Like most Military Times readers, I’ve been following the news about the latest Defense Department budget cuts that could force thousands of service members into an early, unplanned transition from military to civilian life.
Although DoD’s budget to pay unemployment benefits to freshly separated troops is projected to decline next year, the most recent monthly unemployment figures for post-9/11 veterans as a whole showed an increase.
While statisticians caution against reading too much into month-to-month fluctuations in the larger unemployment figure, there’s no question that military planners expect to have thousands fewer people in uniform in the years ahead.
The Center for Strategic and International Studies notes that this phenomenon is not new. In the aftermath of the Korean War, for example, the size of the military contracted by 43 percent. After the Vietnam War, the force shrank by one-third, and after the Cold War, by 36 percent. The current budget scenario envisions force reductions of 31 percent from the Iraq-Afghanistan wartime peak.
And that’s not good news, because America is still struggling to pull itself from the 2007 economic debacle that put a major hurt on a lot of Americans. Although Wall Street will have you believe the economy is recovering, the many people who remain unemployed tell a different story. Job opportunities, loyal employers, salaries that match experience and good retirement packages are harder to come by.
But staying in uniform may not be a bed of roses, either. DoD is pushing for a number of rollbacks in benefits — smaller pay raises, higher commissary prices, a lower housing allowance, higher Tricare fees — that could take money out of your pocket.
Defense leaders couch the proposed cuts in personnel spending as necessary to ensure that sufficient funding remains for the development and purchase of the technology that keeps the American military the most advanced and capable force in the world. But that won’t make it any easier on your checkbook when your disposable income shrinks.
So let’s face it, you may find yourself affected by these budget cuts, and you may have tough decisions to make. You could be dealing with early separation or retirement, chosen to make a permanent change-of-station move, or forced to cross-train. So how do you prepare for these possibilities?
Mainly by doing just that — preparing. Just as the military prepares contingency plans for combat scenarios, so too should you map out contingency plans for yourself and your family. If you were caught up in a force reduction in the next few months, where would you live? How would you go about finding new work? What would you do to get by until you found a permanent job?
You have to draw up plans well in advance for them to be of any use to you. If you wait until you’re blindsided and forced to react, you will almost always end up in worse shape than if you had planned well ahead of time.
One other suggestion that could help while you’re still in uniform: If your military specialty is not in high demand in the private sector, think about cross-training into a field that is. Being trained in a new career field, at the military’s expense, not only could bring you more promotion opportunities while you’re in uniform, it could also give you better options later as a civilian.
Knowing that Pentagon budget cuts are on the table and likely to become a reality, should give you all the incentive you need to get busy mapping out your plan for the next chapter of your life.
With all of the signs staring us in the face, anyone who gets blindsided by an involuntary separation without a contingency plan simply isn’t paying attention.
Steven Maieli is the founder of TransitioningVeteran.com, which highlights links to federal, state, for-profit and nonprofit veterans benefits and other resources. He also writes a blog on transitioning veterans’ issues at www.transitioningveteran.com/wordpress. Send questions and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.