If you haven’t heard, the Army Career and Alumni Program, or ACAP, has been renamed “Soldier for Life: Transition Assistance Program” to help shift Soldier mindsets about transition services away from something required at the expiration of their term of service to a tool critical in their life’s journey.
“This rebranding needed to happen,” said Lorrie Guler, Soldier for Life: TAP manager. “ACAP became a verb. It was like checking the box. Soldiers said, ‘I’m ACAP’ing today.’
“There has been an automatic connection to separation,” she added. “But separation is just one option in the career decision-making process. We have to break from the negative connotation so leaders will embrace the process.”
Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond T. Odierno ordered the name change in June to help transform the ACAP culture. The new name is taken from an initiative he launched two years ago to better reflect a new direction in Army transition.
“Soldier for Life” represents an Armywide effort and mindset primarily aimed at ensuring Soldiers successfully reintegrate into civilian life once they take off the uniform.
“It ensures lifelong success for our Soldiers and their Families,” Odierno said last year. “Our goal is for Soldiers leaving the military to be career-ready.”
The program also follows the four-point philosophy of the Soldier lifecycle: start strong, serve strong, reintegrate strong and remain strong.
“Preparing for transition is something we are going to be doing right from the time that a Soldier enters active duty,” Guler explained. “As they integrate good career-developing habits and practices early on, these Soldiers will hopefully internalize those practices and become better rounded Soldiers.
“Readiness will be increased; resiliency will be increased,” she added.
Transition now a ‘lifelong process’
To make transition services more manageable and accessible to Soldiers, the Army will roll out a new Army Transition Campaign Plan beginning Oct. 1.
The campaign plan is aimed at integrating transition throughout the Soldier lifecycle.
“Under this plan, some of these events and services that we are piling on Soldiers right when they are getting ready to walk out the door are going to be integrated throughout the Soldier lifecycle,” Guler said. “It’s really a cultural paradigm shift.”
As one example of the Army Transition Campaign Plan, Guler said the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command will be responsible for ensuring a “gap analysis” of military occupational skills is created for all Soldiers graduating from a military school.
“That will show exactly how their skills translate into the civilian sector,” she said.
Guler pointed out that Soldiers and their NCOs will need to be much more proactive and engaged in transition services in the days to come – long before separation is even on their radar – to keep with the mindset that transition is now a lifelong process.
Retention NCOs are currently required to sit down with incoming Soldiers to develop an Individual Development Plan, or IDP, no later than 60 days after their arrival in the unit. With the new campaign plan, encouraging the professional development of Soldiers over time through the promotion of schooling, licensing and certifications will be even more important.
Under the Army Transition Campaign Plan, Soldiers will not only develop an IDP but they also continually update it throughout their time in uniform.
The IDP ultimately becomes the Soldier’s ITP, or Individual Transition Plan, once they approach one year away from separating from the service.
The plan also will require mid-careerists to produce a resume before attending a professional military school.
“Transition really becomes a part of the entire Soldier lifecycle,” Guler said.
Another requirement will be financial. Soldiers will need to write up a budget for their commander within 60 days of reporting to a unit.
“Soldiers already do financial readiness training, but there is no enforcement with Soldiers producing and following a budget,” Guler explained. “The Army is really trying to head off some of these larger issues that come from the stressors related to financial issues.”
For military leaders, the ultimate goal in making transition a lifelong process centers on the idea that Soldiers be given the opportunity to make their transition into civilian life a successful one.
Since the rollout of President Barack Obama's Veterans Opportunity to Work (VOW) to Hire Heroes Act of 2011, a complete overhaul of transition services began throughout the Department of Defense, and those efforts included close partnerships with the Departments of Labor, Education, Veterans Affairs and Homeland Security as well as the
Small Business Administration and the Office of Personnel Management.
At Fort Drum, Guler said her office has fortunately remained ahead of the curve, and many of the mandatory changes to Army transition have already taken place.
“We have met and exceeded the requirements of the new VOW Act,” Guler said.
When it comes to separation, Soldiers at Fort Drum are required to begin the preseparation process no later than 12 months from separation, but Guler said she prefers to see them sooner.
“It used to be that the career decision-making window was right at 12 months out,” she said. “But that’s been extended. It now opens at 18 months – and 24 months for retirees.”
The first step, the Preseparation Counseling Checklist (DD Form 2648), is a five-page, 90-minute assessment of everything from education, employment assistance and financial considerations, to veterans' benefits, health insurance and the effects of a career change.
After the checklist, preferably more than one year away from separating, Soldiers are scheduled for an initial one-on-one counseling session in which they begin developing an ITP. They also begin a transition overview to evaluate how their acquired skills compare with the skills required in their ultimate dream job.
The assigned counselor remains with the Soldier throughout the process.
“It sounds like a lot early in the process,” Guler said. “But what we are also trying to do is act as a professional development (resource) for the Soldiers.
“When Soldiers use our services, they get a good feel for what goes into some of the decision making when thinking about a career in the military or the civilian sector,” she added. “They also become better mentors and better authorities on transition when talking to their younger Soldiers.”
A six-hour financial readiness seminar follows the counseling, another mandatory element of the Soldier for Life: TAP. Guler said it is extremely important for Soldiers to develop a post-transition bud-get to fully understand their financial picture, especially if they plan to go right into college.
“The GI Bill is not enough to pay for everything while going to school,” she noted.
After the finance class, the critical component of transition comes – the Department of Labor Employment Workshop, which should be scheduled no later than nine months before separation. The DOLEW covers the nuts and bolts of career planning. Soldiers learn resume writing, salary negotiation, effective interviewing techniques and how to translate military skills into civilian ones.
“Having the finance class before the DOLEW helps you figure out how much you will need to make to maintain your standard of living,” she said.
No less than six months before separation, Soldiers attend a VA seminar. The daylong briefings contain the ins and outs of eBenefits and MyHealtheVets, a heavy concentration on education benefits and an optional VA claims class.
As one of the final steps in transition, Guler said Soldiers are required to produce a resume or a completed application for a job or a university no less than five months before separation. They also need to complete a “capstone” assessment ensuring all career readiness goals and objectives have been met no later than 90 days out.
Nearing their ETS date, Soldiers may choose to attend any of three two-day track seminars. The higher education seminar, small business seminar and career technical training seminars are optional, but if Soldiers have a career track indicated on their ITP, commanders should support their attendance, Guler said.
“Remember that transition is a commander’s program,” she said. “It’s not up to me to be pulling people out of the units to get this done. Commanders should be pushing their Soldiers into this program, which will result in more ready and resilient Soldiers.”
Even though these additional requirements have since strengthened the program, Soldiers at Fort Drum have been required to attend a two-and-a-half-day employment workshop and a four-hour VA benefits briefing ever since then Maj. Gen. Michael Oates, 10th Mountain Division (LI) and Fort Drum commander, made it an installation policy in 2008.
Being a proactive installation has helped many Soldiers here, but Guler is quick to acknowledge that well-established mindsets in today’s Army still exist, often treating transition services like a taboo topic.
She said it particularly pains her to think that Soldiers choosing to separate from the Army are unfairly seen by their peers as disloyal for leaving.
“But the stigma attached to Soldiers leaving the military is definitely changing,” Guler noted. “Leaders realize their Soldiers have met the intent of their contract and deserve to be taken care of on their way out.”
She said that is because Soldiers need to know they are supported when they decide to take off the uniform as much as when they first put it on.
“This is a completely new way of looking at transition,” Guler said. “But by embracing the changes, our exceptionally trained Soldiers – disciplined leaders, loyal team members and hard workers – will be stronger, more resilient and
absolutely ready for every transition throughout their military careers.”