WASHINGTON — A few months after returning to the U.S. following his deployment to Iraq, army veteran Mike Greenwood began required courses in 2006 for those leaving the military through the Transition Assistance Program, or TAP.
Greenwood wanted to be a banker following his almost six years of service. But a few weeks into it, he found that TAP, which he referred to as a “fast and furious” process, wasn’t geared to his career goals — instead, instructors directed him toward jobs in trade and vocational fields.
Fast forward 17 years, Greenwood now supports service members who face challenges similar to the ones he encountered. He is the director of Veterans Services at the COMMIT Foundation, a nonprofit that provides specialized support for those transitioning out of the military.
Even though efforts are being made to reform transition services, many veterans and their advocates are frustrated. Among their top complaints: TAP provides too much information in too little time and often pushes service members to pursue outside resources.
Given the stark differences between military and civilian life and workforces, TAP means to provide necessary resources for service members as they navigate leaving the military. A combination of a lack of awareness and too rigid of a structure has kept this valuable program from benefiting all transitioning service members into new careers.
Recent studies have indicated that a higher percentage of military members today are struggling to transition out of the services than in previous decades.
A 2022 study from the National Library of Medicine found that more than 60% of veterans in the post-9/11 era have reported difficulty in transitioning to civilian life, whereas veterans of earlier eras were at 25%.
“It’s the job of the military to help you support the military. It’s not to get you out and put you into a civilian career and help you figure out who you want to be when you take that uniform off,” Greenwood said. “Their commitment to you ends when you walk out the door.”
A ‘fast and furious’ transition process
According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, about 250,000 active service members transition out of the military each year. However, most do not start TAP at least a year prior to their departure, even though it is required by law.
A 2023 report by the Government Accountability Office found that among those who left the military from early April 2021 through late March 2023, more than 70% of active service members did not start on time, while more than a third of those who transitioned out began TAP less than six months before leaving – offering little time to take advantage of the program.
TAP, which was founded in 1991, offers mandatory courses for transitioning service members that include “standardized learning objectives,” according to the Defense Department website. However, for each person leaving the military, the program typically does not follow a specific schedule.
TAP has expanded since its inception, with the program providing pre-separation counseling for service members starting in 2011. The veteran unemployment rate today is 2.7%, a nearly 5 percentage point decrease since the 2011 TAP overhaul, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
But, Greenwood said information offered during TAP courses and counseling can still be overwhelming for service members, especially if presented in a short time frame.
“Starting TAP in the last year is really just taking a Thanksgiving dinner plate, throwing everything on the plate and not even knowing if you like everything,” he said.
According to a statement from a Defense Human Resources Activity official, the Defense Department is working to improve the timeliness of initial transition counseling. The DoD is one of several government organizations — including the Departments of Labor, Homeland Security, Education and Veteran Affairs among other agencies — that work to provide TAP.
In the same statement, the Defense Department official wrote that in 2023, agencies involved with TAP “developed Corrective Action Plans” to increase transitioning counsel guidance. Additionally, the TAP Interagency Executive Council has started multiple reviews to identify best practices and areas in need of support for the program.
Similar to Greenwood, army veteran Jacob Pachter — who served from 2017 through 2022 — also wanted to enter a non-vocational field following his service: consulting. But Pachter said he found TAP courses to be “largely unhelpful” and pursued resources outside of the program instead.
Through the Army’s Career Skills Program — an offshoot of the Defense Department’s SkillBridge program — Pachter was hired as an intern at the consulting firm Deloitte, where he works full-time today.
Pachter called CSP the “single best program” for his military transition but added he was able to find it only through personal research.
“I don’t think the average soldier would probably be aware of a lot of these programs or know how to interact with them,” he said.
Better advertising and expanding programs like DoD SkillBridge could help transitioning service members gain experience in fields they are interested in pursuing post-military careers in, he added.
However, the GAO’s report noted that service members who start TAP later are typically unable to take advantage of the DoD SkillBridge Program, whose opportunities take place during the final six months of a service member’s time in the military.
Employment rates also vary for recently transitioned service members, depending on when they completed their transition programs.
A Department of Labor study citing data from 2014 to 2021, determined that service members who completed TGPS, which is simply referred to as TAP today, at least six months before leaving the military were more likely to be employed after departing than those who completed it closer to their departure date.
According to Michael Kirchner, an assistant professor of organizational leadership and director of Military Student Services at Purdue University Fort Wayne, those leaving who have an unsuccessful transition process are at risk of pursuing opportunities that don’t match their skills and interests.
In a 2020 entry in the Army University Press co-written by Kirchner, the authors wrote that those leaving the military often lack “tacit and explicit” knowledge on how to function as a civilian, which can make it more difficult for them to transition out. But a successful TAP program can increase a service member’s feelings of self-purpose and knowledge base.
Starting TAP a year before departing the military, however, has proven a challenge for most servicemembers, even though it is required.
Army veteran Princess Gibbs, who served from 2003 up until June this year, began TAP in late summer 2022. She had to start TAP about a month later than she originally planned due to existing responsibilities within her army unit.
When Gibbs was finally able to start the program, she found the information provided to be both “beneficial,” but also overwhelming, she added.
“By the time your unit gives you that space and opportunity, it’s just so much all at one time,” Gibbs said. “For some people, it just becomes a check on the box.”
Today, Gibbs owns and operates “Better You, Better Us,” an online life-coaching business she founded in 2020. She wanted to start the company a few years prior to departing the military due to “transitional problems” she had heard about.
The Defense Department official also wrote that service members are excused from regular duties when attending TAP courses.
Fixes In the Works
Both Pachter and Gibbs noted feeling significant levels of stress during their transitions out of the military, a common occurrence among departing service members.
According to Marquis Barefield, assistant national legislative director at Disabled American Veterans, service members who have undergone unsuccessful transitions may encounter stresses that have a negative impact on their mental health.
New legislation sponsored by Republicans and Democrats in the House and Senate is trying to address some of these problems — but with a stalled Congress and ongoing funding battle between both parties, it seems unlikely it will be passed any time soon.
The TAP Promotion Act, which has different versions in the House and Senate, would allow accredited representatives from Veterans Service Organizations, or VSOs, to participate in TAP classes and help transitioning service members file Benefits Delivery at Discharge claims, which includes disability compensation benefits.
While both versions of the legislation are almost identical in content, the House bill prioritizes the ability of chartered VSOs to interact with service members, whereas the Senate version gives equal priority to all accredited VSOs, including those at the state and county levels.
“The whole idea is to make the transition from active duty status to veteran status as smooth and seamless as possible and as advantageous for the soon-to-be veteran,” Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) said of the TAP Promotion Act. King is one of four senators — including Republicans and Democrats — who introduced the bill in September.
Sponsors of the Senate version of the TAP Promotion Act aim to have the bill go through the committee process early next year prior to a vote on the floor, a veterans policy staffer familiar with the legislation said.
King added, however, that while he hopes the legislation can pass on its own, it may need to be attached to a “larger vehicle” like the National Defense Authorization Act for 2025.
The defense official wrote that “TAP is committed to developing enhanced engagements with VSOs.”
Barefield said the legislation will benefit not just service members, but their families as well while allowing them to ask more questions of organizations like DAV.
But, he added that the military should also consider other methods to ensure service members are able to further dedicate themselves to TAP during the transition period.
The Defense Department, Barefield said, should consider implementing a transition battalion or brigade for those undergoing TAP. That way those preparing to leave the military can focus solely on their transitions, he said, limiting stress.
Greenwood added that TAP should further collaborate with vetted non-profit VSOs like the COMMIT Foundation to fill gaps it is unable to fill for service members between 12 to 24 months before their departures. But, he also feels the legislation could represent a potential “great change.”
“The goal is to take care of [service members]. The goal is not just to be there,” he said of VSOs. “The act of saying, ‘Hey, we’re allowing people in.’ That’s huge.”