The VOW (Veterans Opportunity to Work) to Hire Heroes Act of 2011 was touted as a major accomplishment to help reduce unemployment among military veterans. It expanded educational, vocational, and employment benefits to certain veterans; provided incentives for companies to hire veterans; and directed an overhaul of the Transition Assistance Program (TAP). In 2016, the Obama administration credited the law with helping cut the veteran’s unemployment rate by half in five years. While the law was clearly enacted with good intentions, the Air Force’s implementation of it fails to take into account differences between active-duty members and reservists or national guard members (hereafter referred to collectively as reservists), forcing reservists to undergo a process designed for active-duty members. Leaving military service as an active-duty member requires a significant investment of time and energy to navigate a new life; however, making the transition as a reservist has its own challenges. By ignoring these key differences, the Air Force creates unnecessary burdens on reservists and focuses on fulfilling the letter, but not the spirit, of the law.
The VOW to Hire Heroes Act makes TAP attendance mandatory for all military members leaving active duty, with the only exception being those who separate “before the completion of the first 180 continuous days of active duty.” However, the term “active duty” is much broader than is commonly understood. Typically, it describes a person—an active-duty member works full-time in her military job, whereas a reservist spends about six weeks every year on military duties. During that time, a reservist must stay current on a slew of medical, training, and testing requirements while also doing enough substantive work to fill out an annual performance report. These reports are crucial for future advancement, but reservists often struggle to perform enough meaningful work during the limited time they have in uniform.
It is time for the Air Force to change its implementation of TAP for reservists so that it fulfills the spirit, not just the letter of the law.
The term “active duty” can also describe a status—a reservist can serve an active duty tour during which she works, gets paid, and has the benefits of an active-duty member. A reservist would typically go on active duty orders for a set number of days, often for a deployment or to support a unit that doesn’t have enough full-time personnel. In such cases, a reservist would take a leave of absence from her civilian job and serve on active duty for the days allotted, then return to her civilian life. It is not uncommon for reservists to go on multiple active duty tours throughout her reserve career; some are compulsory deployments while others are voluntary.
The VOW to Hire Heroes Act’s TAP requirement has been interpreted to apply to all reservists who have served on active duty tours for longer than 180 days, even though the TAP curriculum is geared toward active duty service members separating from the military. Often, the two situations are very different: the active-duty member likely has no civilian experience after years of military service, whereas the reservist might be returning to a civilian job, actively job hunting, or looking for another set of active duty orders. In implementing TAP, the Air Force has not made this distinction, forcing reservists to complete training that does not apply to them. For example, TAP spends significant time asking participants to think about where they want to live or what they want to do in their next job—topics that are often not relevant for reservists.
Another key difference is timing. Once an active duty member knows that she is leaving the military, she is encouraged to take TAP as early as possible—up to one year before her separation date. In contrast, most reservists’ active duty tours are at most a year long. While an active duty member perceives herself to be at the end of her military career when she has a year left in uniform, a reservist perceives herself to be at the beginning of her orders. From this perspective, no one—not the reservist, her chain of command, or the Air Force as an institution—is thinking about what she needs to do after her orders end.
My personal experiences and discussions with colleagues demonstrate that forcing reservists to complete a TAP curriculum designed for active duty members is unnecessarily burdensome for many reservists. I was an active duty Air Force officer for five years and have been a reservist since 2010. As a reservist, I have served on multiple active duty tours longer than 180 days, including a deployment to Afghanistan in 2012 and a staff position in 2016–2017. My experience following my active duty tour in September 2017 highlighted several key shortcomings in TAP for reservists. Some of these shortcomings stem from large structural issues and are easy to identify, while others are more subtle, due to the Air Force not implementing TAP in a behaviorally informed manner. As a behavioral science practitioner in my civilian life, I am especially attuned and uniquely qualified to explain the latter. I summarize both structural and behavioral issues and offer some suggestions to mitigate them.
A Reactive Approach to Completing TAP
The Air Force takes a reactive, as opposed to proactive approach to having servicemembers complete TAP. The end of my latest active-duty tour as a reservist in fall 2017 was a hectic time for me: in the span of a few weeks I dealt with a torn ACL, took a major trip overseas, bought a new house, and prepared to start a new civilian job. At no point was I informed that I needed to complete TAP, and even if I had known, it was unlikely I would have had the bandwidth to do so. When an active-duty member separates from the military, it is a significant life event and she usually has plenty of time to prepare for it. The service member must complete a detailed checklist, which includes attending TAP, before her final out-processing appointment. In comparison, when a reservist’s active duty orders ends, the process is much less structured. Outside of individual units setting up their own procedures, there is no mechanism to ensure that a reservist completes TAP (or any other action) while still on active duty. Often the reservist simply stops showing up for work, receiving a paycheck, or getting healthcare. Some reservists’ orders have instructions written at the bottom directing them to complete TAP, but these instructions are usually written in dense text unlikely to catch a reservist’s attention at the right time.
The Air Force currently addresses this issue by employing a “TAP Backlog Representative” whose job is to find reservists overdue on TAP and get them to complete the program. However, this approach attempts to fix the symptoms but not the root of the problem. Rather than working on a system to ensure reservists attend TAP when they might really need it—several months before they go off orders, while their post-active duty plans might still be unclear—the Air Force instead focuses on reservists who show up as overdue for TAP. These overdue reservists are people like me who completed their active duty orders and transitioned back to the civilian world months ago and for whom TAP is no longer useful. This approach benefits the Air Force by allowing it to report better compliance numbers to Congress, but does not help service members transition to civilian life as the VOW to Hire Heroes Act intended.
The Air Force needs to set up a process to identify reservists who truly need TAP and ensure they complete it before they go off orders in a timeline that makes sense for them. The “TAP Backlog Representative” should instead be a “TAP Coordinator” whose job is to ensure that reservists who need assistance transitioning to civilian life receive it. There is even an existing system that can help automate this process. One of my fellow reservists received an e-mail when he had several months left on his active duty orders reminding him to schedule his physical exam before his orders end, but has not received any notifications about TAP. Clearly, the Air Force can find reservists who are on active duty orders and contact them before their orders end. In conjunction with the “TAP Coordinator” this system could be used to make contact with reservists on active duty orders, ascertain their need for TAP, nudge them to complete the program well before their orders ends, and link them up with other resources. Reservists who do need TAP should attend near the beginning of their active-duty orders because they are likely using their time on orders to search for their next job or apply to school.
The Air Force communicates poorly about TAP to reservists. In the months following the end of my active-duty tour, the Air Force sent sporadic e-mails instructing me to attend TAP. These reminders were largely ineffective; the e-mails were sent to my military e-mail account (military e-mail is notoriously difficult for reservists of all branches to access from a home computer) and I did not see the reminders for several months after finishing my active-duty tour. Even if I had wanted to complete TAP, I did not have a constant reminder or clear instructions to do so.
Even when a reservist does see the e-mails, they are hardly written in a way that inspire action. To date, I have received five e-mail notifications that I am overdue for TAP. All five e-mails opened with the following:
“You were identified as an Airman who has completed a past 180+ day RPA/MPA tour/orders. TAP is mandated by Public Law 112-56, sections 201-256 and DoDI 1332.35 for any member who has been on orders of 180+ days or more. All members who are serving on a tour of duty of 180+ consecutive days are required to complete TAP while still in status. If you have already completed 180+ day order, you are now past due.”
The message makes no attempt to highlight the value of completing TAP, such as learning how to access VA benefits, that are applicable even for reservists returning to full-time civilian employment. Instead of attempting to convince reservists that TAP is a worthwhile investment of their time, the message tries to browbeat reservists into completing TAP because it is a requirement, which can sow resentment.
The rest of the e-mail contained instructions for how to complete TAP, but some of the information was irrelevant while other information was not detailed enough. Each of the five e-mails contained similar wording, with generic and slightly confusing instructions that were clearly not intended to address my specific situation.
First, the Air Force should send notifications to reservists’ military and civilian e-mail accounts to make TAP reminders more visible for reservists not on orders. I have verified that the system sending the TAP e-mails has both my military and civilian e-mail addresses on file, but have never received a TAP notification e-mail at my civilian account.
Second, in the opening paragraph the Air Force should emphasize the potential benefits of TAP rather than its mandatory nature. It should highlight information and resources that may be valuable even to reservists with a well-defined plan following their active-duty orders. An example could be:
“Due to your recent active-duty service, you have earned access to resources and assistance with your job search, schooling, and healthcare.
TAP can help your transition back to civilian life even if you already have a full-time job. It can help with:
- Navigating the VA
- Reservists can file a disability claim BEFORE retiring from the Reserve
- A service member with a 10% disability rating would receive $140.05 a month in disability compensation
- Resources for school
- Up to $23,671.94 tuition per year available through the GI Bill
- Full tuition coverage for vocational training
- Advice for job searching
- Insider tips for usajobs.gov
Don’t leave free money and resources on the table. Contact the TAP coordinator at ###-###-#### to learn more.”
Third, the Air Force should apply principles of behavioral science to re-write and format the e-mail in a way that conveys information clearly and makes it more likely that people will read it. It is a common assumption that simply giving people information is sufficient for them to take action, but this is often not the case. Behavioral science teaches us that in order to be effective, a piece of communications should capture the reader’s attention, be tailored to the audience, make the desired behavior easy, and inspire action. Information that is confusing or poorly formatted can be misunderstood, set aside, or never read in the first place. Tools to conduct a communications audit are available online and do not require a behavioral science background to use
A Focus on Metrics over a Smooth Transition
After receiving multiple e-mails about TAP, I called the “TAP Backlog Representative” to find out if I could get a waiver since I already had civilian employment. I was told that only one portion of the program could be waived. When I objected that it was ridiculous for me to spend the limited time I had in uniform to complete a program that I didn’t need, the response was that the program had been re-designed to be mostly online, take two days instead of five, and did not have to be completed while I was in uniform.
While at first glance this appears to be a positive development, I find this problematic for several reasons. Saying that TAP could be done while not in uniform is asking reservists to complete a mandatory Air Force requirement without getting paid for it. Putting TAP online and reducing the length is another example of the Air Force focusing on the symptoms rather than the problem’s root cause. If TAP truly helps some service members make a better transition to civilian life, then watering it down is not the answer. Instead of addressing the root of the issue—that TAP is being run in a way that is not helpful to many reservists—the Air Force is simply making an unnecessary process slightly less cumbersome. This focus on “checking the box” helps the Air Force fulfill the letter, but not the spirit of the law. At best, forcing reservists to attend a TAP meant for active-duty members is a waste of time and resources for people who do not need it. At worst, it harms reservists who do need help making a transition to the civilian world by providing them a pro forma online training course instead of well-timed, substantial assistance.
The fixation on “checking the box” instead of building a program that helps reservists goes even further. Reservists who have served on active duty orders in the past and did not complete TAP are now not allowed to serve on another set of active duty orders until they complete TAP. In other words, a reservist seeking to serve on active duty must first complete a program that is supposed to help her with leaving active duty. This is mind boggling, especially when one considers that a reservist seeking another set of active duty orders is possibly doing so because her plans for civilian employment fell through and she needs the stability of active duty orders while she figures out what to do next. Denying her this as a way to force her to complete TAP negates everything the program was meant to do.
First, the Air Force should waive the TAP requirement for reservists whose active-duty orders have ended. The Air Force does not have a good system to catch these reservists before they went off orders. They need to own that and move forward. Spending time and resources trying to force people who do not need TAP to complete the program is wasteful and pointless. Those resources could be better allocated to developing a system that helps reservists who need it.
Second, the Air Force should make TAP optional for reservists who have a well-defined plan for after their active-duty orders end. The Air Force Reserve Council, an organization that makes policy and legislative recommendations to Air Force senior leaders on behalf of reservists, is currently working on an initiative to make this happen. Air Force leaders should take this recommendation seriously. The prevailing perception is that this waiver would require congressional action, but I do not believe that is the case. A clause in the VOW to Hire Heroes Act allows the secretary of defense to waive the TAP requirement for members who are “unlikely to face major readjustment, health care, employment, or other challenges associated with transition to civilian life.” Reservists with well-defined plans after active-duty orders certainly seem to fall into this category.
Third, the Air Force should work with the other military services, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), and the Department of Labor to develop a TAP curriculum that is relevant to reservists. The online VA benefits course makes a nominal attempt to address the needs of reservists by including an icon that is supposed to have additional information relevant to reservists, but it rarely has actual useful information. For example, the current course has no information for reservists about filing a disability claim with the VA. Many reservists mistakenly believe they must wait until they retire from the Reserves to file a claim; in practice they can file after completing a set of active duty orders. Not understanding this key fact could deprive a reservist of years of disability compensation, but this information does not appear in the TAP curriculum.
I do not believe that anyone in the Air Force set out to design a program that was harmful to reservists. It is in everyone’s best interest that all military members who leave active duty successfully transition to civilian life. But in a large bureaucracy that focuses more on easy metrics than critical thinking, the Air Force has ended up with a program that at best does not help reservists and at worse harms those who really need help, all the while wasting Air Force resources. Many Air Force leaders acknowledge that TAP as currently implemented for reservists does not make sense, but also claim that there is nothing to be done about it, resorting to the easy response of “call your Congress member.” Rather than hiding behind the need for legislative action, which my suggestions above show is not necessary, it is time for the Air Force to change its implementation of TAP for reservists so that it fulfills the spirit, not just the letter of the law.
Annie Yu Kleiman has served for over 13 years in the U.S. Air Force as both an active-duty member and a reservist. She holds a Bachelor of Science in Engineering from Princeton University and a Master of Arts in Law and Diplomacy from the Fletcher School, Tufts University. In her civilian life she works at ideas42, a non-profit behavioral design lab that applies behavioral science for social impact.
Read more in the CNAS Military, Veterans and Society Program's "Supporting the Military Community" commentary series.
Image credit: Senior Airman Kayla Newman, U.S. Air Force.