Planning Your Transition for Junior Military Officers

When you transition out of active duty military service, the military gives you a significant amount of training to prepare you for civilian life and inform you about the benefits available to you. Don’t blow off the transition training! Even though some of it is geared more toward helping enlisted service members transition, you’ll get value out of most of it. The résumé building training is especially helpful for JMOs who have never had a civilian career and are unfamiliar with the civilian hiring process. However, there are some aspects of transition that the training doesn’t cover.

  1. Be proactive about planning and managing your transition. Like every other aspect of your career, your branch doesn’t manage it for you. That’s not their job—it’s yours. You will get a better outcome if you take the initiative to plan your transition early and manage it like the major project that it is. Start planning no less than a year before you think your transition leave should start.
  2. The decision of when to tell your chain of command is not one to make lightly. The focus has shifted from wartime retention to peacetime force reduction. Even if you are a high performer, once you let it be known that you are planning to transition, it puts you in a separate category. The leadership opportunities and professional development that you once enjoyed will be given to your peers who are planning to stay in the service. This isn’t a reflection on you—it’s just the reality that those limited resources have to be allocated where they’re most effective in the long term. Don’t be concerned that you might immediately become persona non grata, unless your command is toxic, but do realize that you’re going to get less of the spotlight. And understand that it’s extremely difficult to change your mind once you’ve told your command you intend to transition. It’s not something you can use as a bargaining chip to get the assignment you want.
  3. Transition leave, formerly known as terminal leave, can either be a very relaxing experience or a very lucrative experience. Unlike regular leave, you can take as much transition leave as you have, including days you will accrue during your leave period. You may have the option to sell back some of your leave days. It’s generally better to take the leave rather than sell it because you still collect housing allowance while on leave. You can begin transition leave, start a civilian job, and be getting two paychecks until your leave ends. Some government jobs do not let you draw pay while still on terminal leave, so check with your pay office if your next job is a government position or if you plan to continue serving in the reserve component.
  4. Your service will give you one last move, just as if you were PCSing to a new duty station. Retirees can use this to move anywhere, but your reimbursement is not so unlimited. Contact your household goods office early to find out the details so you can budget for your move. If you transition during the summer when most PCS moves occur, you need to make arrangements several months in advance as those are the busiest times for moves.
  5. Make sure to update any website accounts that are tied to your official .mil email address with a civilian email address that you actually check. If you forget a password, the password reset is emailed to your .mil address, and you can’t access that email account, it can be frustratingly difficult to fix. Likewise, if there’s any system that you log into with a CAC that you are going to need after your transition, make sure you can access it with a user name and password. In particular, you want to make sure you can still log in to myPay to get your W2 and other tax documents.
  6. Most veterans are eligible for VA medical benefits. However, applying for those benefits is not part of the transition process. You have to navigate that process yourself, but you don’t have to do it alone. Veterans’ organizations such as the American Legion and VFW have expertise that can help you successfully apply for VA medical benefits. Military life is hard on your body and there is a strong cultural pressure to just suck up the pain rather than seeking medical care. You need to make sure to get treatment for all those nagging little problems you’ve been ignoring so that they’re documented when you go to apply for VA medical benefits.
  7. For those of us who are used to wearing the uniform, choosing what to wear to work every day at a civilian job can be one of the most unexpected difficulties. You’ll want to save up some money for a civilian professional wardrobe—be advised, a week’s worth of business professional attire can cost several thousand dollars, even for off-the-rack clothing.
  8. You may have seen transitioning peers stop showing up for work, or only come in for a few hours a day. Don’t be that guy. Be transparent with your boss about what your transition requires and where you are during the day. At some point, your transition will become your full-time duty and you, too, will have to stop showing up at your desk. Make sure you’ve done a good handover to set your replacement up for success. Remember that you may someday be asking your last boss for a reference, so make sure you finish strong and protect your good reputation.

The skills you’ve learned as a junior military officer will serve you well in the civilian world. Make sure you put them to use in planning and managing your transition. Take the initiative and attack your transition as decisively as you would any objective—the smoothness and success of your transition is up to you.