Why Veterans Need to Stick Together

'The day you leave active duty is as exciting as it is scary' — five smart tips from one who's been down this path

Expiration of term of service — ETS for short — is a day that every veteran remembers well. Those who are still serving can tell you their date, probably with a bit of anxiousness. The day you leave active duty is as exciting as it is scary.

What will you do when you leave the military? Who are you now that you are no longer an active-duty soldier, sailor, airman, or marine?

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I remember my transition off active duty in 2010. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do. I didn’t know how I was going to make money after I got my last paycheck. The army offered some decent transition services to us as we prepared for that day, but I hadn’t taken them seriously enough. Even if I had, I felt as though they seemed inadequate. Maybe things have changed since then, but I doubt it.

I could’ve used some guidance from someone five or 10 years ahead of me who had done well in civilian life. Someone who had made a smooth transition into a civilian career that paid them enough and that they enjoyed.

Somehow, I managed to do OK. I made mistakes but I learned from them. Now I want those a few years behind me to know how it is to leave active duty and find yourself in the civilian world.

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Here goes:

1.) Use your post-9/11 GI Bill. One of the greatest benefits we get for our military service is the Post-9/11 GI Bill. It’s incredible. Not only will the Department of Veterans Affairs pay for your education and books, but they will pay you an E-5 basic allowance for housing (BAH) for the zip code your school is in. That’s a nice, tax-free check every month.

Even if you have no interest in getting educated (which you should), just think of it as a job. Go to school just to collect a check every month. The whole point is to do well in school and come out with a degree in a field that interests you. Graduate and go after the job you’ve always wanted.

2.) Consider staying in the reserves. I wasn’t sure about staying in the military as I was transitioning off active duty, but I decided to give the National Guard a try and enlisted for two years. I’m glad I did. Drill pay isn’t a whole lot, but for a small commitment of two (sometimes three) days a month it was a paycheck that I could count on.

Related: Why Gary Sinise Fights So Tirelessly for Our Vets

If you are having a hard time finding civilian employment, there are opportunities for more than just drill pay. Active guard reserve (AGR) and state active duty (SAD) are available if you wish to go to a full-time status. There are also opportunities to go to the same schools as your active duty counterparts.

Plus, Tricare remains available for much cheaper than many civilian health care options when you choose this route.

3.) Stay disciplined. One of the greatest skills we learn in the military is to be disciplined. We show up on time. We do what we’re told. We’re squared away. It’s the biggest difference that I’ve seen in the civilian world between military veterans and civilians, and it makes me proud of my fellow vets. It can, however, be a perishable skill that can fade over time.

Don’t let it. Keep up on your military bearing. Hold yourself to a higher standard than the rest of the pack. Even after your career has ended, you continue to represent the United States military. Civilians will look at you and how you carry yourself. They will base their judgment of former service members on what you do.

Related: ‘The Only Reason I’m Alive Today Is Because of World War II Vets’

Represent your brothers and sisters in arms with a measure of discipline and professionalism, and maintain the high standards that people expect of you. Those traits and qualities will carry you far in your civilian career.

4.) Invest in yourself. Read books. Take courses. Get a college degree. Continue to build on the skills and experience you gained in the military. Add more to your toolbox — your unique set of skills that you can contribute to society. Find what you’re passionate about. Become an expert in it.

The greatest investment you can make is in yourself, and that’s not just money. It’s time. Don’t waste your valuable time watching too much Netflix or playing video games. Time is wealth. Think about the greatest returns you can get for your time.

Related: Why Our First Responders Must Be Fitter Than Ever

If you do choose to spend that time watching Netflix, pick something that you’ll learn from.

5.) Stay in touch with your buddies. This might be the most important one, and it’s especially important for combat veterans. Don’t lose touch with your buddies. Text, direct-message, or email them. Make a phone call every once in a while. Take a long weekend and visit them. Time cannot erode the unmatchable bond that you share with them, but letting too much of it pass can make anyone feel forgotten.

You did what many are too afraid to do and you are better for it.

The suicide rate among military veterans scares the hell out of me. I worry for my brothers now almost as much as I did when we were in Iraq together. I can’t bear the thought of hearing about another one who has decided life isn’t worth living. Your phone call might be the thing that saves them.

Keep in touch with your buddies. No one understands you like they do. No one understands them like you do.

I hope this advice is helpful. We might not know each other, but all veterans and service members share a bond that no civilian can understand. Good luck in your transition to civilian life and thank you for stepping up for the greatest country in the world. You walked the walk. You did the hard work. You did what many are too afraid to do, and you are better for it.

Christopher Castellano is a U.S. Army veteran and currently serves as a firefighter in New York City. He is an OpsLens contributor. This article originally appeared in OpsLens and is used by permission.

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