JOINT BASE LEWIS-McCHORD, Wash. -- Joint Base Lewis-McChord service members looking to transition from the military can expect to start preparing for success on the civilian side sooner than they might have anticipated.

They can also expect more support and access to resources that will help them get through the process. The Veterans Opportunity to Work to Hire Heroes Act, implemented Nov. 21, 2012, changed Department of Defense standards for transitional education and at the same time placed the responsibility of ensuring service members meet those standards in the hands of their commanders.

The move designated the Army Career and Alumni Program -- referred to at JBLM as the Army and Air Force Career and Alumni program to reflect the program's adaptability to a joint base environment -- a "commander's program."

"There's more emphasis on the commander of getting Soldiers or Airmen into ACAP early," said Lori Mann, contract manager for JBLM ACAP.

Mann said service members are now expected to begin the process of transitioning with ACAP no fewer than 12 months from their last day in the military, although it's highly encouraged to start as early as 18 months out. Before the VOW Act, she said, the program only required them to have a pre-separation counseling within at least 90 days of that date.

Retirees are now allotted two years to meet their ACAP requirements.

Under the newly revised program, service members receive a pre-separation counseling and an "individual transition plan checklist" meant to ensure they meet the necessary requirements for their plans outside the military. The checklist, an actual military form released in November, called DD Form 2958, names tasks like preparing a 12-month post-separation budget and completing a job application packet for employment.

During the counseling, service members are separated into one of four "tracks" based on what they plan to do after leaving military service -- work, go to college, join a trade or start a business. Counselors with ACAP then tailor individual plans to meet their needs.

"For the vast majority of people, there is a gap between where you are and where you want to be once you get out," she said. "It's one thing to have an idea of what you want; it's another to have a very specific plan that will help you execute that idea."

For example, if a service member wants to join the workforce immediately following his or her service, a counselor will focus primarily on linking the individual up with potential employers," Mann said.

As part of the ACAP process, troops must attend five days of education comprised of six separate classes: A transition overview briefing; a Military Occupational Classification Crosswalk class that helps service members translate their military skills into civilian terms; a four-hour Veterans Affairs briefing; a two-hour class in which service members learn about and sign up for their VA benefits; an in-depth financial planning seminar; and a three-day Department of Labor employment workshop that covers interviewing, resume writing and networking for possible employment.

And if service members are deployed or unable to make time for ACAP, they can complete the process entirely online using a new tool called the ACAP Virtual Center -- a resource that offers the same training and is staffed at all hours.

To meet the demands of a more robust transition program as the military trims its force, JBLM's ACAP has more than doubled staff at its centers on McChord Field, Lewis Main and Lewis North.

The VOW Act has brought every military service, with the exception of the Coast Guard, up to the same transition standards, requiring even Reserve and National Guard service members to meet the same standards expected of active duty troops. Previously, Reserve and Guard members were only obligated to attend a pre-separation counseling -- nothing more.

"No matter where you go, if you go to an Air Force base or an Army post, a Marine base -- everybody gets the same training now," said Sabrina Rasmussen, program chief with McChord Field's ACAP office.

Rasmussen said JBLM's Army and Air Force transition programs have essentially been merged to offer the two branches the exact same service from any of the base's physical locations or online. JBLM, she said, is currently the only Department of Defense installation on which the Army leads a joint transition program.

To ensure service members are allowed adequate time for ACAP, Mann said, transition noncommissioned officers have been put in place at every battalion-sized unit on the installation to monitor leaders' compliance with the program.

ACAP is now also sending monthly reports to unit commanders if his or her transitioning troop is a no-show. Mann and Rasmussen recommended service members with ACAP on their horizons start early, take full advantage of every class and keep an open mind.

"People who are successful find bits and pieces from every class that will help them. It's like your battle plan, really."

Christopher Gaylord: