Hanging up the hat

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Cortney Paxton
  • 341st Missile Wing Public Affairs
My morning routine starts with an alarm - as do most peoples. But the next step of my routine is only done by nearly 330,000 of the nation's more than 300 million people - only 10 percent of the nation. Every morning I wake up and put on my Air Force uniform.

I have been an Airman 24/7 for the past four years, and in a short couple of weeks, I will wake up without putting on my uniform. My service commitment is nearing its end, and although the Air Force has given me all kinds of amazing opportunities, I've decided that it's time for me to hang up the hat.

While each person's reason for leaving the military is their own, it can be a tough decision. Ultimately, my decision to leave the military was made after taking a hard look at what was best for my family in the long run.

After finally deciding that my service commitment wouldn't continue, I began to prepare for the stresses of separating - stresses that have become extremely real to me the closer I get to separating.

Fortunately, the U.S. Congress has mandated participation in a transition assistance program for all military members leaving the service, and while being five days long may make it seem daunting, the program provided me with significant amounts of information and educated me on benefits I didn't even know I had. The program also gave me an idea of what to expect outside of the military lifestyle.

I attended the transition assistance class nearly nine months ago and have been doing constant research ever since - researching the best medical insurance, the best areas to live near Houston where I'm going, Veteran's Affairs representatives in my area, schooling opportunities and much more. Nine months may seem like plenty of time to have a good idea of what's going to happen next, but I can honestly say that, while mostly prepared for my separation, there are things I'm still not sure of.

At night I often times find myself wondering where I'll be a couple months after my separation. However, with so much time to prepare, I've developed a fool-proof plan, and as the Air Force tightens its force, there are some things I've learned that I'm willing to share with anyone facing the reality of leaving the service:
  • Attend the TAP class as soon as you can - the Airman and Family Readiness Center staff recommends a year out from your separation if possible, and so do I
  • Budget over and over again - include anything that could go wrong (e.g. house repairs, car repairs, emergency travel, daycare/babysitting, etc.) and prepare for the worst
  • Keep your significant others in the loop - working together as a team will help you both
  • Develop a plan similar to the life you're currently living - if that means budgeting for a gym membership or joining a grocery store's membership program, make sure to do it - your transition to the civilian world may be much more pleasant if your lifestyle remains the same
  • Get a degree - they say you can't get a good job without a degree, and they're right - according to a report by The College Board in 2008, four-year college graduates received nearly $22,000 more in yearly salary than high school graduates
  • Make a "to do before I leave" list - I've made a list of places to visit before I leave Montana and have kept true to visiting each one because I'm not sure of the next time I'll be here
  • Don't let others skew your plan - only you can plan for your life
  • Don't "punch out early" - checking out of your job early may leave a mark on your record and the people around you - stay engaged in your work (it may also help you keep your mind off of things worrying you for a bit)
  • And finally, strengthen your relationships - the military gives us all a chance to create special bonds with the people we work with, so work on keeping those bonds blossoming
Separating or retiring from the Air Force means running several checklists at the same time, visiting many different people and shops, and even questioning your decision; however, not all of it has to be scary. By staying proactive and asking an annoyingly large amount of questions, the last day in uniform and first day in civilian clothes could just be a smooth transition.