Reverse Boot Camp: Pick Me, Drill Sergeant!

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The President today announced a series of initiatives to help American service members better assimilate into the civilian world after leaving service. Several of these programs require Congressional approval, and there are already competing bills circulating inside the Dome of Shame. So it’s not clear exactly how these will play out. The announcements were accompanied by a bit of good news, though: the jobless rate for post-9/11 veterans dropped almost a full percentage point to 12.4%. Better, but still bad.

One part of the President’s new initiatives is something called reverse boot camp. The idea is to create a program that prepares soldiers to be civilians – to give them the tools they need for “navigating job interviews, university classrooms and Veterans Affairs facilities.”

This is a good initiative and an important one. All our services take pride in their ability to bring in civilians, strip them of their identity and mold them into soldiers and Marines, airmen and sailors. The transition is quite extraordinary as any parent who has ever sent a child away to basic training and seen the metamorphosis of that child into a warrior in a scant few weeks could tell you.

But we’ve not done as well in helping those warriors learn the ways of the world outside the wire. The current programs are broadly lumped under TAP – the Transition Assistance Program. That program has improved greatly since I passed through a few years ago, but it is still derided as ineffective. An expanded program could help ease the transition in several ways.

– There should be a seamless transition between the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs. This is particularly crucial for medical records. Soldiers’ final medical examination and evaluation should be automatically transmitted to the VA, particularly if the soldier has a medical disability. A full mental health screening should be part of this; I assume it is, but with the suicide and PTSD rates we have today, it’s still worth mentioning.

– The Department of Labor and private sector partners should provide job search skill training. Getting the private sector involved is important. Troops are taught to train under as realistic conditions as possible. They use live ammunition, operate at night and fly low level missions in order to be competent at warfighting. Having the private sector experts training the soon-to-be-civilians follows this model. Sergeant Schmedlap isn’t going to be interviewing the job seeker at XYZ Corporation. So Sgt. Schmedlap shouldn’t be training the job seeker on how to take on the job interview. Further, if XYZ corporation wants to make a real effort at hiring veterans it needs to have someone on the team who understands the people and processes inside the military to help both sides in the transaction get the most out of it.

– Military qualifications should be transferable, and not just within the federal government. The President mentioned a medic who saved lives in Afghanistan but had to repeat all his training when he got home because his qualifications and training weren’t recognized by the local government. This isn’t really smart, is it? Fixing this should be a no-brainer but getting it done will probably rival raising the debt ceiling because it will involve state boards of certification and such. This is a concrete issue where federal, state and local agencies should be working together to solve a problem.

– The new program should be mandatory, even for reservists. This seems simple, but it’s much harder than you might imagine. Soldiers leaving service from active duty can more or less be compelled to attend the training, to have their medical records transferred to the VA, to meet with counselors and so on. But for reservists and National Guardsmen, it’s slippery. Units return from the war and go through a demobilization station where they turn in gear, file travel vouchers, listen to mandatory lectures, and complete their other administrative chores. Then the soldiers go home. Leaving the reserve is often pretty unceremonious; it shouldn’t be. All service members should receive the same support as they leave service.

– One of the most difficult parts of making the transition is simply not being part of the system any longer. Living inside the cocoon of the military social structure and culture is a significant part of the life. Military families struggle with big issues that non-military families usually don’t. Spouses and kids left alone for a year come together with other families in the same boat. Resiliency is built on these bonds. But once you’re out, you’re out. Your identity is irrevocably altered. You’re an outsider. You don’t fit in the old world and quite often you’re really uncomfortable in the new world. Sorting through all of this is a big part of the transition process and needs to be addressed in the reverse boot camp.

When I think of boot camp, of course, I think of the Drill Sergeants and the care and pride they took in stripping us of our identity, then rebuilding us as soldiers. I suppose there won’t be sergeants in Campaign Hats running the program, but I guess that’s the whole idea. I’d actually like to get involved in this. So Pick Me Drill Sergeant!