If you caught President Barack Obama on TV on Aug. 10, you probably saw him address the Disabled American Veterans on the administration's work to better serve U.S. troops and honor our veterans. Among the bullet points in his five-point plan was a nod to the Veterans Opportunity to Work (VOW to Hire Heroes) Act of 2011 — legislation signed two years ago that has sparked serious change in the last year at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, as well as at other military-heavy areas across the country.

Particularly impacted by the VOW Act has been the transition program for service members at JBLM — impacts to help ensure a smoother move to civilian life and lower post-service unemployment rates.

The changes have included lengthening the transition timeline from 90 days to 12 months, as well as updating and requiring participation in a number of career preparation activities.

Since these changes had to be implemented last November, JBLM's mandatory programs have evolved from a single three-hour brief with a 45 percent attendance rate to more than five days of workshops with almost 90 percent of service members attending.

“Instead of three hours, it’s five days now at a minimum,” explained Robin Baker, transition services manager for JBLM’s Army and Air Force Career and Alumni Program. “We had already been doing a lot of those things, but they were all optional.”

The pre-separation brief is now the first of many steps to help prepare service members at JBLM for civilian life.

JBLM has also added a number of new optional workshops and activities, including career days, networking events, and advanced resume and networking workshops. It extended its timeline for transitioning services from the mandated 12 months before discharge to 18 months, so it could have more time to prepare them.

The VOW Act mandated a financial planning brief as well, which has soldiers complete a 12-month budget. JBLM, though, is pushing for its members to do it 15 months out.

“They just didn’t have a real realistic opinion of what they needed to survive on the outside, because, a lot of times, if they do that budget early enough, they’ll realize they’ll need to reenlist,” Baker said.

Networking was also a foreign concept to service members, so now JBLM hosts monthly networking events with about 50 local employers, and has implemented an advanced job searching program that allows service members up to five opportunities to job shadow.

“It’s that networking with the community that helps the soldiers come up to speed and (be) ready when they come out,” said Marjorie James, executive director at Hire America’s Heroes.

Each of the four transition tracks — education, small business, apprenticeship and standard career — added more events and opportunities as well.

Baker’s Army and Air Force Career and Alumni Program partnered with William M. Factory Incubator, Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber of Commerce, and U.S. Small Business Administration to host a two-day Boots to Business workshop for those in its small business track last month. The hope is to continue to hold this event on a quarterly basis.

JBLM is also piloting an 18-week training for service members on the apprenticeship track who are still on active duty.

The number of participants in its four offerings — HVAC, software engineering, piping, and construction and electrical — has increased significantly, because service members no longer have to wait until they are discharged to begin training.

“If they’re allowed to go to the apprenticeship training while they’re still on active duty, while they still have a paycheck and still have housing, they’re not worrying about their family, they don’t have to pay bills,” Baker said. “They can just go to the training and then when they graduate and get off active duty, they have a job, so there’s no time on unemployment.”

About 6,000 transitioning service members go through JBLM’s transition programs each year, and about 2,400 stay in the state after they’re discharged.

The overall unemployment rate for veterans in Washington is lower than that of the total state population, according 2010 figures from the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, but the rate for veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan is said to be higher, at 12.1 percent nationally. 

Baker said Washington’s veteran unemployment rate is typically one of the highest in the nation; it could change because of the VOW Act.

“We want to lower that,” Baker said. “Their resumes are better, they’re more prepared, so hopefully they don’t spend as much time on unemployment, because they’re getting their foot in the door quicker.”