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Transition help vital, chief tells Congress

WASHINGTON D.C. -- Chief Master Sgt. Elizabeth S. Schouten of the U.S. Air Force Band talks about her experience with the Transition Assistance Program at a hearing on the state of veterans' employment during a session of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs on Feb. 5.  (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Jim Varhegyi)

WASHINGTON D.C. -- Chief Master Sgt. Elizabeth S. Schouten of the U.S. Air Force Band talks about her experience with the Transition Assistance Program at a hearing on the state of veterans' employment during a session of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs on Feb. 5. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Jim Varhegyi)

WASHINGTON -- For airmen who plan to hang up their uniforms and say goodbye to the military, whether after four years or a career, the future can be filled with uncertainty.

A changing economy coupled with a competitive job market makes the idea of finding a good job a bit scary, Chief Master Sgt. Elizabeth S. Schouten recently told members of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs.

"In the Air Force, we often put the needs of our country first, and it's truly difficult to shift gears and concentrate on ourselves, especially after serving many years in uniform," said Schouten, who is the deputy director of operations for the U.S. Air Force Band at Bolling Air Force Base, D.C.

It was her first time providing congressional testimony, and Schouten said she was honored to represent the men and women in uniform and grateful for the opportunity to be an advocate for the Transition Assistance Program -- a program to help people transition from the military lifestyle to a civilian one.

Schouten enrolled in TAP after hearing her colleagues rave about the program, she said. And most of them encouraged her to attend TAP two years before her retirement.

"I understand why," she said. "TAP gave me not only great information but also helped me develop a plan of action complete with tools and personalized, follow-up assistance every step of the way."

TAP is not just for retiring airmen, she told committee members in her written testimony. The program is designed to give everyone leaving the military the same opportunity to explore career options.

"Although I've spent most of my life on a stage, the idea of marketing myself terrified me," Schouten said. "I have no trouble selling the merits of others, but when it came time to do it for myself, I cringed. TAP provided me with innovative suggestions and tangible ways to overcome this fear of the unknown."

One full day was dedicated to developing resumes, cover letters and interviewing techniques to help TAP attendees civilianize military terms and adapt a new way of thinking, she said. It also addressed negotiating for salaries and benefits packages.

"Very few military members have ever had to interview for a job," she said. "This information was invaluable."

Veterans Affairs representatives met with TAP participants to discuss their education and health benefits.

"I had no idea of the scope of the services available and have encouraged others to take advantage of these terrific packages," Schouten said.

Her favorite part of the five-day seminar was a panel discussion and networking session with corporate representatives.

"Four of the presenters had prior military experience and described the pitfalls of career change," she said. "Everyone impressed upon us the importance of not selling ourselves short. It bolstered my spirits and showed me there really is life after the military."

Schouten also had some suggestions on how committee members can make TAP even better.

"I believe the inclusion of a Small Business Administration representative in the program would give departing servicemembers additional employment avenues to explore and expose them to previously overlooked opportunities," she told the committee.

The biggest improvement that Schouten said she feels should be made is expanding the overseas program so all airmen are exposed to the same opportunity, regardless of station.

Currently, the overseas program is abbreviated because fewer federal agencies are available there. Also, the local corporate representatives may be hiring for overseas opportunities, not for U.S. locations.

Although overseas airmen are exposed to the same information via a book, having that personal interaction with experts and the ability to get answers to unique questions improves the TAP experience, she said.

"TAP is an amazing program," Schouten said. "I highly encourage everyone, stateside or overseas, who plans on leaving the military to take advantage of this great opportunity to sort out your career path and use the many resources available to make the transition to civilian life a little less stressful."

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