Retirement Process Lessons Learned

Getting through the retirement process, including the ceremony, can be a challenge because it is so unfamiliar and the readily available guidance is weak, there are so many important checkpoints to pass, and most of the people in charge of the checkpoints are very junior and not easily accessible. There are many great resources available, but I stumbled on many of them close to the last minute so it was hard to take advantage of them like I could have if I had known about them months earlier. I have created a directory in the files for download section named Retirement Lessons and Tools that has all the tools and checkslists I have collected. The key checkpoints for the retirement process are: 

  • DD 214 issue, 
  • Job search/networking, 
  • Closeout physicals, 
  • Retirement ceremony (yes, you should have one), and
  • Submitting your medical/dental records to the VA for processing. 

This post will cover each and provide links to checklists I have obtained from others or generated myself.

The Dreaded DD 214

As you will learn in Transition Assistance Program (TAP) classes, this is the Holy Grail of the retirement countdown. I will not go into a lot of detail here about what the document contains and why it is important. The local Personnel Support Detachment (PSD) is responsible for entering all the data necessary to issue the form, the key parts of which are length of service and classification of discharge. At Norfolk Naval Station, you have to attend a DD 214 orientation session at PSD (no reservations needed) that gives you an overview of the process and forms you have to have completed to make an appointment to review your readiness for DD 214 issue, which is done in still another appointment (so far this is three visits to PSD). I had to execute a fourth visit because I received an award at my retirement ceremony and I did not know what that would be (nor did I want to know, who wants to spoil the surprise?). PSD gives you something of a checklist, but I did not like the way it was laid out so I made my own and posted it in my files section here. Going through all the wickets to get my DD 214 appointment (physical, blood work, immunizations, security check out, page 13s I had to sign, providing my medical record to the VA, etc.) was the hardest part of the retirement process for me.

Job Search/Networking/Checklists

Part of this is all about attending Executive TAP (E-TAP) and the Rhuelin Seminar, both excellent week-long classes. I have posted my notes to both in the file area, Retirement Lessons and Tools. I am not going to summarize the classes or my notes, just study the files. I found some excellent checklists I wish had used earlier so I also posted them in my Retirement Lessons folder.

Closeout physicals

You have to have a close out physical and dental exam prior to retiring. Do not wait until the last minute to do this (this means you should complete them about four weeks prior to your retirement ceremony) since you have to show PSD paperwork showing that you have completed both to make a final appointment to review your DD214. Exiting from the Navy's Radiation Health Program can be particularly tricky because only a small group of people that have attended a special school taught in Groton can approve the physical. I was warned that it could take up to ten days to get this final signature.

Retirement ceremony

  • Do have one. While they certainly do involve a lot of work and can be expensive if you have it catered with anything more than a sheet cake, there are several upsides to having a ceremony:
    • It can be as simple or complex as you want. Mine included just the basics: arrival of official party, parade the colors, invocation, welcome and introduction of guest speaker, guest speaker, awards presented by guest speaker, "Old Glory" ceremony, my remarks, requesting permission to go ashore for the last time, departure of retiree and family.
    • A class-ceremony leaves a nice, lasting, final impression (also known as "closure") for friends, family, neighbors, and colleagues of your military service.
    • It is nice to publicly recognize the contributions of your family.
    • Your friends and colleagues will be happy to help (side boys, ushers, flag ceremony).
    • It shows junior personnel how much the Navy values the service of its members.
  • Have fun. I told my guest speaker to "keep it light" and funny by making fun of me and telling embarrassing stories. I kept my remarks in the same vein. I gave a way lots more flowers than the standard mother, wife, sisters (and sisters-in-law).
  • Take written notes when attending other retirement ceremonies about what you want to do. I was lucky to be invited to one just the day before mine and it gave me lots of good ideas about things to add to my speech.
  • How many to invite and how big should the venue be? This is a very personal choice and it is certainly hard to predict how many people will be able to attend. I opted for a venue that could accommodate 176 just to be safe and there were times I thought I would be lucky to get half that, but I probably had about 140-150 attendees in the end. Most “yes, I will attend” replies come very late so plan for about ten or so at the last minute.
  • Have seat name tags for VIPs (family members and Captains and above). This is a class thing to do and makes it easier for them because they will want to spend most of their pre-ceremony time talking with other attendees and not sitting in their seats.
  • Station an usher at the gate if you are having the event at a government facility because the access list will never be complete. This is a must.
  • Thoughts on food/refreshment. Yes, you can opt for low-cost and just go with a sheet cake or only serve food at a post-event reception at your house and these choices are just fine. My personal feeling is that the quality of food you have served, if any, does not characterize your military service, but it does reflect a certain amount of class on the retiree's part.
  • Practice/test audio and visual aids days in advance. I did a sound check, but I did not practice with the facility's projector as much as I needed to figure out how to "wake it up" from the sleep mode it went into before my remarks. Ugh.
  • If you are inviting young adult children, start planning their attendance at least a month in advance so you are not undone by a pet dog that no one can watch and cannot get a travel clearance due to health issues.
  • Choose photographer carefully. I specifically chose a civilian, non-Navy photographer because I did not have a good experience getting the pictures from my change of command ceremony. He was very professional, attended my post-retirement reception, and I received the excellent pictures he took on CD-ROM three days later. I sent him some notes explaining how the ceremony worked (the short version was: "it is a lot like a wedding"), which I have posted here. I made sure to ask him to come early so I could get lots of family pictures before the ceremony and I am really glad I did. He also stayed after and got lots of pictures of me with the Side Boys, ushers, and Flag Ceremony participants as well as guests standing at at tables afterward.
  • Consider having a post-ceremony reception. You will not be able to spend as much time as you would like talking to people you have not seen in years at the reception. However, not many of your invitees are going to be interested or able to attend. I had food for 50 people at my reception, but only about twenty (and that included VFW friends of my dad's) attended. I am glad I had the reception because the few diehards that did attend spent a lot of time reminiscing and talking with me and my family, which was just great. 
  • Here were some things that were going through my mind as I started drafting my speech:
    • Keep it short. Fifteen minutes or less is the norm for most of the retirement ceremonies I have attended. I think my remarks were about eighteen minutes or so because I added some stories on the fly, but the original text would not have been much over fifteen minutes.
    • Keep it "light." I have seen some of the most hard-nosed leaders choke up or nearly break down during their speeches. If you spend a lot of time waxing poetic about the importance of your loved ones or other leaders in your life during your retirement ceremony, you are almost guaranteed to "lose it." I wanted my ceremony to be a celebration of my career and a fun experience for myself and attendees alike so I thought a great deal about how to inject humor and keep the tone upbeat.
    • Pick a guest speaker that will mirror your desired tone. If you want it funny and light hearted, pick a guest speaker that can convey this tone. Give him/her lots of "dirt" about your most embarrassing moments so they have lots of options for funny stories to tell.
    • Tell as many stories as you can about attendees (study the guest list beforehand and then scan the audience closely while the guest speaker is speaking so you can add/delete stories on the fly). They will really appreciate this.
    • I wanted to do some things that were unexpected and unconventional so I planned to show some graphics to illustrate key parts of my speech.
    • Show gratitude for those that helped you be successful. Mention them in the speech, if you can. I gave the standard flowers (roses, of course) to my mom and my wife), but I also gave flowers to my sister in law (because she traveled so far) and admin assistant (because she did so much to help me set up the ceremony). I also gave single yellow roses to eight other ladies.
  • Here are some tips for for any form of public speaking:
    • Start with an outline. This applies to any complex writing or speaking you do and is an important first step to keep you from procrastinating because it is generally easy to do.
    • Practice, practice, practice. I must have read the speech eight or more times and actually practiced (not in front of a mirror, but I should have) the speech at least two times to get my speaking cadence down (I tend to talk very quickly so slowing down for public speaking is always a challenge). The more you practice, the more relaxed you will be and the more fun you will have.
    • Have a back up plan for nearly everything that might go wrong (expect this). I had my administrative assistant bring two paper copies of the speech in case my iPad had a problem. I could not make "ruffles and flourishes" work on the iPod I brought, so I had to teach the Master of Ceremonies at the last minute to control my wife's MacBook for the songs. As noted below, I could not make the video projector work so I had to explain the graphics I intended to use.
    • My ceremony coordinator found a great website with free Navy music.  Here is the link:
    • Start early writing your speech (duh!). I collected ideas while I was running about five or six days before the ceremony and typed about 60% of what I wanted to say very early the day before, giving me plenty of time to add more detail and get advice.
    • Get advice from others. My wife gave me lots of help about what to include and cut that I am certain made the speech more effective.

Submitting Medical/Dental Records to the VA

This is not very complicated, but it sounds like it is as you are getting ready to retire because of all the fragments of advice or information you will receive. Here are the basics:
  • Your medical/dental records are not yours, they are the property of the government. You have to "surrender" them at retirement so you should have copies of both. I opted for electronic, scanned copies. Start this process early (like now, there is no reason to wait).
  • The VA can only make determinations of service related disability on what is actually in your record so, in your last year of service, make sure all your annoying little health issues are documented in your medical record.
  • DAV offers a complimentary screening of your record for potential VA claims (this is also done in conjunction with E-TAP if you bring your records).
  • Attend the DAV workshop conducted at Fleet and Family Supprt Center every other Friday, in Bldg U93, near gate 3A behind the theater (Virginia Room) between 8:00 am and 12:00 pm. The workshop is on a first come first served basis and doors open at 7:30 am. This workshop takes you through every VA form you have to complete, line by line, and you can turn in your record to the VA at the workshop if you are close enough to your retirement date.
  • Even though you will get lots of advice about making a paper copy of your medical record, it really is not necessary and it is not cheap. I paid about $50 to get my medical and dental records copied (from the pdf scans I made), but I did not use them. Do not bind your record, leave it loose leaf, do not highlight (it does not really help the reviewer and can distract them). You only need to make a paper copy of your records if you are using Benefits Delivery at Discharge (BDD) because the VA reviewer needs to review the record and you will still be so far from your last day of service (60-90 days per the rules) that you will need to keep your originals. If you are using the Quick Start process (less than 60 days from retirement or not remaining in the area for 60 days before retirement) and turn your record into the VA in conjunction with the Fleet and Family Service center half-day workshop, you don't need a paper copy.

Those are the big ticket items. I will make modifications or changes for clarity or to add things others recommend (if I get comments, of course).

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Observations from Four 3M Inspections in 2011