According to the Pew Research Center, 44 percent of the veterans who served after September 11, 2001, have found that the transition back to civilian life was very difficult. Emotional trauma suffered on the battlefield combined with the civilian skills that some veterans have lost over their time in service combine to create this challenge. For some, physical disabilities add to the challenges they will face.
Thankfully, as a veteran, you have a tenacity that will help you get through this transition and come out successful. All you need is the right guidance and a few tricks to help along the way. This guide is designed to be your go-to resource as you transition to daily civilian life. From driving and cooking to making major financial decisions, this has the resources, tips, and tricks you need to make these decisions effectively and confidently. So keep it handy as you navigate your new life as a civilian.
Driving as a Civilian
No matter how long your time in the service has been, chances are you already knew how to drive before you went on active duty. Yet you may find a few challenges as you adjust to driving in the United States again. In fact, statistics show that young veterans have a 75 percent higher rate of fatal vehicle accidents than other drivers, so this risk is real. Here are some tips to help you make the transition to civilian driving just a little easier.
- Purchase car insurance. You may have stopped your car insurance coverage while you were in the service, but you will need to get some coverage now. It is illegal to drive without proper coverage.
- Determine which type of car insurance is best for you. If you have a loan on your vehicle, you will need the car insurance your lender requires, which for most vehicles is full coverage. If you don’t have a loan, consider how much your vehicle would be worth if totaled. You might want comprehensive coverage to help you replace your vehicle in a crash.
- Don’t forget uninsured motorist coverage. Uninsured motorist coverage pays out if you are hit by an uninsured driver. This is important coverage and not very costly to add to your policy, so consider asking your agent for it.
- Be aware of your tendency to drive aggressively. Aggressive driving is a common problem among veterans, as this style of driving is commonplace and can be lifesaving on the battlefield. However, on civilian roads, it can increase your likelihood of having a crash. Consider taking a defensive driving course to help temper your natural aggressive tendencies on the road.
- Know that you are at higher risk. The Department of Veterans Affairs found that service members returning from deployment have a 13 percent higher risk of being involved in an at-fault accident for the first six months of deployment. That risk increases to 36 percent for third deployments. Knowing this risk may help you slow down and take better control over your driving.
- Understand the real consequences of PTSD. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, can increase a veteran’s risk of acting recklessly or self-destructively, which is understandably dangerous behind the wheel of a vehicle. If you suspect you are suffering from PTSD, seek counseling and understand the risks you face when you get behind the wheel of a car.
- Wear your seat belt. On the war front, wearing a seat belt can be dangerous. If your vehicle becomes trapped, you may not be able to escape. For this reason, as many as 20 percent of veterans do not wear a seat belt as they should when driving in civilian situations. Yet on civilian roads seat belts are critical safety tools, so put yours on.
- Do not drive under the influence. Studies have shown a higher rate of DUI and DWI offenses in veterans. Driving under the influence is always dangerous, so do not do it.
Rules of the Road
- Brush up on basic driving laws. The rules of the road may be different at home than they were at the location of your last deployment, so take a moment to refresh your memory as to what to expect.
- Remember that some laws vary from state to state. Grab the handbook for the state where you are currently living and review the rules you need to know. Some things, like driving with lights on in the rain, may be laws in some states and not others. You can avoid an unwanted ticket by making yourself aware.
For more help adjusting to civilian driving, visit:
- New York Times: Back From War, Fear and Danger Fill Driver’s Seat
- Statesman: After Returning Home, Many Veterans Get into Motor Vehicle Accidents
- Veterans Law Group: Reckless Driving by Veterans Could Be a Symptom of PTSD
- Military One Source: How to Drive Safely at Home After Combat Duty
- The Military Guide: Reducing Driving Risk After You Come Home
Cooking for Your Civilian Life
Cooking may seem like a simple task, but when you return home from deployment you may find it more challenging than you once remember. No longer are you getting three squares a day that are dished up at a set time. As excited as you may be to bid farewell to MREs, if you’re finding it challenging to plan and cook meals, here are some tips that might help.
- Create a meal plan. Create a meal plan by choosing 7 to 14 meals that you know you like, then rotating through them throughout the month. This doesn’t have to be complicated, but having a plan ensures you get something on the table every night to eat.
- Make your meals nutritious. Military food may not be known for its excellent flavors, but it is packed with every nutrient you need for survival and hard physical labor. When you start shopping and cooking for yourself, you will need to start cooking balanced meals. Make sure you add plenty of variety to your diet to keep your health strong.
- Eat the rainbow. Eating the rainbow means striving to consume multi-colored vegetables and fruits daily. You can get more of these fresh produce items in your diet if you choose veggies and fruit for your snacks rather than pre-made snack foods.
- Consider lowering your calories. If your new civilian life is much less physically demanding than your military life, you aren’t going to need the same number of calories. Avoid consuming too many, which puts you at risk for compromising your physical fitness.
- Cook more often than eating out. It’s tempting to just grab dinner or lunch on the go, but meals you cook at home are almost always more healthy than meals from a restaurant, and they are more budget-friendly. Strive to eat at home more often than you choose to eat out.
- Take a cooking class. Most communities have cooking classes, especially those focused on healthy foods. If your cooking skills are lacking, sign up for a few of these to learn the skills you need to succeed.
- Fire up the grill. Grilling outdoors is one of the easiest and tastiest ways to celebrate your new freedom.
For more help learning to cook after deployment, visit:
- NPR: In Portland, a Boot Camp to Help Veterans Cook Healthier Food
- Saint Louis Today: Veterans Learn to Cook Better, Eat Well
- Veterans Health Administration: Ten Ways to Eat Wisely – A Focus on Nutrition
- United States Department of Agriculture: Recipes and Meal Planning
- Veterans Affairs: Post-Service Nutrition and Fitness Tips
Health and Life Insurance
Protecting your health and wellness also requires the right insurance products. Both health and life insurance are important to have in place to protect yourself and your family. Here are some tips to help you choose the right policies to add this important protection.
- Look into Veterans Group Life Insurance. Veterans have the ability to convert their Service Group Life Insurance benefit into the Veterans Group Life Insurance plans within the first 120 days to one year of discharge. Within the first 120 days, the veteran does not have to submit any proof of good health. After the 120 days, that proof is required. This benefit offers up to $400,000 in coverage.
- Consider adding an independent coverage option. Though it is generous, $400,000 may not be sufficient coverage for a veteran with a family or large estate. Adding an independent insurance company policy on top of the VGLI policy can extend that benefit even further.
- Decide between term and permanent life insurance. Term life insurance is typically a cheaper option with a term range between 10 and 30 years, but after the term, the insured receives no benefit. Permanent or whole life insurance extends throughout the person’s life, but has a much higher premium cost. Keep in mind that whole or permanent life insurance policies will not pay out if a soldier dies in battle, so these are best for those who are confident they are done with their service.
- Determine how much coverage you need. Consider factors like funeral costs, debts, mortgage repayment and loss of income when choosing a coverage amount. Most people need more coverage than they initially think they need.
- Apply for the Veterans Healthcare Benefit. Most veterans qualify for health care through the Veterans Healthcare Benefit. If you do, this will be your most affordable option for health care, so be sure to enroll.
- Take advantage of Community Care options when needed. Veterans Healthcare Benefit requires you to see a VA hospital or doctor. Sometimes that is not the most practical option. The VA offers the Community Care program to help veterans get medical care when the VA cannot provide it. Take advantage of this when you need it.
- Enroll in TRICARE if you are qualified. TRICARE is another option for military service members and retirees. This program provides comprehensive health care coverage to vets and their families and is managed through the Defense Health Agency.
- Enroll Your Dependents in the Civilian Health and Medical Program of the Department of Veterans Affairs. The VA shares some of the cost of health care services for qualified dependents of veterans. CHAMPVA may be available to your family after your discharge, so see if you qualify. CHAMPVA is only available to those who are not covered under TRICARE.
For more information about health and life insurance for veterans, visit:
- The Zebra: How Young Is Too Young for Life Insurance?
- Department of Veterans Affairs: Life Insurance
- USAA: Military Life Insurance Benefits
- Military One Source: Life Insurance for Veterans
- Veterans United: Which Life Insurance Is Best After the Military?
Getting an Education
After your deployment, you may need additional education in order to find a rewarding career. Thankfully, there are many programs to help you both with the cost of your education and with the logistics of going back to school. Consider these programs and tips.
- Use the Veterans Educational Assistance Program. This program gives financial assistance for pursuing courses towards vocational training, certificate programs or a college degree. This program is available to those who enrolled in service between January 1, 1977, and June 30, 1985. It required voluntary contributions to the program.
- Take advantage of the programs offered through the Post-9/11 GI Bill. All veterans who served at least 90 days of aggregate active duty after September 10, 2001, are able to receive benefits through the Post-9/11 GI Bill. This bill provides up to 36 months of education benefits to cover tuition, books, supplies and even monthly housing, depending on the benefits you qualify for.
- Use the Services of the Montgomery GI Bill Active Duty. Active duty members of the military are about to enroll in the Montgomery GI Bill Active Duty program. By contributing $100 per month for 12 months, they can receive a monthly education benefit after fulfilling their service obligation.
- Choose the right field. Before tapping into your educational benefits, determine what field you wish to pursue in your studies. Consider your skills, interests and future plans in choosing a field. Also, consider job growth potential and demand. Look for a field where you are highly interested that has strong growth potential.
- Choose a school. Next, choose a school or training program. Look for schools that have strong programs in your field, are conveniently located near where you wish to live and have veterans programs to help with the cost of your training. Make sure the school is accredited if that is important for your degree field.
- Look for distance learning opportunities. If you’re jumping into your civilian career right away, distance learning can help you gain your degree without sacrificing too much of your valuable time. Look for these opportunities.
- Enroll in school. Enroll in school using the forms required by the institution. Pay attention to enrollment deadlines. Consider highlighting your military career as part of your enrollment information.
- Enroll in the Warrior-Scholar Program. If you are having trouble transitioning from the battlefield to the classroom, the Warrior-Scholar Program serves as a bridge between the two, helping you learn how to be a good student and apply to college.
- Take advantage of Service to School. Service to School links veterans who are in school with veterans who are looking to attend. This helps keep your service member connections in place as you look to make the transition to seeking your degree. It also assists with the college application process and test preparation to help transitioning veterans successfully get accepted into a college.
- Learn to balance school and work. This can be a stressful challenge for veterans. Learn to manage your time so that you have enough time for work and family responsibilities as well as your coursework. Sometimes this will mean taking fewer credit hours as you work towards your degree.
- Join a veteran student organization, like the Student Veteran Association. Your civilian classmates may not be able to understand your past as a soldier. Many schools have veteran student organizations that help connect fellow veteran students. Consider joining one of these.
For more help with the transition from military to the classroom, visit:
- Abound – Finish College: Going Back to School as a Military Veteran
- US News and World Report: 6 Tips for Veterans to Succeed in College
- Military Spot: 5 Things to Keep in Mind When Going Back to School after Military Service
- Making the Connection: Back to School – Pursuing College After the Military
- Task and Purpose: What Nobody Tells You About Going Back to School as a Veteran
Renting an Apartment
Finding housing is one of your first tasks after leaving the military. While you may be able to stay with relatives for a while, you are going to want your own place. If an apartment is the best choice for you, consider these tips.
- Determine how much you can afford to spend. Your housing will no longer be free. Consider factors like utilities, insurance, and daily living costs when determining a rental amount that is affordable for your current budget.
- Consider finding a roommate. A roommate can help share the costs of your new apartment, but make sure your roommate is someone who understands your past military life and is trustworthy to keep up his or her end of your rental bargain. Ask for references from past landlords and roommates.
- Invest in renter’s insurance. Your apartment building’s owner will have property insurance, but that only covers the things he owns, which are the building and the building’s features. Your property is not covered. If there is a theft or fire in your building, you will want renter’s insurance to ensure you get the money to cover your losses.
- Research your apartment options carefully. Once you find apartments within your budget, make the choice based on location near your job or school, reviews of past tenants and the reputation of the landlord.
- Read the rental application carefully. Make sure you understand what you are signing, including what happens if you decide to terminate the lease early. Your plans may change sooner than you think, especially during this transition period.
- Apply for the apartment. The landlord will look into factors like your credit report, service history, income, and references when deciding whether or not to accept.
- Pay your security deposit. Apartment landlords require their tenants to pay a security deposit. This money is held in security until the tenant moves out. If the tenant damages the apartment, the money from the security deposit will cover the damage. If nothing is damaged, you will get the security deposit back when you move out.
For more tips on finding an apartment after deployment, visit:
- My First Apartment: In The Military – Planning to Move to First Apartment
- Apartment List: 8 Tips for Finding an Apartment You Can Afford
- Money Crashers: How to Find the Perfect Apartment for Rent – 10-Step Process
- New York Times: Finding Your First Apartment
- Apartment life: Thanks to Our Military Veterans and the Apartments That Serve Them
Writing a Résumé and Finding a Job
One of the biggest challenges for the veterans who are returning home is getting a job. Translating military skills and career service into civilian terminology is hard, but there are tools to help. Here is how you can go about finding a job after your deployment.
- Identify your skills. Your career in the military gave you many skills. In addition to the hard skills you learned with your specific job in your field, you also gained soft skills. Because of your service you are likely a good communicator, have learned flexibility, can follow directions well, know how to work with a team and are a person of integrity. List these alongside the specific skills and training you had to learn to do your job because they are just as valuable to potential employers.
- Translate military career service into civilian terms. Your military career service is a benefit on your resume, but you need to know how to phrase it in terms civilians can understand. Use online translators to find the right terms to include on your resume and applications.
- Write resumes that are easy to scan. Hiring managers will see hundreds of resumes when looking for someone to hire. Make your resume easy to scan, so your important attributes stand out and make you the candidate they call for an interview.
- Write a basic resume, then tailor it for each employers’ needs. Your resume needs to be tailored to the place you are applying. Show how your skills will match what they are trying to accomplish. Remember, the goal is to tell the employer how you can help their business.
- Assume employers have no knowledge of the military life. You may get lucky and have a hiring manager who is also a veteran, but you have to assume that your job titles, duties, accomplishments and training are not something the manager understands. Quantify these and showcase them in a way your potential employer can understand and relate to.
- Request your Verification of Military Experience and Training. You can request a copy of this through the Department of Defense. This will show all of the skills you have learned, which you can then include on your resume.
- Choose a career field. Choose a field that is of interest to you and that is in line with the skills you have learned. This will lead to a rewarding career for your future.
- Prepare for interviews. Before you will be hired, you must first be interviewed. Prepare carefully for the interview process. Remember that you are trying to sell yourself as the ideal candidate. This can be hard for military veterans who are used to promoting their team, rather than their individual self, so practice.
- Know your potential employer. Research the company and the potential job responsibilities. This will help you appear knowledgeable and informed when you walk in for your interview.
- Be confident. In your military time, you learned confidence. Allow this to show through when you interview and apply for work. Confidence will make you a stand-out candidate.
- Take advantage of career help and job search programs for veterans. There are private and government-backed programs designed to help veterans find rewarding careers. Find some in your area to help.
For more help in your job search, visit:
- Military.com: Sample Resume for the Military to Civilian Transition
- GI Jobs: Looking for a Job After the Military? Follow These Steps
- Career Attraction: 6 Actions You Must Take Now to Ensure a Successful Post Military Career
- Task and Purpose: Your Best Career Move After the Military May be Sideways
- Military OneSource: Your Career Path – Finding the Right Job
- O-Net Online: Military Skills Translator
Buying a Home
Not all veterans will choose to rent after deployment. With many home loan options available, buying a home is a possibility for most veterans. Here is what you need to know if you’re shopping for a home.
- Make sure the timing is right. You may want to rent for a while and ensure you are fully settled before buying a home. Remember, it’s a long-term commitment, so make sure you’re ready for it.
- Consider the VA Home Loan program. The VA Home Loan is a government-backed loan that lets you buy a home with no money down. It is available to qualified veterans and has less stringent credit requirements.
- Pursue other loan options. If you do not qualify for the VA home loan or do not wish to use your benefit at this time, consider other loan options. FHA loans, USDA loans and conventional loans all have options for people who do not have a large amount to put down on a home.
- Get pre-qualified. Once you’ve narrowed down your loan options, apply for pre-qualification for your loan through your chosen lender. Pre-qualification allows the lender to tentatively approve your financing, so you have better negotiation power when you enter the home shopping market. Take your pre-qualification letter to give your offers more clout when you are ready to buy.
- Choose a real estate agent. Your real estate agent is a partner to help you find the right house that fits your budget. Choose an agent with experience with the type of loan you are using, particularity if you will be using your VA home loan benefit, and this will help make the process go more smoothly.
- Set your budget. Set a home buying budget before you start looking at available properties. You will need to consider not just the mortgage cost, but also the cost of taxes and insurance for your home.
- Start shopping for a home. Give your real estate agent your budget, and let them pull available properties for you to consider. When some are of interest, schedule showings so you can see the properties in person. Soon you will know which home is best for your needs.
- Make an offer. When you fall in love with a home, make an offer. The offer will tell the seller that you are willing to buy the home for a certain amount. Remember that the seller can accept, deny, or counteroffer when you make an offer. Most of the time the seller will counter, and you will begin negotiating.
- Negotiate the sales price. Your agent will help you negotiate the sales agreement. Remember that it may include concessions, which are items you ask the seller to do or provide in order for you to buy the home. One common concession is to ask the seller to pay some of the closing costs.
- Purchase homeowners insurance. Once you have agreed to a sales price, you need to purchase homeowner’s insurance. This will cover damage to the home from natural disasters, theft, and other problems, and your lender will require it.
- Close the sale. Attend the closing on the date agreed to by your lender and the closing agency. Sign the documents for your mortgage and the home purchase, and walk away with the keys to your new home.
For more tips on buying a home after serving in the military, visit:
- GI Jobs: How Not to Buy a House Before Military Separation
- The Military Wallet: 5 Home Purchase Considerations for Your Military Transition
- US Today: 5 Things Every Service Member Needs to Consider Before Buying a House
- Military Consumer: Buying a Home
- Realtor.com: Home-Buying Benefits for Veterans and Military Buyers
Saving for Retirement
Now that you are out of the military and working on your civilian lifestyle, it’s time to start thinking about the future. Here’s what you need to know as you plan to save for retirement.
- Start saving as early as possible. The sooner you can start your investments, the better your future returns will be. Don’t wait to start saving for retirement.
- Create a retirement plan. Calculating your retirement needs early will help you ensure you are setting aside enough. Meet with a financial adviser to start this process.
- Determine your retirement income needs. Before you can start saving, you need to know what you need to save. Remember to consider the rising costs of medical care, your future lifestyle desires, inflation, and your daily living costs.
- Utilize any 401(k) options. Once you’ve landed a private sector job, take full advantage of the 401(k) you are offered. Not contributing to your 401(k) means failing to utilize the free money given to you from your employer.
- Don’t limit retirement savings to 401(k). Don’t limit your savings to just this one venue though. Research IRAs and Roth IRAs and other retirement venues to make full use of all of the savings options available to you.
- Contribute to the Thrift Savings Plan while you still can. If you have not yet retired from military service, start making contributions to the Thrift Savings Plan. This retirement vehicle is unique to members of the military and gives you yet another option to ensure you’re doing all you can to save for retirement.
- Don’t rely on pension alone. Yes, if you stay in the service for 20 years, you will qualify for a 50 percent base pay pension. However, this may not be enough to fund your retirement lifestyle. It also is something only about 15 percent of active-duty personnel stick around long enough to qualify for.
- Select a survivor benefit annuity. Veterans who are eligible for a pension can enroll in a survivor’s benefit annuity. This annuity allows you to pay up to 6.5 percent of your monthly pension, then if you pass away your family will receive 55 percent of your monthly pension as the beneficiary. You will automatically be signed up for this, but you can choose to opt out. This is a wise financial move to protect your loved ones, so consider selecting it.
For more help planning for retirement as a veteran, visit:
- The Military Wallet: Military Retirement Planning
- Military Benefits: Military Retirement Benefits
- RBC Wealth Management: Veterans – Tactical Tips for Financial Security in Military Retirement
- Time.com: The Veteran’s Guide to Financial Success
- Benefits.gov: Veteran Pensions
Special Considerations for Disabled Veterans
Disabled veterans face unique challenges as they try to integrate into civilian life in a world that does not fully understand the far-reaching implications of their injuries. Here are some tips that will help.
- See if you qualify for the VA’s Disability Benefit. This benefit can provide needed financial help as you learn to navigate your new life with your disability. For service-related disabilities, you may be eligible for compensation through the VA.
- Get disability benefits from the federal government. The federal government has disability benefits for people with disabilities both inside and outside of the military, which you may be able to tap into.
- Understand that civilians may not understand the full extent of your injuries and disabilities. It is not possible for someone who has not served to understand the implications of a service-related disability or injury, which is why emotional support can be critical for wounded vets.
- Sign up for Entrepreneurship Bootcamp for Veterans with Disabilities. Consider whether or not your disability would prevent you from starting a business. If you think you could start a business and work it well, the Entrepreneurship Bootcamp for Veterans with Disabilities is a free program that will teach you the skills you need to start and run a successful business.
- Look for Work through the Employer Assistance and Recruiting Network (EARN). EARN is a nationwide, free referral program that connects employers with job-ready individuals with disabilities, including disabled veterans. By connecting with EARN, you can find the employers who are looking to hire someone like you.
- Participate in the Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment Program. This program (offered through the Department of Veterans Affairs) helps veterans with service-related disabilities prepare for, find, and keep employment.
- Consider long-term care needs. For veterans with disabilities that require constant care, planning for that long-term care is essential. While family can help, you may need to consider hiring outside help to help alleviate the burden placed on family members.
- Apply for Comprehensive Assistance to Family Caregivers of Post-9/11 Veterans. It may be possible for your veteran’s full-time caregiver to get financial, travel, and health care compensation, as well as respite care services, through this program if the veteran’s injuries require full-time care.
- Apply for grants designed for wounded veterans. There are many different programs that disabled veterans and their families can apply toward to get help.
- Look into Specially Adapted Housing grants from the government. If a disabled veteran needs help modifying a house to accommodate the injury and disability, the government offers the Specially Adapted Housing grant to provide money for this renovation.
- Apply for Home Improvements and Structural Alterations grants. Another government grand, HISA gives money for medically necessary improvements and structural alterations to help a disabled veteran live at home. Covered changes may include entrance and exit changes, ramping, bathroom renovation, kitchen accessibility renovation
For more help for wounded veterans, check out these organizations, groups, and programs:
- Hope for Warriors – Provides quality-of-life help for wounded warriors or the families of soldiers killed in the line of duty.
- Folds of Honor – Offers scholarships for military families’ children.
- Operation First Response – This organization helps cover the temporary shortfalls that can happen between the time of an injury or disability and the time when government benefits start to come in.
- Rebuild Hope – A program to assist families suffering due to battle injuries, helping them find housing, feed their families, repair vehicles, pay utilities and get legal help.
- Disabled Veterans Assistance – Community-based programs for disabled veterans.
- Operation We Are Here – This comprehensive list of financial service and helps for veterans will help you get financial assistance for everything from formal wear to auto repair.
- Family Research Alliance Disabled Veterans Outreach Program – A program designed to help with job placement for disabled veterans.
As a soldier, you have the work ethic and integrity that makes it much easier to tackle any challenge, including the challenge of transition. Integrating back into civilian life can be an overwhelming process. The tips and tricks in this guide show the many different considerations that veterans must make as they work through this transition. From buying a home to choosing health insurance, check off these items step-by-step, and soon you will find that you have successfully made the transition to life as a civilian.