Moving into any career is difficult, no matter where you start or where you're going. You must consider many things: Personal interests that translate into job skills, how to build a resume and, most importantly, the interview process. But when a Soldier moves into a civilian career field, it can be infinitely more difficult.
Sometimes the skills Soldiers learned while in the Army don't translate well to civilian careers. Soldiers have to change their way of dress and their way of thinking to accommodate civilian etiquette. Sometimes, civilian careers don't account for disabilities Soldiers may have as a result of service.
Luckily, Soldiers don't have to navigate this transitional maze alone.
The Army Career and Alumni Program, born from the Department of Defense's Transition Assistance Program in the 1990s, was established to help Soldiers coming back from war file for unemployment and find civilian jobs, Dr. William Barnson, ACAP center installation manager at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall, Va., explained.
With ACAP centers located on most major Army installations, the worldwide program offers transition workshops that teach tips and tricks for interviews, resume writing and how to dress for and communicate in the civilian work force.
"Really, what we want the Soldiers to do, whether they are (separating) or retiring, is to start thinking about life after the military," Terri Jones, transition service manager for ACAP at Fort Myer, said.
ACAP services are available to retiring Soldiers two years before their retirement date, while Soldiers who are separating can access the services one year before leaving service.
Retired Col. Jeffery Freeland was with the Army for 26 years and was extremely satisfied with ACAP services, saying, "I must admit they really prepared me to retire." He felt more comfortable with the process than some of his friends who retired because he listened to ACAP personnel.
"It really made my transition enjoyable," he added. "It's all about preparing yourself, and that's what ACAP does."
Freeland attended three days of seminars on Fort Myer, learning about benefits negotiation, resume writing, job searching, job interviewing, speaking like a civilian and dressing for success. Speakers ranging from other retirees to industry recruiters, who came to advise the transitioning Soldiers.
"When you sit down in those classes, you really start realizing what you don't know," Freeland said.
Some of the most important things a Soldier can learn in the ACAP program are how to build resumes and interview for jobs -- skills not generally required of active duty servicemembers.
Certified career counselors help Soldiers refine resumes -- teaching them how to use keywords to make resumes more visible in automated systems, for example -- and help organize them so they appeal to civilian employers, Barnson explained.
"We'll work with them to do a skills analysis, to look at what they have been doing in the past, what they (would) like to do in the future (and) kind of match the two of them together," Barnson said. "Then we have them go and do a search through networking, and an Internet search, to find the position they would like to try for. Then, we write the resume."
Retired Command Sgt. Maj. Paul McDonald, the former senior enlisted Soldier for the 701st Military Police Group, U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command, at Fort Belvoir, Va., said that during the seminars, Soldiers built mock-resumes for reference and learned how to set up online profiles in job search engines. The tips he learned helped him build several resumes for specific jobs.
"The class on the federal resume job writing descriptions, changing your military skills to civilian skills -- kind of like translating it into civilian language -- was very, very helpful," McDonald said.
Former Staff Sgt. Jason Dixon used the ACAP program when he separated after serving for nine years. He was surprised to learn about the varied resources ACAP offered, and all the benefits he was entitled to once he separated.
"I knew there were resources out there, but I think (ACAP was) able to clarify and show me more resources that were available to me to help make it an easier transition," Dixon said.
"They really helped me with a lot of interviewing tips. They gave me a lot of information about how to do a job fair. I don't think I would have made it through my job fairs as successfully as I did without taking that course first," Dixon added. He also found the interviewing skills and dress-for-success tips invaluable.
Of course, other agencies provide many of the same resources -- for a fee. McDonald said that a Soldier's best bet is still ACAP, no matter how legitimate the other services, because it is entirely free.
"We are professionals," Barnson said. "We tell our clients, 'Don't be enticed to go downtown and pay thousands of dollars to some outside company. Their counselors, quite often, don't have the credentials that we do and they are going to charge you a lot of money.'"
Other transition services don't have the same scope as ACAP does, either. Retirees can continue using ACAP services indefinitely, and the program also offers services for spouses and children of Soldiers, as well as DOD civilians, Barnson said.
"We're just kind of a full-service organization here," he said.
ACAP is most beneficial when started early, Soldiers and program leaders agree. Jones recommends Soldiers start making themselves a priority when they decide to retire or separate, leaving enough time to take full advantage of the services available to them.
"If they don't make the time to do the necessary research, the necessary preparation about the retirement (or separation), it's going to make an overwhelming process a daunting one," she said.
She hopes that leaders will allow Soldiers to take the time to use ACAP and gather pertinent information. Otherwise Soldiers could leave the Army without the tools they need to be successful.
"The chain of command really owes anybody (who's) retiring the time to transition and go through the process," Freeland agreed. He advises Soldiers to begin focusing on retirement or separation at least six months before transitioning.
"Whatever you do, start ACAP early, because there is a wealth of information and some classes you might want to go back and sit through again to pick up more information," McDonald said.
"Most Soldiers are very dedicated and want to continue working right up to the very end," he added, "which is great, and very admirable, but at the same time, the end is still coming. You have to prepare yourself for life after the Army, so don't procrastinate."
For more information on ACAP, such as transition center locations and answers to frequently asked questions, visit www.acap.army.mil.
FEDERAL JOB RESOURCES FOR SERVICEMEMBERS
In addition to the Army Career and Alumni Program, there are several federal resources servicemembers can use to find jobs and prepare for civilian careers.
-FedsHireVets (www.fedshirevets.gov), is a website stemming from Executive Order 13518, "Employment of Veterans in the Federal Government." It serves as a single source of information for federal employment of veterans, Hakeem Basheerud-Deen, manager of National Programs, U.S. Office of Personnel Management (Veterans Services), said.
-TurboTap (www.turbotap.org) is the official Department of Defense website for the Transition Assistance Program.
-The Department of Labor's initiatives for veterans and their families can be found at www.dol.gov/
dol/milfamilies. From there, servicemembers can link to career planning and job search websites geared at veterans.
-Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment Service (www.vba.va.gov/bln/vre) is the Department of Veterans Affairs website that aims to help veterans with service-connected disabilities find and keep suitable jobs.
WEIGHING YOUR RETIREMENT FINANCIAL DECISIONS
Story by Army Retirement Services
Soldiers and families approaching retirement face financial decisions that will have major impacts on their futures. As they tackle these decisions and plan for retirement, they should remember three things.
• First, help is available, in person and online. The Army has a retirement services program unlike any other military service. At every major Army installation, a full-time retirement services officer supports both retiring and retired Soldiers and families of the active and reserve components. That support extends to those far from installations as well. The Army G-1's Retirement Services homepage (http://www.armyg1.army.mil/retire) and your RSO's homepage offer 24/7, online support. The preretirement section of the site includes a preretirement briefing and a preretirement counseling guide. There is also a list of RSOs available at http://www.armyg1.army.mil/rso/rso.asp.
• Second, retirement is a family affair. Since the family served as a unit and will continue to do so in retirement, it is only logical that they plan retirement together.
Preretirement briefings and orientations are not only for Soldiers. Like new arrival briefings and orientations, they are designed with families in mind.
• Third, it's never too early to start thinking about retirement. Retired Soldiers and family members are still part of the Army family, but their lives are different. Their retired years could far exceed their years of military service, so retirement planning is important.
If your date of initial entry into military service is on or after Aug. 1, 1986, your first retirement-related decision will come at your 15th year of service and could involve the counter-intuitive move of turning down a bonus.
If someone offered you $30,000, you might be inclined to take it. When you reach 14 1/2 years of service, the Army will do just that. Do you want a $30,000 career status bonus now, in return for a promise to serve at least five more years and an agreement to receive reduced retired pay, under the REDUX retired pay plan?
Like the contestant on a game show, you'll hear a lot of "voices" urging you to take the money for your daughter's braces, your son's college tuition, maybe even the car you just saw advertised on TV. Before you heed these calls, however, stop and figure out what $30,000 now will cost you in reduced retirement benefits.
Take advantage of the resources offered by the Department of Defense and the Army. Read more about this program in the Career Status Bonus/REDUX Soldier Information section at http://www.armyg1.army.mil/rso/PreRetirement.asp. Use the links to DOD sites and calculators, which will let you compare the retired pay of someone who turned down the bonus with the retired pay of someone who took the bonus (with the bonus money included in the comparison). Contact your CSB/REDUX counselor (also listed in this preretirement section of the Army G-1 site). And, as we've said before, discuss this decision with your spouse and family. It's their future too.
At retirement, you have another decision to make. Will you forego 6.5 percent of your retired pay (taken out before taxes) to ensure that 55 percent of your monthly retired pay (plus annual cost of living adjustments) continues to go to your spouse and/or child(ren) after your death?
This is your survivor benefits plan election. What happens if you don't take SBP? Your retired pay stops when you die. The SBP is the sole means for a portion of your military retired pay to go to your survivors. The decision is a critical one, given its lifetime impact on your family's financial well-being.
You and your spouse can read more about the SBP online at http://www.armyg1.army.mil/rso/sbp.asp. The site provides detailed information on SBP, its history, your options and its potential value to your beneficiary. The plan has been improved in recent years. Since Congress originally designed SBP to work with Social Security, the benefit had been reduced when the annuitant reached age 62. That reduction has been eliminated. Also, thanks to a law change, retirees can stop paying for SBP after reaching age 70 and having made 360 payments.
The site helps you see what SBP will bring for your beneficiary, with links to DOD calculators that show what the lifetime value of SBP would be for your spouse and help you figure out how much insurance you would need to buy to equal the SBP annuity. Of course, you can also go to your RSO with any question.
Where do you want to live after retirement? Retiring where you find a job would seem to be the obvious answer. However, there is a less obvious consideration: state taxes. Some states have no income tax, while others have income tax but do not tax retired pay. You can find the latest information through your RSO or in the online preretirement briefing.
Should you take your leave or sell it?
That depends on your personal situation, but contributing factors include your years of service (30 years and two months or fewer), the amount of leave you have and whether you'll need time to find a job. You can find detailed information in the online preretirement briefing or through your RSO.
While you've been an active-duty family, you've been covered by TRICARE Prime, with no cost and no copayment. If you want to continue TRICARE Prime coverage in retirement, you'll have to pay an annual enrollment fee as well as copayments. The annual enrollment fee for Prime has been $230 for an individual and $460 for a family since TRICARE began in 1995, but DOD has recommended increasing those fees for "working age" retirees. (The Medicare/TRICARE program, TRICARE for Life, covers Medicare-eligible retirees who enroll in Medicare Part B.) Congress will have the final say on these increases.
In retirement, TRICARE Prime will not be your only option. Until you're eligible for Medicare, you'll have the options of TRICARE Standard, Extra or Plus. You may also have health care coverage through your civilian employer or your spouse's employer. For the latest information, check http://www.tricare.mil/ or http://www.armyg1.army.mil/retire.