FORT HOOD, Texas (Dec. 5, 2011) -- Soldiers leaving the Army are doing so facing the worst economy since the 1930s. With the service facing a force downsizing, the Army needs to do a better job preparing Soldiers for life after the military, Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Chiarelli told transition officials here Dec. 1.

"We have to invest in transition services for our Soldiers," he said.

Transitioning Soldiers face a nationwide 8.6 percent unemployment rate. Veterans in Texas, California, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Georgia and Illinois are among the nation's top in unemployment claims, according to information from Human Capital Enterprise, which oversees the lifecycle of Soldiers and Army civilians.

Unemployment compensation comes out of the Army's discretionary budget, at a cost projected to be $500-550 million in fiscal year 2011, according to HCE information.

Transition assistance for Soldiers leaving the Army must be outcome-based and have tangible results, Chiarelli said.

"This is a top priority," Chiarelli said. "We must do everything we can to help these Soldiers who serve and sacrifice so they are not left in the cold."

The vice chief said too many Soldiers are leaving the Army with no set plans for guaranteed employment or schooling or even set up for Veterans Administration benefits.

"I want them in the VA system before they transition," Chiarelli said.

For Fort Hood Soldiers, the one-stop transition center for employment preparedness is the post's Army Career Alumni Program, which provides resume and job-seeking assistance, VA briefings and acts as a resource for available employment opportunities.

Soldiers can, and are encouraged to, begin working with ACAP 12 months before their transition date, Linda Christ, Fort Hood ACAP manager, said. Access to those ACAP services continues for Soldiers even after they transition.

"Soldiers can come in up to six months after they leave, and they have access to ACAP on a space-available basis for life," Christ said.

Officials anticipate the number of unemployed veterans to increase as the Army's projected re-shaping requirements will reduce the force by about 50,000 beginning next year and slated for completion in 2015.

"We've got to think in a different way," the vice chief said. "We are drawing down below 520,000 so we've got to change our mindset."

The Army already has instituted some changes aimed at improving the transition process. Those changes, published Aug. 29, include establishing a standardized retention brief, aligning and integrating education and employment services and functions under a single proponent, and establishing the Army Career and Alumni Program as a commander's program and ensuring every Soldier begins mandatory transition counseling and planning no later than 12 months before leaving the Army.

The changes to transition policy are in line with the similar drawdown faced by the Army following Desert Storm, Col. Ed Mason, chief of Army Transition Policy, said in a Sept. 20 Army News Service story.

"The Army said, let's look at the way we do business -- let's modernize, let's improve it -- be prepared for the future challenges we're going to have," Mason said. Soldiers leaving the service are facing the worst economy and unemployment rate since the Great Depression, Mason told Army News Service.

Younger and more junior Soldiers are taking the largest brunt of unemployment as 68 percent of Army unemployment claims are from veterans in pay grades E-3 through E-5, the HCE reported. Christ echoed the challenge of reaching junior-enlisted Soldiers.

"We want them to be as informed as possible," she said. "E-6s and below are not taking advantage of our services."

While ACAP pre-separation briefings are mandatory, Soldiers are not utilizing other voluntary services offered by ACAP that could improve a veteran's chance at employment.

Recent changes to the Army's transition policy are a start, but more needs to be done, Chiarelli said.

The vice chief told Fort Hood transition assistance officials he needs to know what they need in order for them to provide more comprehensive services for Soldiers.

In addition to suggestions involving more staffing and promotion of available ACAP programs, Christ suggested a closer relationship with other agencies and services related to transition, especially those encouraging post-secondary schooling.

"Education Services needs to be linked up with ACAP," Christ said.

The vice chief asked about the possibility of Fort Hood's transition center adding a Department of Labor office within the building, as well as a centralized website for job-seekers.

Chiarelli also has met with officials at Fort Bragg, N.C., and Joint Base Lewis-McCord, Wash., to gather feedback from them. He said he has heard different issues at each post and will take a hard look at all of the information he has gathered.

The end-state of transition assistance, the vice chief insisted, needs to be outcome based to ensure Soldiers are taken care of and prepared to assimilate into civilian society.

"It's horrible to not provide Soldiers the services they need," Chiarelli said. "We're going to change this."