How to Plan for Life After Discharge:
A GUIDE FOR NEW VETERANS
When you are ready to make the move away from military service and into civilian life, you face some major adjustments. It’s no secret that military life is extremely different than civilian life, and you may find that the challenges ahead of you are a bit steeper to overcome than you once thought. If you are suffering from a physical or psychological injury as a result of your service, you will find the adjustment is even bigger. So what can you do to make the transition easier?
Thankfully, you are not alone. You have numerous resources at your disposal that can help you through this transition, and many people who are ready to cheer you on as you make the change. From veteran transition support organizations to the benefits you are entitled to as a result of your service, you have resources. The key is to plan ahead so you are prepared for what will come in the days ahead.
Whether you’ve just received your DD214 or know it is coming and the transition is about to begin, knowing what to expect in the days ahead and having a plan for organization will help your transition to go smoothly. From keeping your paperwork organized to knowing what to do to decorate your first home or apartment, everything you need to know to transition with confidence is here, giving you the head start you need to enter civilian life successfully.
Organize Your Papers
As a veteran, you will have many important papers that help you get benefits. From the papers outlining the terms of your discharge to all of the forms that come through as you apply for benefits, you are going to need to keep these things organized and accessible, or you could miss out on important benefits you are due. Here are some strategies you can use to organize your paperwork.
- Properly safeguard all military paperwork. Whatever storage and organization option you choose for your paperwork, make sure that it is properly secured. Unfortunately, military paperwork is a target for identity thieves.
- Place documents into a page protector inside a notebook. One of the easiest ways to organize your paperwork is to slip each document into a page protector, then hang the page protector from a notebook. You can then place the notebook in a secure location, like a safe, to keep it protected.
- Guard your DD Form 214 with care. The DD Form 214, your Report of Separation, is one of the most important documents you have. This is what you use for your benefits, so you need to take extra precautions to keep it safe.
- Register with the VA. One of the first steps you should take after receiving your discharge documentation is registering with the VA for your health benefits. This will help ensure you have the healthcare coverage you deserve as you move forward with civilian life.
- Register for a Veterans ID card and carry it with you. Many businesses will offer discounts and perks to veterans, and showing the Veterans ID Card will give you these benefits. The Veterans ID Card does not qualify you for federal benefits, but it can help with other perks.
- Hold on to your benefits verification letters. If you apply for or receive any benefits, make sure you hold on to the copies of your benefits verification letters. You may need to refer to these as you receive and collect your benefits.
- See if your state offers Veterans ID Driver’s Licenses. Many states are now allowing veterans to have specially designated driver’s licenses that indicate their time of service. Check to see if your state is one of the ones that does, and apply for this license if it is available to you.
- Protect any paperwork regarding completed training or classes. These documents can help you find employment when you are ready to enter the civilian workforce again. Even those courses that seem irreverent right now may be important later, so keep these in one location.
- Keep careful medical records. If you received an injury or suffered an illness while in active duty, you need to keep the paperwork relating to your injury. There are many programs and helps for disabled veterans, but you need the proper proof. Remember that records can disappear while in transport, so keep paper copies of your medical records in your possession.
- Create a medical power of attorney and living will. A medical power of attorney outlines the individual who will make decisions for you when you can no longer do so for yourself due to health-related conditions. Choose someone who understands how to work with the VA healthcare system. A living will states your desires for end-of-life care, like resuscitation. Both of these are critical to have on file in a place where your loved ones can access.
Personal Paperwork and General Guidelines
- Create the right end-of-life documents. You will need a will, power of attorney, trust and similar documents to ensure your estate is divided the way you wish after your death. Make sure these documents outline the survivor benefits your spouse or children are entitled to receive as part of your veteran’s benefits. Including this information in your end-of-life documents ensures they d not overlook an important benefit that they should be receiving.
- Store your documents securely. A safe, a secure public storage facility, a deposit box at a bank or somewhere similar is an important storage option for your paperwork. Keep your paperwork out of the hands of potential identity thieves by storing it well. Consider storing the most vital documents away from your home, or at least having copies of them not at your home, so that you still have them if you lose everything to theft or fire.
- Protect documents that put your identity at risk. Not all documents are related to your military career. You also need to protect those that contain your personal information. Social Security cards, marriage licenses, birth certificates, passports and other similar documents all need to be kept securely. Veterans are at higher risk for identity theft than others because of the appeal of the benefits they receive, so guard these items carefully.
- Store financial paperwork. You need to tore tax returns and related proofs, bank statements, investment statements, real estate closing statements, insurance records, receipts for personal property and retirement account information. Your tax returns can be audited up to six years n the past, so hang on to them at least that long. The IRS actually recommends hanging on to your W-2 until you begin receiving Social Security retirement income because this is the only proof of what you paid in.
For more information about organizing your papers, visit:
Organizing Your Health
Keeping your health and healthcare under control is important when you are living a civilian life. Thankfully, most veterans are able to get medical coverage through the VA. However, you still have some responsibilities to consider as you seek to stay healthy and protect your health in the future. Here are some important considerations to make and steps to take to ensure your health is well taken care of as you enter civilian life.
VA Healthcare Benefits
- Find the VA healthcare facility nearest you. The Veterans Health Administration maintains a database of VA healthcare providers. Use that database to find a facility near the location where you plan to settle down for your civilian life. Knowing you have convenient access to healthcare or identifying the place where you will need to travel for your healthcare is important to maintaining your health through your non-military days.
Finding a Doctor and Accessing Care
- Understand the VA’s Patient Aligned Care Team approach. VA healthcare is provided through a Patient Aligned Care Team approach, which means you will have several specific providers on your team that provide your care. This will include a primary care provider (PCP), clinical pharmacist, registered nurse care manager, and licensed practical nurse. These providers are assigned to you, so you do not have the option to choose. If you wish to change primary care providers, you will need to talk to your healthcare team leader or a VA patient advocate.
- Visit your primary care provider to get referrals to specialists. Your primary care provider is a general practitioner who can handle your basic medical care. This provider will be the one who refers you to specialists if you have a disability or medical condition that needs specialized care.
- Access the Veterans Choice Program if applicable. The Veterans Choice Program gives vets care through a network of community providers when the VA cannot provide the needed health care in a timely manner. This option requires authorization through the VA, but gives the veteran greater choice in receiving healthcare.
Health Considerations for Disabled Veterans
- Look for transportation services for the disabled. Disabled veterans may have trouble getting around their communities due to their disabilities. Many communities have disability transportation services that disabled veterans can tap. Some of these are veteran-specific, but some are not. Look for this type of service in your community to preserve your mobility.
- Choose your location based on proximity to care. The VA operates about 1,200 healthcare facilities, but that does not mean one is located near the place you wish to settle. Disabled veterans who have trouble driving will need to be located near their VA healthcare center, because they will need more regular treatment and care than their non-disabled counterparts. Distance from the healthcare facility could limit their ability to get care.
- Determine if any specialized care is needed. Certain disabilities, like traumatic brain injuries or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), require specialized care that the average VA medical center may not be able to provide. Look for a facility that offers that type of care as you consider where you will settle for civilian life.
- Choose a home that is accessible. Accessibility is critical to a disabled veteran. You may be able to find a home that is already accessible, or you may need to consider a home that can be renovated to be accessible. When shopping for a home, keep mobility needs in mind.
- Find rental properties that are service animal friendly. Sometimes veterans benefit from a service animal to help with PTSD or physical disabilities. If you are qualified for a service animal, you will need to choose adequate housing. For renters, find a rental location that allows pets or makes exceptions for service animals. Consider an option that has pet-friendly amenities, like a dog run or pet spa, to ensure you can care for your service animal well.
- Know your rental property rights if you have a service dog. If you have a service dog, you have the right to have access to “no pets” housing, exemption from monthly pet fees or pet deposits, and exemptions from breed or weight rules. These protections also apply to emotional support animals. That said, you may have an easier time being accepted by your neighbors if you choose a pet-friendly location.
For more information about your health care options, visit:
Organize Your Move
After you are done with your time in service, one of the first things you will need to do is move to your new home. After choosing where you will settle, you need to get organized for your move. Here are some tips that will help.
Where to Settle
- Choose the best location to settle. Before you can start shopping for a moving company or packing for your move, you must decide where you will move. Consider the veterans services you will be using, and choose a location near those benefits.
- Start the transition from base to dorm. If you’re entering school after your service, consider what college housing will work best for you and what college you will attend, so you can settle in the appropriate place.
- Choose a location near jobs. If you know what type of job you will be considering for your civilian life, choose a location near the job opportunities you desire. Large cities tend to have more variety of employers than smaller communities.
Consider How You Will Move
- Consider taking advantage of the military’s moving services. Veterans who are separating or retiring from active duty are able to receive reimbursement for their relocation expenses. This relocation benefit is typically to pay transportation to their original point of entry. This means that, should you wish to settle somewhere new after your move, you may have to foot some of the bill. Keep in mind that this benefit is allowed for up to one year after your time of service is over.
- Know how you can get the military to cover your move even if you wish to relocate. This particular decision can be a bit complex, but it is possible for the military to cover the cost of your move to a different location. The Defense Department will consider how far you were initially authorized to move, how much your belongings weigh and how long your service was. Do not write off the option to have military pay for your coverage before checking about this benefit.
- Handle the move yourself. Even if the military will pay for your move, you have the option to pay for it yourself and ask for reimbursement. This may end up being the cheapest option, particularly if you’re planning to move away from your original location. This is known as a Personally Procured Move.
Pack and Store Your Belongings
- Decide who will do the packing. If you’re doing a military move, the moving company will handle your packing for you, so this is a stress you don’t need to take on.
- Pack your most delicate items yourself. Even if you have a moving company who will handle the move for you, you may wish to pack your more delicate items yourself. While movers are trained to handle delicate items carefully, they may make mistakes. You can avoid tragedy by packing these items yourself. Consider hand-carrying these times as well.
- Store those items you may not need. If you’re transitioning to a dorm, for example, you won’t be able to bring everything with you. Consider storing items you will not need at your new location, such as your military gear, items for seasons your new location does not have, or items your new home simply is not large enough to store. If you are moving far, pack these into a box marked for storage so you can store them near your new home.
- Keep critical paperwork handy. The documents you need for your VA benefits, discharge, move and other military needs must be kept out. Should you need a document that’s packed deep in your boxes, you may miss out on something you are eligible to receive. Plan to carry your personal identification documents, marriage, divorce and birth certificates, naturalization paperwork, medically important information, housing information, school records, employment records, and vehicle documents by hand.
- Declutter before you pack. Moving gives you the chance to get rid of items you will not need at your new location. Consider selling, donating or tossing the items you no longer use, love or need. This will not only make your final move weight lighter, but it will also help you settle into your new place with less clutter.
- Separate professional gear. Your professional gear does not count against your household weight, so anything you picked up during your time of service that you get to keep should be packed separately to prevent unnecessary weight.
For more advice about moving as a veteran, visit:
Organize Your Career
Starting your civilian career is an important step after leaving the military, but sometimes it is not easy to get started on the right foot. You received training in the military that actually translates well into the civilian workforce, as well as the soft skills that employers are looking for, but sometimes communicating those benefits to potential new employers is a little challenging. Here are some tips to help you launch a civilian career on the right foot.
Preparing Your Resume and Elevator Pitch
- Quantify your experiences. Whenever possible, put numbers with your experience. Instead of simply saying that you led a squadron, indicate that you managed a specific number of people. Numbers are something that a hiring manager can understand.
- Speak to your employer’s need. Your potential employer has a need that you can fulfill. This is what your resume needs to show. In everything you add, tell your employer what you can do for them. Choose the skills and accolades to include based on this. If you are applying for an office job, your award for marksmanship is not an important item to include.
Rounding Out Your Training
- Get the right credentials. Many skilled trades require specific credentials and licenses. Get these in place before you start applying for work.
Finding Veteran-Friendly Employment
- Attend a veteran job fair. Veteran job fairs help veterans and employers find each other. These give veterans an excellent opportunity to see local opportunities with veteran-friendly employers.
- Work your network. The friendships and network contacts you made in the military can be an excellent source for job information when you are out. Use these network contacts to help in your job search.
For more information about making the transition to a civilian career and finding a job, visit:
Organize Your Social Life
When you are in the military, your social life is built into your career. Everywhere you go, you are surrounded by people. When you move into civilian life, you must be more proactive to get out and about and enjoy socializing. Sometimes, veterans find it to be a struggle to re-learn how to have a social life. Unfortunately, this loneliness has been linked to depression and even suicidal thoughts in veterans, so it is important that you learn how to rekindle a social life. Here are some tips to help you get out there and get social.
- Join a veteran’s organization in your area. You will find that it is helpful to network and fellowship with others who understand the unique way of thinking that a modern veteran has. Find a veteran’s organization in your area to join.
- Join a sports team. In your civilian life, you are not going to have the regular workouts that you had in the military. Joining a sports team will help you stay in good physical shape, and also give you a connection with your civilian community members that will help you build a new social life outside of the military.
- Recognize the signs of distress. If you are drinking or using drugs more often than normal, find yourself withdrawing from friends, have difficulty concentrating or deal with intense periods of sadness, you may not be handling the transition to a normal social life as well as you should. These symptoms mean it is time to get some professional help.
- Find a place to volunteer. One of the reasons the military bonds you made are so strong is because you and your fellow soldiers worked together for a common good. Finding a place in your local community to volunteer can help you create similar bonds with local people, so you can begin building a civilian network.
- Use veteran dating sites with caution. There are several dating sites designed for veterans. While these may be an option to help you find someone to connect with, be cautious. Unless you are looking for a significant other who is also a vet, you may have better luck with generic dating sites.
- Don’t dwell on your military experience too strongly while dating. Yes, your military experience is part of who you are, so you should include it when you are looking for a romantic connection, but do not make it the single focal point. You are transitioning to civilian life, so start looking for connections based on mutual interests or similar factors.
For more information about building a social network after military service, visit:
Organize Your Home or Apartment
Civilian life means no more base housing or barracks. It also means the opportunity to decorate and organize a space all your own. Yet after many years of being told where you will live and for how long, you may feel a little overwhelmed with the task at hand. Whether you choose to rent an apartment or move into your first home after your time of service, here are some tips veterans can use to create a space that is truly yours.
- Determine what you need. If you have been in the service for an extended period of time, chances are you have pared down your belongings significantly. Take time to take an inventory of what you have and what you will need.
- Start with the basics. A bed, cooking paraphernalia, seating, a table, and some basic shelving are absolute must-haves. You will also want some bedding, linens and a basic toolkit to help you put together all of your new furniture. Most veterans will also want a television and media center. Start with these items first, then build your home around it.
- Decorate slowly. You may find that your decorative sense changes as you start to put furniture and belongings in place and paint the walls the color you want. Don’t be in a hurry to decorate. Consider adding decorative items last as you determine what your style is.
- Ask for military discounts. Not all businesses advertise their military discounts but don’t be afraid to ask. Many will offer veterans a break on large purchases, and every little bit you can save will help.
- Shop for used items. Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace are excellent resources to tap as you search for used items to decorate your home.
- Use curbside goodies to create vintage treasures. Drive through a neighborhood on garbage day, and you will see many pieces of usable furniture on the curb. Snag some of these items, repaint or recover them, and enjoy a vintage look in your home. For just the cost of some paint, you can have a beautiful, uniquely yours, piece in your new space.
- Avoid the temptation to fill it too full. Now that you have the freedom to buy what you want for your space, you may find yourself tempted to cram your home or apartment full of stuff. Be careful. Clutter can be stressful and can limit your enjoyment of your new place, so go slowly.
- Measure multiple times before buying big items. Make sure the couch, bed, television or other items will fit properly in the space. Don’t forget to measure length, width, and height. It’s very difficult to return a couch when you realize it doesn’t actually fit your space, but it is very easy to measure before you buy.
When You Need Help with Your Home
- Get help with home repairs from Habitat for Humanity. Habitat for Humanity offers a program that provides repair services to veterans who do not have the funds to repair their homes. If you need this service, take advantage of it to keep your home in good repair.
- Apply for an adaptive housing grant. For disabled veterans who need adaptive accommodations in their homes, the VA offers an adaptive housing grant. This grant will give you money to make the home accessible so you can live in it comfortably, even as a disabled veteran.
For more help setting up your first home or apartment, visit:
Transitioning from military life to civilian life is a huge adjustment. When you also need to adjust to life with a disability, you face even greater challenges. Planning ahead will help your move go more smoothly. Thankfully, you have a number of resources at your fingertips you can tap into to assist you in the days ahead. For this transition, you may feel like it sometimes, but you are never alone.