Change is hard.

Gee, thanks, Captain Obvious.

No, really, change is hard, and military transition comes with its own set of unique challenges. For me, add in the fact that I’ve been military since birth. It’s true that the military isn’t just a job; it’s a lifestyle, and it’s the only lifestyle I have ever known. I’ve been comfortably cradled in a community of camaraderie and stability.

And now, I look out at a world that is foreign to me and contemplate the journey into the unknown — the civilian sector. I will be sharing my experiences in a series of essays, in the hopes of educating — and entertaining — those of you who are transitioning or soon to transition as well.

As I took the first tentative steps into my military transition, I was nervous and fearful, unsure if I had amassed enough skills and experience to succeed outside of the uniform. Had I done enough in 20 years to land a job that could sustain my household? What would happen when I had to pay for things like health insurance and life insurance, things that we take for granted in the military because we never see a deduction in our pay? We get basic allowance for housing to pay rent and utilities; we get basic allowance for subsistence to pay for groceries and such. And those allowances aren’t even taxed.

There’s another uncertainty that makes me want to retreat and regroup: taxes. My home of record is one that doesn’t tax servicemembers, so now I have to figure out what I need to make to maintain my quality of life and also consider the taxes I will now be responsible for.

It is all too much.

Fortunately, I don’t have to go it alone. The first incarnation of any sort of transition assistance program was born of Public Law 101-510 and Public Law 112-56 under Title 10, and it required servicemembers to undergo pre-separation counseling. As with most things that don’t go extinct, it had to evolve, and that brings us to the Department of Defense Transition Assistance Program (TAP) that we have today.

In 20 years, I have seen numerous colleagues and peers exit the military, and I had a certain expectation of what to expect from TAP because of that. None of those expectations were my reality, because COVID. Where my friends had attended long, dry briefings in conference rooms or at the post theater, all of mine were virtual, which had its pros and its cons. On the one hand, I got to conduct all my transition classes wearing a onesie and slippers. On the other hand, trying to reach a real live person on the phone when there were technical difficulties with getting the Zoom links to work was about as difficult as trying to kiss your own elbow.

But, do you remember all those questions I had in the beginning? Well, I attended class after class that demystified the process. Yes, it was like drinking from a fire hose at times — so much information, much of which I didn’t know what to do with at the time. A great characteristic of the program is that you can take the classes as many times as you need to. I did, because sometimes you don’t know what you need to know until you find out that you need to know it.

TAP turns the scary prospect of transitioning out of the military into a manageable process. Instead of throwing yourself off the military cliff and hoping to make a soft landing in the civilian sector, TAP turns the cliff into a slope that you gradually ease your way down until you land safely in your new post-military life. Not only is it mandatory, but it’s necessary. Take full advantage of it.

This is the first in a series of essays from Sgt. 1st Class Leah Kilpatrick, a transitioning soldier who will soon retire after 20 years of honorable service to the nation. She has spent her career working in Army public affairs, writing and photographing the Army story for a vast audience of service members, family members, and the American people. In this series, she will share her experiences with the transition process to help educate servicemembers about what they need to know as they transition to the civilian world.

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