To its future recruits, the U.S. Navy promises adventure and the opportunity to visit exotic ports worldwide. But it’s failing its sailors who want to leave after military service. Two former sailors, participants in my non-profit, demonstrate how the Navy could have better helped them with their transition to new opportunities after their service.
Jonathan served in the Navy for 11 years but decided to leave because his autistic son needed him at home instead of serving on a future ship. Like other sailors faced with these special family needs issues, Jonathan knew he faced a future deployment that would prevent him from caring for his son.
Benjamin, another sailor and a single father with a teenage son, made a similar choice to leave the Navy. He moved from Hawaii to San Antonio, Texas, to pursue opportunities in cyber security. He left the Navy after more than a decade because he, too, knew that he would have to make arrangements for someone to care for his son while deployed on a seagoing mission.
Both men left the Navy without their DD Form 214, a document from the Department of Defense that should be given to service members on their last day of duty. As someone who helps veterans with their transition, I know the form is vital. It provides the ultimate veteran service passport that allows sailors like Jonathan and Steve receive aid from the Veterans Administration.
If either wanted to go to college, this form would help them verify their service. It’s also necessary to file a claim with the VA for injuries or ailments sustained while serving in the Navy. For those who have served in Iraq or Afghanistan, this document can verify service for VA “Burn Pits” claims provided through the PACT Act. This entitles them to expanded VA care and other benefits.
During one session with the Military Transition Roundtable, Benjamin aired his frustration about not having the form he needed to begin his VA claims experience. He said the Navy changed policies on providing the form when they consolidated this function to one group of four personnel specialists. He left Hawaii for a civilian career in San Antonio.
MTR members told Benjamin he could use his separation orders as temporary proof of his honorable discharge. In a follow-up meeting with his group, he said the orders provided a temporary solution to showing his military service for working with the VA on his claims processes.
In one recent Navy Times story, the Navy said they had caught up on a backlog of four thousand sailors. Still, Jonathan contacted me this week and said he still didn’t have his DD Form 214 after separating from the Navy two months before he arrived in Houston.
One way the Navy caught up with the backlog of missing military separation forms was by generating them without each sailor signing them or verifying the information. According to a Nov. 17 Military.com article, Rear Admiral Stu Satterwhite, commander of the MyNavy Career Center, sailors could get their DD Form 214 without giving their signed approval. As one sailor noted in this story, that process was flawed because she had to send it back to the Navy personnel center to correct five errors.
Admiral Satterwhite said the delay in providing the DD Form was due to a technology change. Using the new process to give sailors a DD Form 214 without their review is flawed. When I retired from the Air Force over 25 years ago, my personnel specialist made sure I reviewed my discharge form for errors. When I told her that something was missing, she went back and immediately corrected it.
In one recent Military Transition Roundtable meeting, Chad, a senior Army officer, shared how he double-checked all the many deployments he made to the Middle East to ensure that he got them documented. That’s why the Navy’s decision to generate this document without every sailor auditing it is a bad policy.
Through my non-profit, I have helped more than 200 veterans navigate the hurdles they face during transition. Until I met Benjamin and Jonathan, I had never met someone with an issue with their DD Form 214. If you asked the Army, Air Force, and Marines in our program about the status of getting this document, everyone in our non-profit got this form on their last official duty day.
One way the Navy could address this issue is to focus on their departing sailors. This service could call up reserve personnel specialists to help address the backlog of sailors like Benjamin and Jonathan get their DD Form 214 with the ability to check and correct it.
As an Air Force public affairs craftsman working in Naples, Italy, for a NATO command, I saw firsthand the culture the Navy demonstrated towards its lower-ranking sailors. The Navy focuses its resources on its fleet, creating a tradition that sailors forgo their lives to serve in austere living conditions.
Admiral Mike Boorda, my former Italian NATO commander, was changing that as the senior Navy leader in Europe. I knew that if he had heard about the DD Form 214, he would have told his personnel team to find the resources needed to provide sailors like Benjamin and Jonathan with their DD Form 214 upon departure. As the first Navy officer to go from the lowest enlisted rank to four stars, the admiral understood how a decision like this would impact his sailors.
As a veteran, I am upset that one-sister service is not focusing on sailors like Benjamin and Jonathan. While the Navy makes great effort to recruit their replacements through popular movies like Tom Cruise Maverick, the Navy’s senior leadership needs to consider its transition efforts too.
Someday, a future recruit or a parent may ask sailors like Ben and Jonathan about their military service. If the Navy had done a better job of helping them leave the service, both would have shared a positive impression about their time in uniform.
To me, it’s time for this branch of the military service to update its transition policy by correcting its policies on providing the DD Form 214 in a timely and professional manner.
Matt Scherer served in the Air Force for 20 years as a public affairs professional. He co-founded the Military Transition Roundtable, a non-profit that helps veterans with their transition.