When Green Beret Brian Anderson got ready to leave the Army in 2011, after eight years fighting in places like Afghanistan and Iraq, he followed the path taken by tens of thousands of service members each year.
Anderson, now 36 and living in New Port Richey, entered the military’s Transition Assistance Program, designed to help troops make a smooth adjustment to civilian life.
But the help he got from the program, called TAP, proved to be too much, too late — especially for troops who suffer injuries that affect their ability to process and retain information.
"I had multiple head traumas and am dealing with post traumatic stress," said Anderson, who served with the 7th Special Forces Group. "Going through the program, I was expected to retain information, but it was not helpful."
In addition, Anderson said TAP fell short in helping him find a career path and see the employment picture in the area where he wanted to live. He went through TAP at Fort Bragg, N.C., but was planning a move to the Tampa area.
Anderson turned his own experiences toward helping others through a Holiday-area organization he founded called Veterans Alternative. His latest battle is to make the transition program work and he has partnered with an ally in Congress — U.S. Rep. Gus Bililrakis, the Palm Harbor Republican.
They’re working to adopt legislation that, in part, acknowledges it takes time to move from combat fighter to productive civilian — more time than the military now allows.
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TAP was created in 1991 and has been revised several times since then. It provides information and training to help service members with education, employment in the public or private sector, and starting a business.
A number of federal agencies invest a total of $100 million a year in TAPS programs, according to a Congressional Research Service report.
Nearly 97 percent of troops have taken part in key elements of the TAP program, according to a November 2017 Government Accountability Office study. But more than half of participants wait until they have less than 90 days left to start.
Anderson and others interested in reforming the program point to a November 2017 University of Southern California study that found nearly three quarters of veterans surveyed in San Francisco reported difficulty adjusting to civilian life. The study found that the inability to make a smooth transition frequently leads to family, economic and health issues and increased risk for homelessness and suicide.
"The Transition Assistance Program didn’t work for me because I couldn’t acknowledge the difficulties I would face leaving the armed forces," Anderson said.
"I had a plan. I was going to college, moving to Florida and buying a house. Everything was set. I listened during my TAP experience, but I wasn’t listening to what I needed, and nobody teaching understood what climate or experience I would go through in Florida."
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Anderson, a member of Rep. Bilirakis’ veterans advisory committee, has spent the past year working on recommendations to change TAP. The result: Bilirakis, vice chairman of the influential House Veterans Affairs Committee, co-sponsored a bill that addresses several of Anderson’s concerns.
The bill is named for retired Navy SEAL Chief Petty Officer William ‘Bill’ Mulder, who took his own life last year. Mulder was a friend of U.S. Rep. Jody Arrington, the Texas Republican who introduced the measure.
Among provisions of the bill:
• Enables service members to join TAPS earlier and to attend transition workshops wherever they move to after leaving military service.
• Builds connections with community partners already dealing with difficulties veterans face after leaving the service.
• Requires service members to choose the most promising career-oriented path and to get transition counseling a year before to separation.
• Authorizes a five-year pilot program providing matching funds to community providers who offer transition services.
• Requires a third-party to study the TAP curriculum and whether it works.
The bill is one of two pieces of legislation recently introduced to retool the TAP program.
The other, the Loya-Sears Warrior Transition Assistance Reform Act of 2018, calls for the Defense Department to provide an action plan for improving TAP by requiring earlier pre-separation counseling, standardizing curriculum, increasing participation rates, and improving transition assistance resources. This bill also provides for followup to see if it’s working and would require continuous feedback to the Pentagon’s transition assistance program managers.
The bill is named for two friends and Marines veterans who suffered from combat-related post traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries. Ryan Loya is a Purple Heart recipient who served 10 years, leaving as a sergeant. He said his friend, Jeremy Sears, also a sergeant, died by suicide after he couldn’t find work for two years.
Loya, who now works at FCB Health in New York, said his own support network helped more than TAP.
"TAP instruction focused heavily on the federal job market, and the ‘career fair’ at the end was less than encouraging," he said. "This leads to service members thinking, ‘All I can do is become a cop or federal employee.’ Reality is there are hundreds of companies looking to hire veterans. Veterans just don’t know where to look."
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Pentagon officials, as is standard practice, would not comment on either bill.
But the changes proposed were largely accomplished in a 2015 revision of TAP, said Air Force Maj. Carla Gleason, a Pentagon spokeswoman.
Currently, Gleason said, transitioning service members can choose one or more two-day individual training tracks aligned with their personal goals, including higher education, technical training and entrepreneurship.
"This will help tailor the information they receive to their individual goals and should help with information overload," she said.
Any service member with 180 days or more of continuous service can enroll in TAP at their current duty station or nearest TAP center 12 months prior to separation or 24 months prior to retirement, but no less than 90 days before leaving.
For those like Anderson who want to take TAP where they are moving, they can do so with their commander’s approval and at their own expense, Gleason said. Service members can take the course as often as they like and are advised to do so.
Bilirakis’ office said those changes don’t address all the concerns he’s heard from many veterans.
"Significant room for improvement still exists," said Summer Robertson, a spokeswoman for the congressman.
"We spend six-months to a year training our military personnel for their assignments while in the service. We need to ensure that we are investing an appropriate amount of time and quality energy into preparing them for successful reintegration into civilian life."
Contact Howard Altman at [email protected] or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman