work force). Even if it is for a formal certification, get it. It is only going to make you that much more marketable when you retire.

For others who have been out of the military for a few years, the perspective is a little different. Carl Wheless, a medically retired soldier, exited the military in 2014 after serving 20 years. He says there are a lot of misconceptions as to what to expect from being a civilian:

4. Military and civilian life have similarities.

Have a plan but be flexible. Understand that just as in military life, almost nothing goes to plan and be ready to do what you have been trained to do: adapt, improvise, and overcome.

5. There are also differences.

You are not better prepared for civilian life than your civilian counterparts. You are not better than them. You are not smarter than them. You are not more capable than them. You are not more courageous than them. You are not more honorable than them.

The most difficult part of civilian life is realizing you are not better prepared for civilian life than your civilian counterparts and you have to come to grips with the fact that you are now in their world; and if you want to succeed you have to master their world, just as you once mastered the world of being a Soldier, Sailor, Airman or Marine. The fact of the matter is that while you have experienced a great deal in the military, had a great deal of responsibility and even carried the burden of leadership, it will not make up for the sacrifices you have made in being behind your civilian counterparts in many ways. The longer you have served, the greater
that sacrifice can be.

6. Embrace civilian life

Have fun and enjoy getting to know yourself. As a civilian, you can now do anything you want with the obvious boundaries and laws. Other than that, life is what you make of it. Discover who you really are, what you really like, get really good at it, and be really happy.

7. Back to that medical topic –— document everything.

Throughout your military career, be it one year or more than 30, make absolutely sure that anytime you have a medical issue that it is treated and documented. That may not sound like something a tough guy or girl in the military does, but trust me, many, many years later when your body starts to give out on you and in any way it can be traced back to something that took place while you were on active duty — even if at the time it did not seem to specifically be caused by your military service — you are entitled to care and benefits through the VA. This is the number one regret I have heard time and time again from veterans who at the time did not understand the importance of doing such things, for years and decades after they left the military it was nearly impossible to get the treatment, benefits, and assistance from the VA.

Russ Whaley, a medically-retired Marine, says because he was attached to the Wounded Warrior Battalion he was at an advantage. Programs within the unit center on arming military members with a detailed outline of resources that exist. Whaley knows that is not the case for his peers so he recommends veterans take the time to research two areas: employment and the ins and outs of the VA.

8. Finding a job will not be easy.

Most veterans feel that they will be able to walk right out and find gainful employment with the experience they have gained from serving. Younger veterans do not pay adequate attention during the separations classes and I believe that comes back to bite them.

9. Learn the VA processes ahead of time.

Becoming educated on the process the VA uses to evaluate disabilities was huge in relieving stress for me during my transition. I was able to focus on education and follow on employment without the VA stress. Being senior enlisted helpful in the understanding, as well as engagement of VA personnel.

Those who have served their country agree that prep work for transitioning is the single most important step someone could take to set themselves up for a successful post-military life. When you are in the thick of it and living the day-to-day demands of the military, it can feel impossible to devote time to things that feel far out of reach. However, the preparation process should actually start as soon as you enter the military. Sounds easier said than done. The value of the network of veterans throughout the country is there is always someone willing to share their experiences to give a fellow veteran a better shot at doing it better. And, who better to be your subject matter expert than someone who has already had boots on the ground of this very unique way of life?


—Bianca Strzalkowski is a military spouse and freelance writer who lives in North Carolina