FORT POLK, La. Just as a young Soldier goes through boot camp to acclimate to military life, it would seem to make sense that, in some way, the process be done in reverse for optimal reacclimation into civilian life.

But until recently, Soldiers were only required to take one class to process out of the Army -- even though the Army Career and Alumni Program, now located at 4275 California Ave. at the airfield, already offered a multitude of beneficial services and information to make transitioning easier.

Tami Culbreath, ACAP transition services manager, said many Soldiers didn't take advantage of what ACAP had to offer. "They opted out of the services because they didn't understand what ACAP was or what the program could do for them," said Culbreath.

That began to change when the Veterans Opportunity to Work Act (VOW) was initiated in November 2011 with an implementation date of Nov. 21, 2012.

ACAP has already seen significant changes, according to Culbreath. "Prior to this Act taking effect, most services, including the Department of Labor employment workshop and Veterans Administration briefings, were not mandatory for Soldiers before transition. The only mandatory class was the initial preparation briefing. VOW has made these briefings and more mandatory, while reorganizing new timelines for classes that have to be completed," said Culbreath.

The extended timeline gives Soldiers a better chance to attend classes and prepare for transition, she said. "There are specific timelines for the initial preparation briefing and counseling session. Soldiers have to attend those before they have 12 months left in service. The employment workshop should be completed before they have 10 months left and the VA benefits briefing should be completed six months out," said Culbreath.

To make it easier on Soldiers, the Installation Management Command would like these classes wrapped up in a complete five-day curriculum, said Culbreath "Once they do that initial briefing, we schedule them for the five day (Monday through Friday) courses. They'll do the Military Occupation Codes Crosswalk transition overview and VA benefits on Monday, DOL Employment workshop on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday and a financial planning seminar and VA signup on Friday," said Culbreath.

That's the goal ACAP is aiming for, according to Culbreath. Initially, it's been a challenge to accomplish because the Act wasn't grandfathered and that means ACAP has many Soldiers well past the 12 month mark that are playing catch-up to get all these mandatory classes finished, she said.

ACAP is trying to accommodate those Soldiers by holding VA benefits classes at larger sites and doing additional MOC crosswalk sessions to assist Soldiers already in their 12-month window of opportunity. Soldiers in the 120-day window are the focus right now. "They have terminal leave and other considerations we have to work around," said Culbreath.

The VOW program is Department-of-Defense-mandated and, according to Culbreath, considered a commander's program. Thus, ACAP has begun to notify command about what services their Soldiers already have and what they still need in the transition process. "We are trying to keep command informed by sending out a report each month that tells them if their Soldiers are 14, 10 or six months away from transitioning. This gives them a list of Soldiers in immediate need and focuses them on where they are in the transitioning process," said Culbreath. "Fort Polk command has been fantastic as the changes are implemented and we have their full support."

The VOW program works to give Soldiers the tools they need to succeed after the Army, an important goal since veteran unemployment is high, according to Culbreath. "I get phone calls from employers who want to hire veterans, but they want to hire "prepared veterans." Just being a veteran isn't going to get them the job if they don't have the skills necessary to sell themselves to the employers," she said.

"The VOW curriculum helps them do that."

The old adage "Knowledge is power" can be seen in the efforts of VOW to empower Soldiers with the education they need to thrive after their Army career is complete.

• MOC Crosswalk -- The purpose of drafting a crosswalk of your military occupational career is to identify and relate civilian career opportunities and requirements to your current military education, training, and experience. The MOC crosswalk helps Soldiers identify skills, experience and abilities.

• DOL employment workshop -- This workshop includes a self-assessment, interviewing skills, salary negotiation tips and resume preparation -- all of the things Soldiers will need when trying to gain employment.

• VA benefits briefing -- This class is filled with comprehensive information about benefits and entitlements for Soldiers.

• Financial planning seminar -- Soldiers learn about where their finances should be and the things they need to do to be financially ready to transition.

"We are really excited about the VOW program. We want Soldiers to be ready to tackle the workforce by taking their military skills and translating them into civilian terms that employers understand. Their resume might get them the interview, but the interview is going to get them the job," said Culbreath. "I think Soldiers are beginning to see the benefits of the program. The workshop prepares them to go out and get a job and the other classes provide information they need to be successful. So, it's all important," said Culbreath.

One of the first things discussed in the five-day curriculum, according to Jessica Slaughter, ACAP counselor and VOW instructor, is the transition overview. "The purpose is to get the service member to start talking and thinking about things that are important about their transition. Some of them don't realize the effect the transition will have on them, especially retirees (those retiring from military service). We really go into the psychology of what's behind leaving the service and finding job interests if the Soldier doesn't already know what those are," said Slaughter.

Slaughter believes the program is vital. "In the past, service members have slipped through the cracks. They get discharged and don't know what to do next. Now that these classes are mandatory, they have to take certain workshops and briefs because whether they are taking the career route or furthering their education, the information we provide is going to be needed at some point," said Slaughter.

Starting over is a bit frightening for Sgt. Richard Harrold, 46th Engineer Battalion, 1st Maneuver Enhancement Brigade. "I'm going out into a whole new situation where there will be unique challenges to overcome, but at the same time, it's kind of exciting, he said.

Harrold joined the Army at age 25 and has served for seven years. "I had some experience in the civilian world before I joined, so I have some idea of what I'm going back to, but a lot of Soldiers don't. ACAP is giving us the tools to transition, but they are also opening our eyes to a lot of questions that we haven't asked ourselves and maybe didn't even know to think about," said Harrold. "I think it's great that they are making these classes mandatory. They know Soldiers need these skills to move into the civilian world."

Another Soldier beginning the process of transitioning out of the service is Fort Polk's Garrison Command Sgt. Maj. Ronald Semerena. Like Harrold, he said there's a bit of apprehension when he thinks of leaving his Army career. "I wonder if I've made the right decision, but everyone has to leave the Army sometime and this is a good time for me," said Semerena. I've been in the Army since I was 17 and this is the only thing I know, so I'm approaching the transition as a time for learning about entrepreneurial opportunities, civilian employment, training and college opportunities. I'm trusting ACAP to help educate and guide me during my transition," said Semerena.

Semerena is one of the Soldiers having to play catch-up now that the VOW program has become mandatory. "I'm already behind the curve with my retirement nine months away. But there is nothing negative about the mandatory classes. It forces Soldiers to receive training they might otherwise believe isn't relevant to their circumstances, including myself," he said. "For instance, who would think that after 30 years of service, I would learn something new about my VA benefits?"

For more information about the ACAP VOW program call 531-1591.

Page last updated Wed January 2nd, 2013 at 16:03