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Career Advice

5 Things Every Veteran Should Do Before Leaving the Military

5 minute read | April 23, 2019
Courtney Wilson

Written by:
Courtney Wilson

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Despite the military’s best efforts, when it comes to transitioning out, the experience is usually rushed and chaotic. Here are a few things that you can do before you get out to help make the process a little smoother and save you time and agony on the other side.


1. Confirm Your GI Bill Benefits

Before dropping off your paperwork, do yourself a favor and call 1-888-GI-BILL-1 to confirm what percentage of GI Bill benefits you are currently eligible to receive. The whole process takes less than 20 minutes and can end up saving you tens of thousands of dollars in out-of-pocket tuition costs.

A good friend of mine transitioned without doing this and found out too late that if he had stayed in for additional months, he would have been eligible for 100% of his benefits.  Instead, he left at 80% and had to pay $10,000 out of pocket. This could have been avoided with a simple phone call.

Conversely, my timing was such that I got 100% of my benefits. The ability to pursue my graduate degree without having to worry about finances or take out student loans was amazing and something that I hope all veterans get to experience.

Even if you’re sure that you will never use your GI Bill benefits, make the call.

First, you never know what life is going to throw at you. School may not be on your horizon right now, but if the job market dries up, your family situation changes, or something unexpected occurs, it’s nice knowing there is another option available.

Second, what the GI Bill covers is constantly changing. When it was first enacted, it could only be used to cover the cost of tuition at traditional institutes of higher learning, such as college or grad school. Over time, its scope has expanded to cover more non-traditional forms of education, such as The Shelter Institute, massage licensing, and, thanks to the lobbying efforts of veteran organizations like Operation Code, even coding bootcamps. Something that isn’t included today may end up being an option tomorrow, so you’ll want to make sure that you have the maximum available benefits.

2. Take Standardized Tests

If you do plan on going to a traditional institution of higher learning (i.e., bachelor’s or graduate degree programs), I highly recommend taking any necessary standardized tests (SAT, ACT, GRE, GMAT, etc.) prior to getting out. Commit to a few months of studying, sign up for a test date, and knock it out.  

I took the GRE a month before I left and I am so glad I did it when I had the time, discipline, and motivation. It allowed me to enjoy my time once I got out, rather than having a test looming over my head. Test scores last five years, so even if you don’t plan on going to school right away or aren’t sure right now, you know you’re covered just in case.  

3. Budget, Budget, Budget

Leaving the military can seem incredibly scary, especially when it means walking away from a stable income. That’s why creating a budget is one of the most impactful (albeit least talked about) actions that transitioning servicemembers can take to set themselves up for post-military success.

When you create your budget, it doesn’t have to be anything fancy, but at the minimum, you should be able to answer the following questions:

  1. How much money do I currently have saved?
  2. How much money will I spend each month? (Expenses will usually include rent, utilities, phone, internet, car payment, car insurance, health insurance, food, gas, and entertainment.)
  3. How long would it take before I run out of money?  

Answering these three questions will give you a good idea of your current spending habits, how urgent finding another source of income is, and just how much you need to make to maintain your current lifestyle. Once you have that figured out, answer these questions:

  1. How much money will I put into savings each month?
  2. How much money will I put toward retirement each month?  

If the answer is $0, don’t panic. This is just a starting point to determine your current financial state. Now that you know where you’re at, you can determine if there are things you’d like to change, and start taking actions toward making those changes. Trust me, it’s better to know your financial state so you can plan than to stay in the dark and be caught scrambling.

4. Get a Mentor

When I was getting out, people in my unit were giving me advice left and right, and while I appreciated it, in reality, they weren’t speaking from experience. That’s why I recommend that on the same day you decide you’re going to leave the military, you visit Veterati and start looking for a mentor.

A mentor is someone you can someone to talk to, bounce ideas off of, and who is invested in your success. By connecting with someone who has already navigated the process, you can learn from their experience, avoid their mistakes and have support as you venture into this new phase of your life.

Starting off, I would look for people who have a similar background to you, as well as people who are doing what you want to do in life. It may take a few tries until you find someone you click with, but it’s well worth it.  And remember, people can’t help you unless they know what you need, so try to come to each meeting with one specific ask/request for your mentor.

You didn’t go to combat alone, and there’s no reason you need to face your transition alone either.  

5. Take Online Courses

Be warned: when you’re transitioning, you feel a lot of pressure to “figure it all out.” This can result in committing to the first job or school program that comes along, rather than being intentional and deliberate. But this is like committing to a military branch without any exposure to what it’s like in that field. This is why I really wish I had taken two or three online courses in different subjects prior to transitioning, so I could see what I was really interested in before getting a job or going back to school.  

Although I’m happy with how things have unfolded, part of me does wonder if there is something out there that I would absolutely love doing but just don’t know about due to lack of exploration. Getting exposure and experience through some online courses would have allowed me to feel more confident in my career choice, as it would be based on experience rather than assumptions about what I would like and be good at.  

Before you commit to going to school for a degree in something you aren’t entirely sure you’d like or you commit to a career path, take a few months to explore a variety of different subjects and courses.  

(You can explore Springboard’s online courses here.)

About Courtney Wilson

Courtney Wilson is a former Army engineer captain who received a Bronze Star Medal for her service in Afghanistan. A creative writing major turned engineer turned MBA candidate, Courtney founded DropZone For Veterans, a directory of high-impact veteran benefits, to support post-military transitions.