Veterans service organizations banded together in Washington last summer to convince Congress that it was time to expand education benefits.
Now, on the tails of that victory, sealed into law as the Forever GI Bill, many of those same organizations are throwing their weight behind a new cause: changing the way service members are prepared for life after the military.
“I believe it will be the next big thing,” said Ariel De Jesus Jr., assistant director of the veterans employment and education division at American Legion.
For months, the Legion and other VSOs have participated in roundtable discussions with government agencies and lawmakers, strategizing ways to reform the military’s transition assistance program, or TAP.
“The whole thing behind it is getting these service members ready for their next step in life or their next career after the military,” De Jesus said.
The issue has been gaining steam on Capitol Hill in recent months, with legislation to make TAP’s elective tracks mandatory or require service members to start TAP earlier. On Friday, Rep. Jodey Arrington, R-Texas, introduced the House’s most comprehensive plan for TAP reform, combining many of the ideas from other bills, outside research and feedback from VSOs.
Arrington’s bipartisan bill — named The Navy SEAL Chief Petty Officer William “Bill” Mulder (Ret.) Transition Improvement Act of 2018, after a friend of the congressman who committed suicide — would make several changes to TAP. Among them, the legislation would require service members to go through personalized pre-separation counseling one year before getting out of the military.
It would also restructure the five days of TAP to devote one day for service-specific training, another for employment preparation, two for the service member’s track of choice — either employment, higher education, career and technical training, or entrepreneurship — and the last for a briefing on Department of Veterans Affairs benefits. Additionally, service members would be required to start TAP at least 180 days before separating, a change from the 90-day requirement under current Defense Department policy. And service members could choose to attend classes earlier in their military careers.
“Our government spends billions of dollars preparing citizens to be warriors, but invests only a fraction of that helping those soldiers transition to civilian life,” Arrington said in a statement to Military Times. “If we do a better job equipping our servicemen and women on the front end of their transition, we can reduce the number of veterans who struggle with unemployment, homelessness, and suicide. An ounce of prevention is better than a pound of intervention.”
His bill also calls for a third-party review to examine the curriculum being used in TAP and its effectiveness.
Representatives from Student Veterans of America, Veterans of Foreign Wars and Military Order of the Purple Heart told Military Times that their organizations support the bill — and some said this will likely be the one to stick. De Jesus of American Legion said he had not yet read the bill and could not comment on it in particular.
“That bill is the bill moving forward, assuredly,” said Will Hubbard, SVA vice president of government affairs. “Largely, it’s the most representative bill. It’s the bill that incorporates all the feedback from across the board.”
The Defense Department did not comment on the proposed changes to TAP in Arrington’s bill by press time but has told Military Times previously that transition assistance is embedded into service members’ military lifecycle.
“That means at key touch points throughout the military member’s career such as their first permanent duty station, when they get promoted or when they re-enlist or deploy, we give them a refresher on financial management and planning so they have the resources they need to manage those events successfully,” Air Force Maj. Carla Gleason, a DoD spokeswoman, said in an email last month. “Career preparation to leave the military has to start early-on without impacting their military mission and we work to make that transition as successful as possible.”
But some VSOs feel DoD isn’t doing enough to prepare their people for life after service, though it would be in the department’s best interest.
In order to keep the all-volunteer force going, “we can’t just be all looking like slobs when we get out,” said Patrick Murray, associate director of national legislative service at VFW. “If we don’t have people wanting to sign up anymore, we’re in trouble.”
DoD is trying to do a good job with TAP, Murray said, but ultimately, it’s just not their specialty.
“I find it difficult to believe that someone on active duty can set their service member up for a successful transition and a successful civilian life because they’ve never done it,” he said. He likes that Arrington’s bill does more to connect soon-to-be civilians with community organizations that specialize in helping veterans.
While TAP reform may just be making its way into the spotlight, several organizations have been working behind the scenes on the issue for much longer. For SVA, it’s been a few years; at American Legion, transition assistance has been a priority since the very beginning of the 99-year-old organization.
And while it’s not necessarily the No. 1 priority for VSOs — many of which are also focusing resources on tackling veterans healthcare issues — it’s “definitely a hot topic,” SVA’s Hubbard said. “We’ve been bringing it up in literally every conversation we have with everybody.”
Even Vietnam Veterans of America, whose members would not be directly impacted by TAP changes, has rallied behind the issue, as it did the Forever GI Bill.
The organization’s “founding principle of ‘Never again will one generation abandon another’ is something that strikes deeply into the heart of Vietnam veterans, and it’s why they offer the full support of the organization to push forward much-needed reforms,” Kristofer Goldsmith, VVA assistant director for policy and government affairs, said in an email.
As the Forever GI Bill experience taught veterans service organizations, their voices are stronger together.
“After the GI Bill, everybody took a deep breath and all right, we have all these other things we need to work on,” Murray said. “It’s not mission accomplished, let’s all go home. It was wow, this is a great step. Let’s keep it going.”