Making The Transition: Federal Civil Service

This post is brought to you by John, a fellow submarine veteran who used his military skills to make a successful transition to a similar career in the federal civil service.  

(If you’re interested in contributing at, please see our posting guidelines.  John noticed my submarine commentary at the MrMoneyMustache forums and sent me a message.  I asked him if he’d be willing to share what he’s learned.  He sent me the text of his post, and I took care of the formatting.)

Hi there!

Navy image 091123-N-5212T-016 PEARL HARBOR (Nov. 23, 2009) The Virginia-class submarine USS Texas (SSN 775) arrived at its new home port, Naval Station Pearl Harbor, during an inner-fleet transfer from Groton Submarine Base. (U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist Josh Thompson/Released) |

(Click for a larger image.)

I guess I’ll start with who I am… my name is John. I’m just a guy, who did some things, a lot of which would look like this: [redacted]. I’m hoping that today I can help a few people with questions or concerns they have when it comes to leaving the womb military.

I did seven years in the Navy as a Communications Electronics Technician (fancy words for what was formerly known as a Radioman). I served about half of that time on the USS TEXAS (SSN 775). I followed the advice of people much older and wiser than myself, and stayed in long enough to enjoy the walk-in-the-park that is shore duty.

So it begins…

Should I Stay, Or Should I Go?

Deciding to reenlist, or take your ball and go home.

This decision may seem to be a very personal one on the surface, and in ideal situations it is. Unfortunately, the society I came from made it not personal at all. The mentality was that if you wanted to get out or do something other than your current purpose, you were, well… to put it nicely, you were treated differently. Almost daily the senior leadership spewed out lectures of how there are no jobs, and the economy sucks, and there’s nothing out there for you. This is pure male-bovine excrement. Is it easy? Absolutely not. Is it impossible? Nothing is impossible.

With that said, I also don’t want to be the pied piper leading all of the young people out of the military. If you’re good at what you do, if you don’t mind your job, and you genuinely enjoy it… by all means stay in! The pay is better than anyone wants to admit… I (hypothetically) make $75k/yr in the civil service and my income is starting to be close to what I made as a married E-5 with seven years in ($48k on paper)… but that’s without saying anything about medical copays, etc. Life in the military is less complicated. I almost said easier, but that’s purely situational. In the military everything has guidelines, you know (more or less) who you can talk to about something, and people do generally like to help. This isn’t often the case in the civilian world.

Meet In The Middle:

Having your cake, and eating it too.

There is a way to compromise and avoid some of the headache I’ve run into. The Reserves or National Guard are some options/alternatives you can take part in. The pay is fairly low, I was looking at getting $450/mo as a married E-5 if I had gone that route, but the medical is cheap… if you want to deal with Worse-Tricare… I mean, Reserve-Tricare. It’s a great way to supplement your GI Bill if you want to save some for your spouse/spawn. An added bonus here is that you get to keep your base/exchange/commissary privileges. I personally don’t miss them, but many people enjoy them.

I Wish I Knew What I Know Now:

Hindsight is 20/20.

Before I actually left active duty, I was a bit nervous about where to go with my life after my Freedom Date. My biggest word of caution is beware recruiters. Not that they are all bad people, but they get paid by getting you into a job. Sure, the bigger your salary, the bigger their paycheck, but I’d rather turn 50 people for $100 each than 2 people for $1000 each, it’s simple math. Let’s not talk about how much time I wasted talking to these recruiters, ok?

It might be overwhelming for you when you start out… so the thing I focused on first was qualification; ‘What can I do that is valuable?’. After that was location ‘Where do I want to do this?’. Finally it was ‘Who will pay me to do this?’. TAPS, or as it’s now known, GPS can help with some of that. In an effort to not bad-mouth the program, what I will say is bring a notebook, because the first and last day are loaded with good information.

Something else to remember. For three years after getting out, you are part of a program called VRA, or the Veteran’s Recruitment Act. Private sector employers get a tax credit for hiring you. They get a bigger one for hiring felons, but they get one for you, too. Federal jobs it gets better… you do not compete with anyone except for other VRA eligible applicants for any jobs you find on (or otherwise).

You’ve Gotta Fight, For Your Right:

to get paid for your disability.

The VA has been under “severe scrutiny” recently, with good reason. When someone dies in the waiting room… it’s time to take a closer look, right? We’ve all seen or heard horror stories of the VA. My ‘Personal Experience’ is a bit different. It has taken a LOT of patience, but that’s it. I talked to a few people and found out that the AmVets help with filing disability claims. My experience with this has been slow, but incredibly easy. There are a few other ‘groups’ that assist, but I did not interface with them.

I can’t say enough good things about the AmVets rep I dealt with. The appointment took maybe 45 minutes and despite schedule issues, it was handled very quickly. My formal claim was filed in January, and I started going to appointments at the end of April. I’m still waiting for the ‘End Result’ but I also know that the AmVets have my back, so I’m not overly concerned. It is a long and slow process, so don’t expect anything other than that.

I will say that the VA has outsourced a lot of the work to Lockheed Martin (special interest, anyone?), specifically a subsidiary called QTC Medical. These people have also been pleasant to interact with. At GPS the VA has representatives that talk to everyone getting out, if there are any special circumstances you’re involved in, etc.

The biggest thing to remember prior to getting out, is to mention any aches or pains you have prior to separating, regardless of intensity. You may suffer from sore knees after years of running around in boots, and while you can deal with it now… 30 years from now your surgery will be covered by the VA… ONLY if you tell medical about it, and get a rating for it through the VA. For example… I broke my wrist while on the boat and got diagnosed with acute arthritis. I fully expect to receive a disability rating of ‘0%’ currently, as I can still use my hand… but when I’m 55 and can’t hold a cup of coffee, the VA will cover the surgery to fix my hand. You’re not “cheating the system” you’re getting accurate compensation.

Free College!

It isn’t really free.

It DOES pay though… for nine months of the year. They don’t mention THAT very often, do they? Not that the GI Bill is out to screw you… it’s an AWESOME benefit and got even better for most people with the Post 9-11 GI bill…  In all seriousness though, here are some facts that weren’t initially clear for me:

You CANNOT transfer benefits to anyone if you don’t do 10 years. End of Story. Exceptions include those who were injured and not allowed to remain in active duty. Lost a leg and got kicked out with five years in? You can transfer your benefits. They owe you way more than that, but it’s at least something. You’ll have to jump through some paperwork hoops, though. (Bad metaphor, sorry…)

You really do need to be in a degree program… or get your certification from a degree-granting school to get the GI bill to pay for it. I wanted the GI Bill to pay for a Realty License. They said no… UNLESS! I get the license/cert from a school with a degree program along those lines. For my example, ODU offers a Bachelors program around realty and finance. WITH PERMISSION FROM THE VA (this is key, hence the caps lock) I *should* be able to attend ODU to get my Realty License and have them foot the bill.

You will only receive MHA (Monthly Housing Allowance… college BAH) for the full months you are in school… aka nine months out of the year. You will receive (locality specific) married E-5 BAH.

YOU MUST physically attend one class (a semester, I believe… don’t quote me) at the actual school to get the full MHA entitlement. This means actually sitting in class, with a bunch of 18-year-old brats… I mean… “young adults”. If you want to go to an online-only school, you can… but you get the national average BAH of about $750 a month… but don’t worry, you still get to deal with a bunch of brats.

You must attend school ‘full-time’ (12 credits a semester) to receive full MHA. You can receive partial, but must be getting at least 51% of the credits of a full-time student. So seven credit hours (as six would only be 50%…. tricky…) You will also receive that percentage of MHA. So, 75% of the credits of a full-time student means you get 75% of the MHA.

I’m sure some of this is a repeat, but it’s good information to keep in mind when you’re making big life decisions.

A Note For Future Federal Employees:

If you become a Federal Employee, you have certain advantages. Aside from the VRA hiring boost, you can also ‘buy back’ your military service, AND your time in counts for paid-time-off starting at day one. For example… seven years in the Navy means I’m collecting vacation time at the same rate as a civilian who did this job for seven years. This does not count for those who are retired… except for your specific time spent forward-deployed, or in a combat zone, etc. Your employer will/should evaluate your military service record and compensate you accordingly.

[Nords note:  for more on these benefits, see these posts at
The Comprehensive Military Service Credit Deposit Guide
The Military Service Credit For Retirees ]

Buying back your time is an option for everyone. If you retired, you give up your military retirement if you buy back your time… which is just dumb for most situations. If you’re like me and got out before retirement… it’s a great idea if you intend to retire as a civil servant. You file the paperwork and establish an allotment to pay back 1% of your earned wages from the ENTIRE time you were active duty/reserve. Most people come up to about $50 a month for a few years. What this does is that your time counts for retirement. For example, let’s say I do 20 years as a Fed. I would receive a 27-year retirement for buying my time back.

So Long, And Thanks For All The Fish:

If you made it this far, thank you for reading this rather large post. If you have ANY questions at all about anything, feel free to contact me at JFisher3 at Gmail. If you have any complaints, please gather your issue, and go to my HR representative, Hellen Waite.

If you’d like to read my new blog outlining my path towards financial independence, starting with only $40, please visit me at Forty To Freedom. I do curse like a sailor on there (go figure), so if that is offensive to you, I recommend *not* reading it.

Thank you, and good night!

Related articles:
Other transition lessons learned and advice:
Are You Sure You’re Ready To Leave The Military?”
My Financial Independence Plans
Education And The Disabled Veteran
Preparing For The Unexpected
If You’re Starting A Small Business, Do Not Expect To Get Paid
My Road To A Reserve Retirement
“You’ve Been SERB’d!”

WHAT I DO: I help you reach financial independence. For free. I retired in 2002 after 20 years in the Navy's submarine force. I wrote "The Military Guide to Financial Independence and Retirement" to share the stories of over 50 other financially independent servicemembers, veterans, and families. All of my writing revenue is donated to military-friendly charities.

1 Comment
  1. Heh– thanks, Charlie.

    That question is identical to a post I did in 2012, too, but I think the Clash’s “Should I Stay Or Should I Go” has been immortalized by a generation of radio listeners…

    Comment? Question? What's on your mind?