By David Goldich
Best Defense guest columnist
1. Be the best Soldier, Marine, Airman, Sailor you can be. Excelling at your current job in the service will pay dividends should you decide to separate in terms of letters of recommendation, job references, fitness reports, awards, and connections. Good battalion, company, and platoon commanders will usually vouch for proven performers without hesitation.
2. Plan ahead and give yourself as much time as possible. If you know you are leaving the service 3, 6, or 12 months from now, begin thinking about and planning for your future if you haven't already. Concentrate on "Moving On" instead of "Getting Out."
3. If you planning on going to school, determine what types of programs and degrees best suit your future plans for employment. Contact individual schools and determine application deadlines, testing requirements, and line up letters of recommendations from fellow troops or leaders in your unit. Figure out if your personal eligible level of funding for the GI Bill will cover your future living expenses. If you wish to attend a private school, investigate the Yellow Ribbon Program and find out the difference between what your VA education benefits cover and what the school costs. Investigate scholarships or aid with individual schools, and contact your preferred school's veterans coordinator immediately! They want to help you and know the ins and outs of the VA system very well. Determine if you want to go full time to school or part time, and what the differences in benefits are for the two in terms of tuition/fees paid and housing allowance given.
4. If you plan on getting a job, figure out what your living expenses are wherever you want to live and what your envisioned job's total pay and benefits are. Health care costs money in the civilian world, and many military benefits like Basic Allowance for Housing and Cost of Living Adjustments do not exist for civilian jobs. Think about what your career aspirations and goals might be and develop a personal plan that serves as a roadmap from your first post-military job to your ultimate goal.
5. If you have one, plan for your family! Think about if your spouse wants or needs to get a job. Line up day care resources for your children and think about where they will go to school. Investigate housing in your preferred relocation area in terms of cost, availability, and comfort. The military provides a lot of thinking and direction for these types of things in the service, and you will need to take the lead and figure these things out for yourself and your family without having your hand held throughout the entire process. This is especially important if you plan on pursuing higher education which could result in less income than a job might provide.
6. Write a resume and have someone you trust and respect in the civilian world review it. I wrote a military resume when I got back from my second tour in Iraq and looking back on it I cringe. In a country where 92% of the population is neither veterans nor active duty military, civilians are usually not anti-military but rather un-military. They will likely not understand your accomplishments and job descriptions. Do mention your awards, your deployments overseas, the number of troops you were in charge of, the programs you oversaw, the recognition you received. Just realize that a person with no military experience does not understand what being meritoriously promoted to sergeant in the Marine Corps means, but they understand what being in the top 1/2 of 1% of your peers means.
7. Quit using military terms and having military expectations for civilians. Old habits die hard-trust me, I know. Civilians don't go to the latrine, they use the bathroom (and don't ask permission to do so). Civilians have a language all their own and the more you can use it without resorting to military terminology or slang, the better you will fit in.
8. Get rid of the military haircut! You are a motivator with a high and tight screamer, rah? You look like an idiot to civilians. Grow your hair out a little, trust me. You can always go back to being motivator. Short hair isn't bad, but shaved sides might not be the best way to go if you are trying to blend in. Your first sergeant yelled at you every Monday for four years for not getting a haircut, enjoy the freedom!
9. Pick up the phone and start dialing old friends, high school peers and teachers, former employers, etc. Let people know that you are coming back to the world and want to see what's out there. Re-connect with your high school or college buddies, teachers and professors, and bosses to catch up. They are interested in you, and you can always ask them for advice...and possibly a recommendation letter or even job. Call them instead of e-mailing and you will be ahead of about 90% of your generation who rarely do anything beyond tweet or text.
10. Establish a support system. Whether it's family; friends; military buddies; fellow veterans; or religious, community, or veterans organizations, find something outside of school and/or work that you enjoy doing and doing with other people. In the military your squad or platoon mates had your back. It's the same in the real world, only instead of squads and platoons these things are called clubs, volunteer organizations, community groups, etc.
Not an all-encompassing list -- just some things I routinely find myself advising on.
MARWAN NAAMANI/AFP/Getty Images