I retired from the Army this spring.
I didn’t want to. I had more years of service to the national left in me, more cans of whoop-ass, more things I could and wanted to do for the nation, for the Army, for the Soldiers with whom I was having the honor of serving.
It wasn’t my choice. The Army said it was time.
It’s also that time now when more of my peers are being told the same thing. Thanks, but it’s time to retire.
Here are things I learned during my process, things they can and should considering doing as they prepare to retire, so as to smooth some of the transition out of the Army, into things like the Veterans Administration, and into civilian life. I hope my experiences can help others made better decisions, and have less angst about what’s on the other side of the retirement finish line.
- Get everything diagnosed. While you are still in the Army – and by this, I mean starting tomorrow – go get everything that aches and pains and that has every caused you any problem diagnosed by an Army / military doctor, and put into AHLTA and your Army medical records. That ankle that you keep spraining, that your PA keeps throwing 800mg Motrins at, and sending you back to duty. Everything. You will want everything both in your records, and with a diagnosis, for two reasons: 1) it recognizes that is happened while you were in the service, and 2) it shows that the military medical personnel diagnosed something associated with it. Granted, they may get it wrong and later on your medical conditions may change all that, but it’s there, in your records. That’s huge. Go get everything diagnosed, and into AHLTA – that’s the computer into which they type all their notes when they should be looking at and focusing on you.
- Download and organize your OPMF file. Do this now. It’s not hard to go to HRC and download all of your OPMF file – it’ll come as one giant .zip file, but what is hard is taking the time to go through each file and renaming them into usable file names. Do this now, because at different points in your life, different evaluations, different awards, different sets of orders will be needed, and being able to go get them quickly will pay off. Rename the files in some way that works for you. Maybe also organize them into folders by type – awards vs evals vs orders, etc. And then back them all up in several places when you are done – it’s sensitive personal information, so I would not suggest anything that is cloud based. But hard drives, as well as burning CDs that you put into safeboxes and also give to trusted relatives to hold, too. Keep in mind – there will be many more documents once you retire, so you’ll so this a few times.
- Request your Army medical file, but then digitize and organize it. When you request you records (and those of your dependents), they are going to go into the automated computer system AHLTA – a computer system – and hit print. No, they are not going to burn it to CD for you. They will likely mail to you two copies,
and if you’re like me, that’s two giant stacks of paper. So, take them to wherever they have one at work, and feed them into a scanner than accepts bulk feeds. As a Windows user, I then used PDFTK Builder Portable to split the scans into every single page. You’re going to want to organize your medical records – and those of your dependents – in some way that you can use them. For me, I put together every doctor visit into a single file (often 3-6 pages), and get it a file name that was something like Smith Audiology Schofield 27JUL2015 and then also made a folder for Smith Audiology Schofield into which I put all of the files for all of the visits I had with Smith. This has helped every time an issue has come up with, say, audiology, or by time frame, or more complex issues when I need to grade everything everyone has some related to a topic (I need everything about shots, and audiology, and imaging, and neurology). It’s also paid off with the VA, as I’ve been able to bring along CD’s of related files when I have had appointments, which the doctors have not only used but have had added to the VA medical records. It took some time to organize one day, but it’s paid of huge dividends over time.
- (Added 8/27, and thanks, Greg!) Request a copy of all of your restricted medical records, too. You’ll want to do this for your dependents, too. This isn’t going to be automatic – those records – kept on the HAL9000 computer and, sometimes, kept in paper files, are by necessity stored separately. You absolutely are going to want copies of these, as they are as much a part of your medical records as everything else.
- Don’t expect the Army to give you a copy of your images – expect to have to hunt them down. The Army will provide you with records from specialty clinics, like behavioral health screenings pre- and post-deployment, but not actual images – because you can’t print those from AHLTA. You’re going to want to physically have those before you retire. Find your nearest Army hospital – not clinic – and start the process there of requesting them through their x-ray and imaging section; they can often, but not always, pull images from across the DoD medical facilities and burn them to disc for you. Once you have them, make backups, and likewise organize them – the Army / military facility (you can make these requests from a nearby Naval facility, too) will just give you backups, without making an effort to make them useful.
- Request and organize all of your outside-the-Army medical records. Go and find all of those places to which you were referred outside of the Army treatment centers, and go request those records. Similarly, scan and organize those records. they are going to be as important as you go forward.
- Those non-Army medical records need to be inserted into the Army system before you retire – to include images, like x-rays and MRIs. Before you retire, you need to have those non-military medical records added into AHLTA. Sometimes, you can take them with your (in paper copy) when you go to sick call, and simply ask a PA to have them scanned in. I’ve had luck at medical facilities, at their records section, having whole stacks scanned in, too. The end result has to be that these outside records are added into AHLTA before your retirement date, so that they are also considered to be a part of your official military medical record, too, and are in your digital military records. It’s not difficult, it’s just something to chase down.
- Did you really get everything diagnosed? Think about it. The thing is, when you work with the VA later on – and you will, even when you’re thinking now that you’re 100% fine and have no deadlining deficiencies – it is exponentially easier when everything is in your records, and when there’s a diagnosis in your records. Complete records and a diagnosis as a starting point make life grand, when working with the VA – I can’t say that any more strongly. And someday you’re going to realize that the things that hurt and are aching and causing you to feel like a curmudgeon are the things that got banged up while in service to the nation, and that’s exactly the kind of thing for which you’re suppose to file a claim with the VA – which will only offset some of your pension by making that portion tax free, that’s it. So, get it all looked at, get it all diagnosed now. All of it.