By Mr. Paul Steven Ghiringhelli (Drum)August 8, 2012
FORT DRUM, N.Y. -- With troop reductions and high unemployment rates among young veterans, Defense Department leaders understand the great need right now for a process that successfully transitions personnel from military service to civilian / veteran status.
To put service members on the right track, and as a part of President Barack Obama's Veterans Opportunity to Work to Hire Heroes Act of 2011, the DoD unveiled its newly redesigned Transition Assistance Program (TAP) two weeks ago.
The revamped program, called Transition GPS, is a response to the president's call last year to ensure all service members are "career ready" when they leave the military.
Fortunately for Fort Drum Soldiers, the officials on post responsible for transition have been ahead of the curve.
"We are fortunate," said Lorrie Guler, transition services manager for Fort Drum's Army Career and Alumni Program since 2008. "We already have a real good handle on what we need to make all of this happen."
Transition GPS has been a collaboration of the Departments of Defense, Labor, Education, Veterans Affairs and Homeland Security, as well as the Small Business Administration and the Office of Personnel Management.
The redesigned program is the first major overhaul of the DoD's TAP in nearly 20 years, expanding it from less than one day of mandatory training to as many as six days.
"Things have really exploded," Guler said. "We have definitely been feeling it, even though we have been ahead of it."
In addition to the typical preseparation counseling, which was mandated by Congress years ago, Transition GPS will require service members to complete a resume, an individualized transition plan (ITP), registration in e-Benefits and MyHealtheVet, a daylong financial readiness seminar, a daylong VA benefits briefing and a three-day Department of Labor Employment Workshop (DOLEW).
Soldiers at Fort Drum are somewhat ahead of the curve since they have been required to do not only the preseparation counseling, but also a two-and-a-half-day employment workshop and a four-hour VA benefits briefing ever since then Maj. Gen. Michael Oates, 10th Mountain Division (LI) and Fort Drum commander, made it an installation policy in 2008.
A new day in transition services
Since its inception in 1990, the ACAP program has offered career assistance to Soldiers, veterans, retirees and Family Members.
The major overhaul to transition services in the DoD began late last year.
With the changes, ACAP is now a commander's program. Also, a new philosophy has taken over: transition is now considered a lifelong process, to include an individual's time on active duty, since planning for retirement, separation or a permanent change of station is a reality.
After the secretary of the Army passed down an executive order last year implementing the first phases of Transition GPS, Fort Drum became one of four DoD installations selected to launch a pilot program, which extended the employment workshops from two and a half days to four days.
Guler said Fort Drum tried hard to make it work, but elements of it did not properly gauge a Soldier's readiness for transition.
After the pilot here ended in April, DOL officials further modified and finalized the curriculum.
Currently, DoD is piloting the latest version of TAP at six other installations, including Utica Army National Guard Base, where Fort Drum ACAP staff members have traveled to help facilitate.
Guler said she hopes the curriculums passed down by the Army once the last pilot ends in October don't include rigid requirements for implementation, such as presenting all six days back to back.
"Resource-wise, it won't work," she said. "And, it's just too much information all at once."
Although ACAP counselors will be available for one-on-one service by phone, or as avatars online, Guler said she anticipates a coming explosion in the demand for transition services at Fort Drum.
For this reason, ACAP will be afforded a 35-percent increase in manpower.
"One of our challenges with all of these additional requirements now is all of a sudden we have this 87,000-troop reduction," she said.
Guler said at Fort Drum, as curriculum is updated, and frequent changes are anticipated, leaders implemented a "transition council" to synchronize efforts, identify and address concerns, and provide information to units for transitioning Soldiers.
Dubbed the Mountain Transition Council, it consists of the installation's top military and civilian officials, from unit representatives and members of the division and garrison command groups to VA representatives, a retirement services officer and the staff judge advocate.
What it all means for Soldiers
Under the new Transition GPS, Soldiers and their NCOs will have to be more proactive in the TAP process and in meeting new deadlines.
Retention NCOs will be required to sit down with incoming Soldiers no later than 60 days of their arrival.
Soldiers must begin their preseparation process no later than 12 months before separation. That involves a five-page Preseparation Counseling Checklist (DD Form 2648), which addresses everything from education, employment assistance and financial considerations, to veterans' benefits, health insurance and the effects of a career change.
After completing the checklist, service members are scheduled for a one-on-one counseling session in which they begin developing an ITP.
From there, the critical component of transition comes, the DOLEW, which should be scheduled no later than nine months before separation.
Facilitated by the New York State Department of Labor, DOLEW is an employment workshop covering the nuts and bolts of career planning and a successful job search, including labor trends, labor market research, search tips and how employers seek out employees.
During the workshop, Soldiers will learn resume writing, salary negotiation, effective interviewing techniques and translating military skills into civilian ones.
"Even if (separating) Soldiers are going to school, they really need a resume for when they come out of school," said Guler, a retired Army Blackhawk pilot. "Now is the time to capture all of the things you did on active duty and translate those experiences into marketable skills. Most career counseling on campuses won't be able to pull from you what your skills are."
As word has gotten out, Guler said many Soldiers at Fort Drum look forward to attending the DOLEW.
"It's important for Soldiers to understand the entire process here, especially as they grow and become leaders," she said. "Then they can be a better mentor to their Soldiers."
The four-hour VA benefits class that currently takes place from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. every Thursday will become a daylong VA benefits briefing, which Soldiers will be required to attend no less than six months before separation.
During the afternoon session, Guler said Soldiers will register with e-Benefits and MyHealtheVet, while also updating and further developing their ITP.
The daylong financial readiness seminar, another mandatory element of Transition GPS, is one of the few things not previously mandated at Fort Drum, but still offered.
Guler said the seminar is extremely important for Soldiers because they need to understand where they stand financially and what they will need to make ends meet as they transition, especially if they plan to go right into college.
"The GI Bill is not enough to pay for everything while going to school," she said. "You will probably need a part-time job."
As one of the final steps in transition, Guler said Soldiers will now be required to produce a resume or a completed application for a job or a university no less than five months before separation.
Guler said a lot of the changes to ACAP put a new emphasis on the professional development of Soldiers -- from retention NCOs encouraging personnel to pursue more schooling, licensing and certifications, to ACAP counselors and services helping to make Soldiers more marketable when they separate.
Some Soldiers still encounter old mindsets and face ridicule from fellow Soldiers who think they are disloyal for leaving the Army.
"But the stigma attached to Soldiers leaving the military is definitely changing," Guler noted. "Leaders realize their Soldiers have met the intent of their contract and deserve to be taken care of on their way out.
"In the end, the Army will end up paying less in unemployment compensation if we set these folks up for success as they head out the door," she added.
Senior leaders in the Army couldn't agree more. Installation Management Command's former commanding general said the decision to transition out of uniform is just as important as the initial decision to put it on.
"Soldiers deserve as much support at this critical point in their service as they do with earlier parts of their career," Lt. Gen. Rick Lynch said last year. "Taking care of Soldiers includes supporting their active participation in ACAP, and if a Soldier decides to separate, making sure no stigma is attached to (his or her) decision."
Guler said the many changes and additional funding at ACAP should help Soldiers understand the importance of the services offered.
"Do not take transition lightly," she said. "To make good, solid and informed decisions, it requires planning, knowledge and foresight."
She said if Soldiers look around them, they will understand the enormous importance Army leaders are placing on transition.
"Everything else (in government) is being cut," Guler said. "But the amount of time, effort, resources, new policy and funding -- all of a sudden, all of this money has been pushed into the transitioning (of service members). That should send a signal to Soldiers of how serious transition is. This is also a signal to the leaders out there in the units that we have to take care of these folks.
"It is a new culture," she added. "It's a completely new way of looking at transition."