“Reports that say that something hasn't happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don't know we don't know.”
– Secretary Donald Rumsfeld

In mid-2021, after almost 18 years of service, I was medically discharged from the Australian Army.

I had become very ill in February 2019 so I had had over two years to determine what my life would look like after leaving the military. Prior to 2019, leaving the Army was not on my radar. I was fit and healthy and was about to deploy to Iraq for 10 months. It was an exciting time.

I had expected to be in the military for some years as I was 39 and had hoped to serve for another decade or more.

To take from the highlighted portion of the above quote by the late U.S Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, separating from the Army and therefore the Australian Defence Force (ADF) for me was a ‘known unknown’. I knew it was going to happen; however, as it wasn’t on my radar and there was no real motivation for me to look into it. That was viewed by me as a ‘future me’ problem.

My life changed pretty quickly and made me realise that while the ADF may expect a lot, it also provides a huge amount – a lot of which ceases when you leave. When you’re in the system, the material benefits of service can be largely taken for granted (or least it was by me). Not everyone in society is expected to do what people who serve in the ADF do; however, conversely, not everyone in society receives the multitude of benefits that ADF service inherently provides.

These include a competitive salary, superannuation, health care, housing allowance, deployment allowance, and so many more ancillary benefits – including support to spouses and family. Almost too many to list.

The removal of these entitlements upon discharge could leave an individual feeling exposed, and somewhat helpless. This article may help those serving to get ahead of the curve before they leave, so it is not a situation of ‘too little, too late’. Everyone will leave the ADF at some stage, and it is prudent to start planning for that day, even if it may be planned to be years, if not decades away. There is a lot of support available and my intent on passing on my lessons learned is to reduce the anxiety of separating from the ADF. For me, separation is now a ‘known known’. I hope this article can assist others in going from a ‘known unknown’ to a ‘known known’.

There is a lot you can do concurrently to serving

There are many actions you can undertake whilst still serving which don’t duplicate, or compromise your service. Getting a Medicare card, doing a transition seminar, gaining a qualification (in any area), or even seeking financial advice can all be done concurrently to serving, as well as many other actions.

They are personal endeavours to future-proof yourself before you separate and are entirely unique to your situation. Some activities will take longer to achieve. Lodging claims with the Department of Veterans Affairs (DVA) takes time, so it is prudent to get applicable claims lodged in a timely manner. The government website MyGov makes creating and accessing your profile very easy and can be used across a range of departments which may be required during your transition. This is light years ahead of what some members or veterans may have encountered in the past.

In speaking with staff involved in the separation process, they spoke of a colonel who didn’t have a Medicare card. He had joined at 18 and was leaving at 48. He hadn’t needed a Medicare card during his service and was still on his parents’ card. This is no slight on him, just indicative of what isn’t needed whilst you are serving.

Another example was of a major general who was retiring and had to buy a house in order to have somewhere to live. During over 30 years of service, he hadn’t needed to buy a house as that was taken care of by Defence. As housing is provided or subsidised through defence housing, it can be easy to rely on that benefit to ensure you housing needs are met. Given that this ceases when you leave the ADF, it is crucial to know where you are going to settle once you leave. Arguably, with Australia’s housing costs being so high, having an idea where you can afford to buy or rent has never been more crucial. There are schemes such as the Defence Home Owners Assistance Scheme (DHOAS) which can assist with this, if required. This can be done whilst you are still serving.

The system works; however, you have to learn how to use it

When leaving the ADF I found my experience very positive; however, I could have been better prepared. They want to help you but it pays dividends to start preparing now.

Start reading the policies to frame what is available to you when you leave, and how to go about accessing them. The Defence Transition Manual is a very good start. That will allow you to ask yourself questions such as ‘where do I want to live post transition?’, ‘what do I want to do for a job after my service?’, and most crucially, ‘how can Defence assist me in answering these questions?’. I believe it is crucial to have posed those questions to yourself so you can assist those who are trying to help, in helping you.

There is an abundance of policies out there. It is hugely beneficial to future-proof yourself for this process by thinking about what your life might look like after the military. It may sound daunting but the more preparation you do, as in most things, the better off you will be.

Know your worth

The qualifications gained by individuals vary during their service. Every ADF member is exposed to roles and opportunities which grant them qualifications. These are readily available on PMKeyS and are able to be mapped through recognition of prior learning (RPL) organisations. This will enable your military qualifications to be translated into civilian qualifications and give you a greater understanding of what fields you may be qualified in or want to pursue.

Additionally, there is funding to gain qualifications in order to retrain in a new area. You are not obliged to work in a field directly related to what you were employed in whilst in the military. The Defence Force Transition Program (DFTP) provides a comprehensive, holistic approach for the member and their family.

These can be undertaken whilst serving and for up to 24 months post transition. The DFTP website provides a plethora of factsheets covering a diverse range of applicable topics. They are well worth a look. With approval, on-the-job training can even be undertaken whilst still serving. This provides a safety net of still being employed whilst looking for what your next job or career may be. Not many employers would provide this benefit.

Crucial financial planning is also available; as initially veterans may go into roles that are not as well remunerated as the ADF. That is an adjustment. Additionally, the superannuation that a member has contributed to their ADF scheme can be moved to another superannuation fund if they so desire, or left in their current fund. Engaging with Commonwealth Superannuation Corporation (CSC) is crucial. I have found CSC to be very helpful, as I was not aware of this fact. If you are going to move your superannuation, it pays to do your own research on how superannuation funds compare. The ADF pays a lot more than the Australian superannuation average, and this is also an adjustment when you leave the ADF.

Don’t be a stranger. Develop networks and sustain them

LinkedIn is a very good way of developing an online presence. You can map your career, profile, and experiences – and maintain contact with current or former colleagues. You can give or receive recommendations that are a testament to your or your former colleagues’ performances in certain roles. It allows for networking for former colleagues and to search for jobs that may be of interest. There is also a very strong global veteran employment presence on there, a lot of whom want to help veterans gain employment.

It also allows you to see what your contacts are doing on the job front, or in general. Whilst this is more passive networking, I have found it illustrative to see what former veterans are doing as civilians. The overwhelmingly common takeaway is that veterans can find meaningful roles once they leave. Develop and maintain networks, and do not be afraid to reach out to former colleagues to pick their brains to see what did or didn’t work for them. Lived experience is so valuable as leaving the ADF for the first time can be very daunting. For example, if someone joined at 18 and has had no other job, it is uncharted territory for them, and their family.

Additionally, there are many organisations whose primary focus is to assist veterans. DVA has many ways of offering support to veterans. It is crucial to start engaging with them while you are still serving to have your applicable claims recognised. Soldier On and many other ex-service organisations have many avenues to support veterans from all services. Often if they are unable to assist you, then they have the contacts to reach out to their brother or sister organisations.

Look after yourself, and your mates

Everyone is going to leave the ADF. It is hoped that you have peers, subordinates, or superiors who have been through this journey already. Do not be afraid to reach out to them to seek their advice. It may not be smooth sailing but listening to the experience of others helps. I have been able to help a friend of mine, who was actually my former instructor, navigate transitioning from the military after 30 years. I have found it very meaningful to impart my experiences to him, to aid him through the process of leaving. That also reinforced how fortunate I felt for having the support of the ADF, and the DVA as I medically discharged. Not every country’s military has what Australia has. That is significant.

Modern technology allows immediate contact with people, so reach out regularly. Losing your rank and routine can be confronting for some people as it forms a large part of their identity. Your mates will be there for you just as equally as you will be for them.

Assistance continues after you leave

It is normal to leave a job in the ADF. It is all encompassing and asks a lot of you as a person and your family. Leaving can be stressful; however, the assistance does not stop when you take off your uniform. There are a lot of services out there designed to help veterans, and a lot of the benefits are still applicable for up to 24 months post-transition. It is a brave new world and knowing exactly what you want to do may not just happen.

Workplace trial and error may be a foreign concept after being in the military where changing jobs mid stride during postings is not the norm. Understanding what you want to do will take time and knowing that the support is there for a decent period makes a huge difference.

Know where you reach out to if you need help

As mentioned, it is sensible to start future-proofing yourself while you are still serving. The abundance of ADF benefits are still accessible. Administration takes time and you do not want to leave it to the last minute – which would make the entire process more stressful. In recent years the ADF has done a huge amount of work to make this process a lot more streamlined. The Joint Transition Authority (JTA) was established in October 2020 to allow this to occur.

A very quick Google search reveals a range of available support for you and your family. Do not be afraid to have discussions with your family or friends to learn about the processes required. Additionally, doing a transition seminar is an easy way to learn a lot in an immersive environment where you can ask face to face questions, rather than reading a website.

Leaving the ADF can be tough in a range of ways. I have found that I still have my friends from my service, and we keep in regular contact. In discussions with them, they have all thought about their transition plan and often laugh that it would have been unheard of for us to discuss such things even a decade ago. Speaking to your mates, peers, or superiors about separation is healthy and allows you to inform your subordinates (if applicable) when they eventually decide to transition.