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Pentagon strengthens transition program for those leaving active duty

Marines from the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force leaves Camp Pendleton bound for Afghanistan's Helmand province in 2010.
Marines from the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force leaves Camp Pendleton bound for Afghanistan's Helmand province in 2010.
VYACHESLAV OSELEDKO/AFP/Getty Images)

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After your time in the military is up, how do you get ready to go back to the civilian world?

For Cpl. Fabian Purvis, it involved a five-day seminar at Camp Pendleton that taught him things like how to translate his military experiences into something a civilian human resources department could better understand, along with some practical skills.

"I was like a sponge when I went there," he said. "I was like, 'I want everything you can give me. Show me how to dress, show me how to tie my tie, show me how to write a resume.'"

After four years in the Marine Corps, Purvis is hanging up his corporal's stripes and hoping to pin on a San Diego Sheriff deputy's badge.

Cpl. Fabian Purvis' last day in the Marine Corps is November 14th 2016. He's looking to transition to a job with the San Diego Sheriffs Department.
Cpl. Fabian Purvis' last day in the Marine Corps is November 14th 2016. He's looking to transition to a job with the San Diego Sheriffs Department.
KPCC/John Ismay

"I come from a military background," Purvis said. "Everybody in my family, when they get out, there's two options: entrepreneurship, or police/fire. I prefer police. That's what I've always wanted to do."

The San Diego Sheriff's Department was one of many employers that came in to make recruiting pitches to Marines as they sat through the Transition Readiness Seminar at Pendleton. Purvis has already had a second round of interviews with the department, and hopes to get an offer soon.

Training and assistance like this didn't exist for transitioning vets before 1991.

John Pickens served as a Special Forces medic in Vietnam; he said when he got out of the Army in 1973, people leaving the service didn't get a whole lot of help.

"There wasn't very much," he said. "It was, you had to go here and turn in this. And you had to go there and hear some information about VA benefits I think is all they really told us about, and it wasn't very long."

The post-1991 Transition Assistance Program was a good start for helping service members, but it still had flaws, said Pickens.

For one thing, the program was voluntary. Even for those service members who wanted to participate, their commanders could turn them down for virtually any reason. And the program was geared more towards putting people into manual trades than into college or white collar jobs.

A Congressional fix

Five years ago, Congress tried to fix those problems by revamping the program, which is now run by Dr. Susan Kelly.

She said the effort changed in three major ways. First, participation became mandatory. Second, it forced every service member to come up with an achievable post-military goal. Third, it made commanders accountable for making sure their subordinates were set up to succeed.

"The purpose of the redesign is to allow service members to develop their own individual transition plan," Kelly said. "The commanders and their senior leadership must verify that each and every service member that they are separating are ready."

The transition plan is tailored for what each person wants to do on the outside, whether that means college, a trade or executive management. And the military has to help the service member find a way to make that happen.

And instead of offering the transition assistance as just an end-of-career stand-alone event, the new program spreads all of this preparation across the duration of a service member's time on active duty.

It even provides assistance to a population that had previously been denied this kind of help: those who get kicked out for misconduct.

So while someone who's been given a less-than-honorable discharge will lose eligibility for benefits like the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill, he won't leave entirely empty-handed.

For those who qualify for the G.I. Bill and want to go to school right away, the Transition Assistance Program helps them pick out a college, and navigate the application process.

Col. Bobbi Shea (left) commands the 4,500 Marines of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force's Headquarters Group at Camp Pendleton. Sgt. Major David Wilson (right) is her senior enlisted advisor.
Col. Bobbi Shea (left) commands the 4,500 Marines of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force's Headquarters Group at Camp Pendleton. Sgt. Major David Wilson (right) is her senior enlisted advisor.
KPCC/John Ismay

There's another reason why the beefed-up transition program is important, said Col. Bobbi Shea. She commands 4,500 Marines in the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force Headquarters Group, or MHG, at Camp Pendleton.

"The vast majority of Marines are super young," Shea said. "Of the 1,500 Marines who got out of MHG this year, about a thousand of them were 18 to 25."

John Pickens, the vet who left the Army in 1973, has been helping people transition out of the military for several years. In 2008, he founded VeteransPlus.org, a nonprofit offering free financial counseling to active-duty military and veterans.

As someone who's seen both the old and the new transition programs up close, Pickens is pleased with how the assistance effort is now structured.

"I think they've made some changes for the positive," he said.  "And I think they're open to improvement - so that's a good sign."

Pickens would like to see transitional support extended to people after they've gone back to civilian life, through the VA.

"The VA of course is very good about providing benefits and services, but they don't offer any education or counseling in how to budget or handle someone's finances," he said.

Cpl. Purvis might be better positioned for financial success than most. While every Marine is trained as a rifleman, Purvis' main job was to serve as a financial analyst for the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force.

That experience has him feeling pretty confident as he prepares to get out.

"It's been pretty smooth for me, to be honest - a lot smoother than I heard it was," Purvis said. "And there's so much help out there I kinda feel invincible going out into the civilian world."

Now all the San Diego Sheriff's Department has to do is send him that offer letter.

The South Gate at Camp Pendleton, which is home to the U.S. Marine Corps' 1st Marine Expeditionary Force.
The South Gate at Camp Pendleton, which is home to the U.S. Marine Corps' 1st Marine Expeditionary Force.
KPCC/John Ismay