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Op-Ed: The 4 biggest mistakes service members make after leaving the military

(US Marines/Flickr)
August 10, 2017

Leaving the military is one of the biggest, life-changing events a person can go through. What you do in the months prior to, and immediately after separating, can drastically impact your life. Here are what I believe are the four biggest mistakes service members make during that time, summarized.

Not using the right benefits

Being ignorant to what benefits they’ve earned is a huge mistake I see many Veterans make. Often times if they are aware, they don’t even apply because of pride or laziness. This not only hurts them, but their families. Whatever your plans for the future, there resources available to help including: health care, entrepreneurship and education.

Veterans Service Organizations (VSO) are a great place to start. Legally, VSOs and VSO representatives cannot charge for representing you in your claim for benefits, and can operate at the national, regional, state or local level.

Here are a few examples of benefits you might be unaware of:

I sat down with Kara Bohrer, a rep for the VA Accelerator, who said: “The VA Accelerator is the only program of its kind designed to help Disabled Veterans launch their own company or expand their existing business.”

She went on to say that they provide a “for Veterans, by Veterans” approach to identifying, acting upon and finalizing opportunities for Veterans, to include Chapter 31 Veterans, to develop the skills necessary for entry into small business or the civilian job market.

After our meeting, I was strongly convinced they understood Veterans and what it takes to help them. For more information, visit their website:

Did you know you can file for disability compensation up to six months before you separate from active duty? An alarming number of veterans I’ve spoken to did not know this, and it can make the difference of receiving a disability rating a few months after you separate, or waiting much longer.

Doing this means understanding that you have to keep track of your injuries and have them documented in your medical record. Furthermore, you must keep several copies of your medical records and you DD-214 once you separate.

Remember, this is not a statement of your character, rather just compensation for injuries sustained as a direct result of your service. If you wish to file a claim but have not done so, start now by going to to start a claim or to find a Veterans Service Officer who can provide free, expert assistance.

Not having a plan

A primary, secondary and tertiary plan is standard for any event in the military. Nothing should change when you’re planning the rest of your life.

When I began my Transition Assistance Program (TAP), I was about a year out from the end of my contract, which is when you are authorized to begin attendance. However, when the instructor asked who was separating that month, nearly half the class rose their hand. Some of those people were separating the next week, and the idea of deciding the rest of your entire life on a week’s preparation seems foolish.

Many troops are so eager to get out of the military that they forgo many of the necessary steps to ensure success. They do not do enough research, and are ill prepared for the hard realities awaiting them. This includes not saving money to help hold them over after their government pay stops, not applying to schools on time, and not applying for jobs prior to separation.

No one leaves the service intending to be homeless, but the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) estimates that 39,471 Veterans are homeless on any given night. That is nearly six times the number of U.S. service members killed in action in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Unrealistic expectations

Anger is sometimes defined as unfulfilled expectations, and can be a source of self-induced friction in your life. There are a few things you will have to come to terms with once you leave the military.

Not everyone will have a high-paying job in their field waiting for them after they get out. You cannot expect civilians to function the same way as your military coworkers did. You do not get chewed out by a First Sergeant or Chief Petty Officer if you mess up – you get fired. This sounds like common sense, but those are lessons many of the Veterans I surveyed learned the hard way.

Expect to miss aspects of the military, even if you hate it now. That, coupled with the natural struggle of transitioning; it’s OK to feel some regret about leaving.

Your friends and family will have unrealistic expectations, as well. They will expect you to move home, or conform back into the life you had before you left. This is not always realistic because you have changed over the last 4 to 20, or more, years. A spouse may expect you to take an educational or career path that may not be what you want, for the sake of financial security.

Mentally prepare yourself for these uneasy conversations, but remember everyone is seeing this from the outside. You are the only one who knows how it feels to be you – going through the emotions of separating, and everyone else’s opinion – as well-intended as it may be – comes second to you.

You have to be able to present a realistic plan for your future, even if it means not fitting the expectations of your loved ones who see you as their stoic and heroic service member who’s finally coming back home.

Not networking

There are many huge potential benefits of networking. It can garner you advice, personal and professional opportunities, help you solve a specific problem, or land you a job.

There is much higher chance someone in your field will help you if you are both Veterans. It’s the unspoken brotherhood we all take pride in, and reaching out to different Veteran groups can help you succeed. Furthermore, it will help you minimize anxiety and stress by having other Veterans to talk to, and learn from their mistakes.

Even if the person you are networking with is not a Veteran, they may help you out of respect for your service, or because they had a family member serve. In this day and age, you should take any free help you can get.

Joining the American Legion or VFW is a popular option because of the assistance they can offer during researching and applying for benefits, and the community outreach they do for the local area and elderly Veterans. This might help fill the void of the camaraderie you miss from your service.

However, I would encourage you to go beyond that. For example, the Mayor of my city has a commission for Veteran’s affairs and holds an annual breakfast. Take the time to do the research and find out what is near you.

Meeting people who are Veterans in your desired field is a huge advantage. Veterans are exponentially more likely to be in management positions than civilian counterparts. Then, once you are established in your career and community, you can give back and help the next generation of Veterans who will be exiting service.

All opinion articles are the opinion of the author and not necessarily of American Military News. If you are interested in submitting an Op-Ed, please email [email protected].