An act signed into law seven years ago by President Barack Obama continues to provide a pathway to success in the civilian sector for retiring and separating military members.

The Veterans Opportunity to Work to Hire Heroes Act of 2011, also known as the VOW Act, assisted veterans by extending Montgomery GI Bill and vocational rehabilitation and employment benefits at a time when veteran unemployment rates remained high following the Great Recession.

The act also authorized the retooling of the decades-old Transition Assistance Program through a collaborative effort of government partners, including the departments of Defense, Education, Labor and Veterans Affairs; the Office of Personnel Management; and the Small Business Administration.

“All these entities came together to create proposals to maximize the career readiness of service members transitioning to the civilian sector,” said Criselda Guerrero-Smith, Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph Military & Family Readiness Center community readiness consultant. “What they were finding is that many service members were having trouble with this transition, so they created a more robust program to meet their needs.”

TAP is available to service members at military and family readiness centers throughout the Department of Defense, which offer classes and one-on-one counseling in conjunction with the program. For Army members, the program is called Soldier for Life – TAP.

The process starts with a mandatory pre-separation briefing, Guerrero-Smith said. At JBSA, these briefings are conducted three or four times a month at the M&FRCs at the main locations: JBSA-Fort Sam Houston, JBSA-Lackland and JBSA-Randolph. Appointments may be made up to 24 months before retirement and 12 months before separation.

“Our job is to tell them about all the different services that are available when they transition out of the military,” she said.

Services presented during pre-separation counseling cover a broad spectrum, from voting assistance, health care, legal assistance and financial management to education, employment opportunities and veterans’ benefits.

Pre-separation counseling also affords retiring and separating service members an opportunity to begin developing a transitioning plan with three possible tracks, Guerrero-Smith said.

“We want them to assess where they are and create a transitioning plan,” she said. “They have three choices: employment, going to school or opening their own business. They have to turn in a nine-page self-assessment and make a decision on one of those choices when they move on to TAP’s final phase.”

TAP’s second phase is Transition GPS – Goals, Plans, Success – a mandatory five-day workshop designed to build service members’ skills so they are career-ready when they retire or separate. Facilitated by the Departments of Labor and Veterans Affairs as well as M&FR community readiness consultants, the weeklong workshop covers a variety of topics.

Supplemental optional programs also benefit service members as they look beyond their military careers.

The Career Skills Program links transitioning service members with civilian training opportunities such as apprenticeships, internships, job shadowing, on-the-job training and employment skills training.

“This program opens an opportunity for service members, but they have to be proactive,” Guerrero-Smith said. “If they wait until the last minute, they can’t take advantage of it. It’s an opportunity they’ve lost.”

Boots to Business, a two-day workshop offered on a regular basis at JBSA M&FRCs, shows participants how to start a business from the ground up, giving them a head start on their entrepreneurial pursuits. It is conducted in partnership with the Small Business Administration.

Another two-day workshop, Career Exploration and Planning, is also optional but requires completion of Transition GPS. This workshop allows service members to identify skills, increase their awareness of training and credentialing programs, and develop an action plan to achieve their career goals.

The TAP process all comes together at the “capstone” session, a one-on-one session with a transitioning counselor, Guerrero-Smith said.

“This is where they present their transitioning plan,” she said. “We try to make sure they’ve dotted their i’s and crossed their t’s.”

The departing service member’s commander completes the TAP process by signing off on DD Form 2648, which certifies the member has completed TAP and met career readiness standards.

TAP is beneficial because it offers a holistic approach to life after military service, Guerrero-Smith said.

“Service members often focus on VA benefits and miss the mark on things such as preparing a resume, getting ready for an interview and doing the things they have to do to gain employment,” she said. “It’s important that they embrace a particular pathway.”

It’s also important that they start the TAP process as early as possible.

“There’s a lot to do, but we’re here to help them every step of the way,” Guerrero-Smith said.

For more information on the Transition Assistance Program, call the M&FRC at JBSA-Fort Sam Houston, 210-221-1213; JBSA-Lackland, 210-671-3722; or JBSA-Randolph, 210-652-5321.

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