So you’re thinking about getting out of the military, and you have two options: you can stumble through the process and see what cards you get dealt on the other side, or you can take the bull by the horns and create your own future. This article will be specifically written from the perspective of the transitioning military officer, but most of it will also apply to enlisted personnel — the main difference being that officers choose their last day in the military, whereas enlisted service members have it assigned to them.
You’ve probably heard the adage that “failing to plan is planning to fail,” and it is 100% true. The one simple tool you need to build now if you are thinking about transitioning is a five-year plan. Before you close out of this article, give me a chance. I’m not telling you you need to build some fancy, beautiful PowerPoint slide with all the “right” milestones on it like you’ve probably made a few different times in as many different formats for as many different senior raters. What I’m telling you to do is to get down on paper — a working document for YOU, not a finished product for someone else — all of the big milestones you need to hit for a successful transition to doing whatever it is you want to do. Right now you have a bunch of different things bouncing around your head. Do I want to go back to school? Do I want to go into the corporate world? Do I want to backpack around Asia?
When I began my transition out of the Army, I knew there were several things that needed to happen: I needed to submit my Unqualified Resignation (UQR), sell my house, apply to law schools, and — since I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go to school or join the corporate world — work with a headhunter to get a job. I also wanted to do an internship through the Career Skills Program and hike the Appalachian Trail. That’s a lot of stuff to line up perfectly by chance, and I immediately realized I needed to get all of these timelines on paper so I could ensure they line up.
The first milestone you put on your five-year plan will depend on a number of factors, and you’re going to have to decide for yourself what everything else should hinge on. I knew I contractually could not get out of the Army before December 16, 2019. Therefore, I knew that if I were to go to school I would need to start in the Fall of 2020. I started by mapping out law school, starting with applications and carrying it all the way through graduation. This then allowed me to backwards plan my preparation for applications. Next I mapped out a headhunter program I was already involved in, and when I compared it to the law school timeline I could clearly identify when I would have to make a decision about which way I was going — a “decision point” for all of my tacticians out there. Then I had to decide when I would begin terminal leave. This may be different for you depending on the factors you’re dealing with. I knew I wanted to have a few months of leave to visit with family before starting the Appalachian Trail, so I would need to start leave in mid-February. Once I knew when I wanted to start terminal leave, I could estimate when my final day in the Army would be with some back-of-the-LES math — May 1st 2020.
Once you know your final day, you need to calculate two other dates — one is easy and one is deceptively tricky. The first date is that day you can submit your UQR, and that’s one year prior to your last day in the military — easy. The second date is 180 days prior to your last day — this one is a little tricky, because some people will tell you “6 months” when it’s actually 180 days. For example when I first calculated this date I thought it was 6 months, so I thought I was dealing with November 1st 2019, when 180 days before May 1st is actually November 3rd. If you get the dates wrong on your forms they will probably get kicked back, so it’s better to do this right the first time. Why is 180 days before your ETS important? Because that is the day you can submit your VA Disability Claim (if you’ve been wounded/injured), and it’s also the day you can begin your Career Skills Program internship. Prior to submitting your disability claim, take a look here as there are a few moves you may want to consider.
The Career Skills Program permits up to a 6-month internship. I’m not going to get too into the weeds, so talk to your local CSP office for more details. The tough thing about doing a 6-month internship is that it’s actually impossible (unless I’m missing something) because of a couple planning factors. First, even if you go into your internship with zero days of leave — which is rare but doable if you burn your “terminal leave” as regular leave before your internship begins — you will still accrue leave during your internship just like you did for the rest of your time in the military. You will also need to allow for about two weeks on the back end to outprocess at your unit. So really about five months is the max for a CSP internship unless you want to sell your leave, which I would not recommend to anyone — it’s generally a bad deal.
At this point I had all of my timelines laid out in front of me and could identify the ideal time to move out of my house. I picked a month and backplanned off of that to see when I needed to be prepping my house to sell and when I needed to list it on the market.
Maybe you are not like me. Maybe you are a savant like Jon Lee, and maybe you can just manage all of these timelines in your head. But getting all of these timelines onto one sheet of paper brought me a sense of relief and helped me understand exactly what I should and should not be doing in any given month. There was no anxiety that maybe I was behind on this, that, or the other — I know exactly when I’m on- or off-track. What format should you use? Whatever format works best for you to clearly understand your timeline. But in my opinion, having a plan like this — even if it’s just a two year plan — should be non-negotiable. My format works for me, because it’s how my brain works. It’s linear, and I can envision myself falling towards the future whether I like it or not. I have shared that format with several friends after showing it to them, and one of my friends told me “I’ll be forever indebted to you for making me realize how many things I need to be doing now if I want to get out in a year and a half.” I don’t care if you think this is corny, hokey, or whatever other word you want to use — just do it. If you have any questions about it or would like to talk through building out your timeline hit me up on twitter @andrewfant127 $
Andrew Fant is a transitioning Military Intelligence officer in the 25th Combat Aviation Brigade, Schofield Barracks, Hawaii. He is a graduate of the United States Military Academy and intends to begin law school in the fall of 2020 after transitioning out of the Army.
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