The Elephant in the Room: The Two Years Following Military Transition Are the Most Problematic and Need to Be Addressed

Data from 1991 to 2020 consistently indicate that military transition has been and continues to be a very difficult and challenging process. The data generally describe two different types of barriers standing in the way of more-successful outcomes:

  1. Organizational and societal barriers—Organizational barriers center on challenges surrounding the limited availability and lack of specificity with the program of record—the government’s Transition Assistance Program (TAP). Societal barriers center on the lack of transition support services offered by a wide variety of stakeholders and the perceived discrimination—not to mention lack of understanding—from prospective employers as to the unique challenges you face as a transitioning military member.
  2. Individual barriers—These involve military members not knowing what they want to do, what specific steps need to be taken, who they should talk with to help them, and what specific questions they should ask.

Combine these two types of barriers and it’s no wonder military members find themselves on a roller coaster of emotions as they begin thinking about and planning for their military transition. One day they are completely confident and the next day they are not confident at all. Adding additional pressure and stress is the realization that there is a 100% chance that they will be leaving the military and that it can’t be avoided.

At PreVeteran, we’ve spent years researching military transition and created our own proprietary models to explain—and alleviate—the confusion and uncertainty military members are feeling. One of our models describes the typical behaviors military members exhibit when planning for their transition. It falls on a spectrum between “avoidance” and “randomized overactivity.”

On one end of the spectrum is avoidance. Despite knowing they have to depart the service at some point, they tend to consistently put off any preparation for their transition. They are the ones who will work up to the very end—the last day of their service. They rationalize this approach by telling themselves (and their families) that things have always somehow worked out in their military career and this transition to the private sector will be just the same.

On the other end of the spectrum is randomized overactivity—better known as spinning one’s wheels. This segment knows they need to do something in preparation but aren’t quite sure what they need to do. As a result, their brains teem with new, creative ideas about what they can or might do post-military. You can recognize these individuals because they bounce from one good idea to another from day to day.

And, of course, there are those who fall somewhere in between.

What’s most interesting about this phenomenon is that, according to the data, things have not changed in the past 30 years despite systemic changes to transition-related programs.

How did we get ourselves into this chronic state?

To gain some insights, let’s look at a short story written by Ivan Krylov titled “The Inquisitive Man.”

So what does the elephant in the room have to do with military transition, you ask? Well, quite a bit more than you may think. Following my own transition experience, I’ve taken the better part of the past five years studying the current transition system and associated outcomes.

Based on my research and personal experience, I offer two takeaways from the fable:

  1. I believe we’ve completely missed the elephant in the room for the past 30 years: despite existing transition programs, the first two years following military transition remain problematic and need to be addressed.
  2. If we don’t effectively address that two-year period following military transition, we’ll continue getting poor outcomes for transitioning military members.

The Challenging Two-Year Period Following Military Transition

To reiterate, the data from 1991 through 2020 indicate military transition has been and remains problematic. This is particularly true with respect to employment; however, the data is also a bit more nuanced and needs to be understood within the proper context. For example, here are three research artifacts that span 30 years of data which indicate consistent problems with chronic unemployment and poor retention. Research includes two U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs–funded studies and one Pew Research Center survey with the following details:

Regarding unemployment:

  1. A 2008 study found that from 1991 through 2003, recently separated service members (RSS) had, within two years of separation, higher rates of unemployment compared to the general public control group. On average over the period, the RSS unemployment rate was two times the control group.
  2. A 2015 study which in part examined unemployment claims found that from 2004 to 2012, between 29% and 53% of all veterans have a “period of unemployment” within the first 15 months after departing the military. Furthermore, the number of consecutive weeks they collected unemployment grew from 18 to 22 weeks in 2013.
  3. Most recently, a 2019 Pew survey indicated that 25% of transitioning members had a job lined up, 48% looked for a job right away, and only 57% had a job within six months. The study did not determine whether or not those within the 25% surveyed who said they had a job lined up following transition actually got those jobs.

Regarding poor employment retention:

  1. A 2014 study noted that 50% of transitioning service members left their first job within one year and 65% left within two years. For a point of comparison, on average, the general public within the labor force changes jobs every four years.
  2. According to the 2019 Pew survey cited above, 44% of transitioning military leave their jobs within one year.

The Rebound

While there are undeniable unemployment and retention challenges in the first two years following transition, things change after those two years. This where the data gets nuanced because veterans begin actually outperforming their general public counterparts after those two years.

Two metrics capture this phenomenon:

  1. Overall veteran unemployment rate: According to data from 2003–2019 published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, overall and with no exceptions, the veteran unemployment rate has always been lower than that of the general public.
  2. Median income: According to the 2015 Department of Veterans Affairs study cited earlier, veteran median income is $10,000 higher than commensurate non-veterans. This particular study cited data from 2005–2014.

These two very different outcomes explain why the data is so nuanced. While the first two years following military transition are challenging and problematic, veterans overall make a solid recovery following that two-year slump.

Which raises a fundamental question: Shouldn’t we be zeroing in on and trying to correct that challenging two-year period following transition?

The Best Way to Address the Two-Year Period

How to best address that challenging two-year period should be an open conversation for stakeholders in the transition community.

At PreVeteran, we believe the best way to address that period is to provide the framework, individual tools, and support to help the transitioning military member plan their own unique transition—well before they take off their uniform. By doing so, they begin a personal self-transformation that helps them become much more aligned with the private sector’s needs and wants.

Being better aligned with the private sector’s needs and wants means transitioning military members can find the job they want and make more money—all the while creating more certainty and stability in their approach, not to mention happiness and security for their families.

If you are a transitioning military member, you can get started today by doing the following three things:

  1. Download our free “5-Step Guide to Finding the Job You Want, Post-Military.”
  2. Subscribe to our PreVeteran YouTube channel.
  3. Follow PreVeteran on LinkedIn.


W.R.S. Ralston, trans. M.A. Krylof and His Fables. Translated by W. Ralston. London: Strahan and Co., 1869.

Abt Associates Inc. “Employment Histories Report: Final Compilation Report.” March 24, 2008.

Department of Veterans Affairs. “2015 Veteran Economic Opportunity Report.” 2015.

Pew Research Center. “The American Veteran Experience and the Post-9/11 Generation.” September 10, 2019.

Syracuse University Institute for Veterans and Military Families and VetAdvisor. “Veteran Job Retention Survey Summary.” October 2014.

Blue Star Families, “2018 Military Family Lifestyle Survey—Comprehensive Report.” Blue Star Families, 2018.

Mary Keeling, Sara Kintzle, and Carl A. Castro, “Exploring U.S. Veterans’ Post-Service Employment Experiences,” Military Psychology 30, no. 1 (2018): 63–69.

Sara Kintzle, Janice Rasheed and Carl Castro. The State of the American Veteran: A Chicagoland Veterans Study,” USC School of Social Work, Center of Innovation and Research on Veterans & Military Families, 2016.


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