SCHOFIELD BARRACKS - Soldiers attending an employment readiness workshop for retirees at the Soldier for Life-Transition Assistance Program Center, here, got an unexpected opportunity to exchange ideas with an influential member of the program on Feb 1.

Retired Col. Walter M. Herd, Army Transition Division director at the Human Resources Command Center of Excellence, oversees SFL-TAP and led its transformation into a fully comprehensive transition program offering career counseling, education and employment assistance in 2010.

He traveled from the program's headquarters at Fort Knox, Kentucky, to meet with SLF-TAP enrollees, counselors and Army leaders, here, Feb. 1-2.

Go early, go often
His message: When it comes to making the transition to civilian life, Soldiers who start the process early are the most likely to succeed. Therefore, Soldiers should be attending SLF-TAP early and often.

"What we've learned is that Soldiers who begin early and go several times are twice as likely to gain employment (when they leave the Army)," Herd said. "On the other hand, when commanders don't allow their Soldiers to go early and often, the Soldiers are twice as likely to fail.

"Of the thousands of Soldiers I've spoken to, I have never heard any one of them say, 'I started too early,'" he added. "But I've heard many say, 'I wish I'd started earlier.'"

SFL-TAP is a mandatory career readiness program for Soldiers who have served at least 180 days of continuous Title 10 active duty service. It provides courses and workshops on resume writing, job searches, networking, job interviewing and more by personnel from the Army, the Department of Veteran Affairs and the Department of Labor. The goal is to ensure enrollees meet Career Readiness Standards.

"The intent is to make sure that when they leave, Soldiers are ready to become contributing members of society," Herd said.

SFL-TAP encourages Soldiers to start the program 18 months prior to transitioning or 24 months prior to retiring.

Challenge issued
But Herd was not blind to some of the hurdles the program faces.

"We have two huge challenges," he said. "No. 1, many Soldiers don't take it seriously; they think it's something where they can just check the block and move on. And they do that at their own risk. No. 2 is that leaders aren't always allowing their Soldiers to go (to SLF-TAP) early and to go often."

SLF-TAP is a commander's program, meaning commanders are responsible for ensuring their Soldiers enroll and meet the Career Readiness Standards.

To that end, Herd issued a challenge to Army leaders in Hawaii. He said statistics show that transitioning Soldiers in Hawaii are employed at roughly the same rate as their counterparts on the continental United States.

"I challenge leaders here to exceed that," he said. "I believe it's very much within their capability and look forward to seeing growth in that area during fiscal year 2018."

Changes ahead
However, spreading the message and pushing for improvement was only part of Herd's mission while in Hawaii. The other part was listening, absorbing ideas and sharing his findings.

"One of the good things (about my job) is that I get to travel around to all of the different installations," he said. "My objectives are to talk to the (SFL-TAP) counselors and senior leaders, to learn from them and to share ideas."

Both SFL-TAP enrollees and counselors indicated a need to more effectively reach Soldiers and commanders, and tailor the program to their needs. Herd said this was something SFL-TAP was aware of and working to address.

He highlighted a six-installation-wide pilot program, started in November 2016, which tailors a Soldier's Career Readiness Standards to factors such as education, age, rank, separation reasoning, military occupation and other data, instead of the current one-size-fits-all model.

While Army installations on Hawaii are not part of the pilot, changes that are ultimately implemented as a result of the pilot may eventually affect SFL-TAP programs Army-wide.

Another improvement Herd would like to see is an SFL-TAP program that
is better able to connect transitioning Soldiers to civilian jobs in their home states. Currently, there are resources through the Department of Labor's American Job Centers, the Army National Guard and the Army Reserve, but the process is far from streamlined.

"We're trying to more effectively connect Soldiers with jobs back home. That is a challenge of our era, but we are working to streamline our policy in that area and connect the dots," he said.

Ultimately, the goal is to institute more of a "warm hand off" than a "Hail Mary pass" for a Soldier in, for example, Hawaii, who wants to transition to, say, Texas.

Personal readiness
Herd understands firsthand what it's like to transition from military to civilian life.

He's a sixth generation warrior who can trace his family's military service back to the French and Indian War. A former commander in Afghanistan, he led a Special Forces A-Team, three Special Forces companies, a Special Forces battalion of approximately 350 Green Berets, and a Special Forces Group (brigade level) in combat. He authored a book, "Unconventional Warrior," in 2013, about his experiences.

But even he admits that the transition to civilian life was scary and, at times, overwhelming. He knew from a very young age that he was going to be a Soldier, but hadn't necessarily mapped out a clear path for what would come after that.

"When I retired, at first, it was frightening to wrap my head around what my future (outside the Army) was going to be," he admitted. "This was before there was an SLF-TAP program. I took every assistance program that was available. I networked. I thought about what I wanted to do. I planned. All of that pre-work was hugely beneficial.

"From that personal experience, I can help inform and help Soldiers in their own transition," he continued. "I want to give Soldiers a more defined list of benchmarks (for what they need to be doing), bring a more refined science to what was, for me, an ambiguous process."

The bottom line, he said, is that not all Soldiers will earn accolades, win awards or be promoted, but all of them will eventually leave the Army. Whether they're in for a few years or for the entirety of their career, it behooves them to take advantage of the resources offered by SFL-TAP, and it's the Army's responsibility to help them succeed.