A Milkid’s College Application Journey

Mar 04 2015

Published by under lessons learned

collegeadmissions_WEBAs you will recall, my son Joe is a senior in high school and I’ve been writing about the college application process in hopes that my experience will help readers who have college bound kids in the high school pipeline.

At this point, we’ve completed the Common Application, the CSS Financial Aid Profile, additional essays that some schools required, ROTC apps, and other assorted methods of teen/parent torture.

I haven’t written about the college application process for awhile, so I thought I’d return to that topic. But instead of my voice, Joe has written a couple of tips for current high school juniors and sophomores. Next week, he’ll add come insights into the ROTC process.

Senior year has been an experience for me that almost rivals Germany and Japan. It is the resolution to all of my hard work in high school, and the beginning of independence. It can be daunting, especially to an oldest child. The thought that these past few months and the upcoming ones may very well determine my life’s trajectory is intimidating; the seemingly impossible process of it all only makes it scarier. Based on this experience, I have discovered some tips on my own that would have proven helpful to me seven months ago, and can hopefully others along the same journey.

Firstly, the only way of truly judging a college or university is to tour it. There are multiple schools that I visited and only then did I see myself there. This advice is fairly common, but extremely accurate. Going to campus is really only half of the process; I strongly recommend student led tours and information seminars. They give you an insight into the nuances of schools that letters and websites cannot.

Secondly, look out for emails regarding an ‘express’ or ‘custom’ application. Schools will send perspective seniors an invitation to apply via a special application. The best ones exclude essays and application fees, which was very attractive for me. I got into six schools that I would not have otherwise thought of applying to because they sent me a “Pioneer” or “Choice” application. These are really helpful for the application process, especially if you want to apply all over the country but have no idea where.

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Question for MilMembers: When is a “Veteran” a “Combat Veteran”

Feb 20 2015

Published by under military matters

We have a good class of vets just elected to office, and they should bring a good perspective to the current crop of senators and representatives (and hopefully open the eyes of policy wonks and commissions looking into military issues as respects what a military member’s job and sacrifices really are like).

These new members include:

  • Ruben Gallego, a Democrat from Arizona who went to Harvard, joined the Marines, and was deployed to Iraq.
    Ryan Zinke, a Republican from Montana who is a former SEAL and retired from the Navy after 23 years.
  • Mark Takai, a Democrat from Hawaii who served in the HawaiiArmy National Guard (and he was the force behind the Hawaii Medal of Honor awarded to milfams of military members who lost their life in service.
  • Lee Zeldin, a Republican from New York who served in the Army and was deployed to Iraq with the 82nd Airborne.
  • Seth Moutlon, a Democrat from Massachusetts (a Dem from Mass – that’s shocking!) who is another Harvard grad and served four tours in Iraq. This guy is interesting – you should read up on him. He’ll be going places.
  • Tom Cotton, a Republican from Arkansas who was an Army officer and served tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
  • Tammy Duckworth, a Democrat from Illinois who was an officer in the Illinois National Guard and lost both her legs when the helicopter she was piloting was shot down. Interestingly, she is married to an Army Major who is talked of as a challenger for Illinois’ other Senator spot in 2016.

The one though who has spurred some controversy, at least as far as her military service goes, is Joni Ernst from Iowa (she’s the one who said she’ll “make em squeal” in Washington – I don’t quite know that that means, but it sounds good). What apparently has made some reporters and veterans squeal though, or comment on, is her repeating that she is a “combat veteran.” She has said this in campaign speeches and posts it on her website.

What stirred the criticism is that while she served in a “combat” zone (the Arabian peninsula), her unit was never attacked or in a firefight (she commanded a transportation company). Critics say that by using the phrase “combat veteran,” most people think of someone who was in a firefight – therefore, she is misleading the public. Or, as one vet put it, she is “using her military experience to gain a political edge and pull the wool over the eyes of the American people.”

On the other hand, her work was dangerous – patrolling a camp’s perimeter and driving supply convoys (which could have resulted in having taken fire).

So readers, could one of you answer: when is a “veteran” a “combat veteran?” Or, in this case: Is Ms. Ernst squealing (okay, a better word is misleading, but I just had to work that term back in somehow) a little too much by emphasizing she is a “combat veteran” as opposed to being a “veteran?”

An officer in the Army’s Press Office gave this opinion on the phrase and circumstances surrounding it’s use: “You’d clarify, and say ‘Sure, I had friends who were in firefights every day, and those are the guys you should roll out the red carpet for.'”

What do you think?

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Modernize, Civilianize – Just Cut the Benefits

Feb 11 2015

Published by under military matters

Exercise Enhanced Mojave ViperThe Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission’s (MCRMC) release of their report proposing changes to military benefits has started the usual stir, especially among those who really don’t understand the job and career of our troops.

From Market Watch comes an article questioning if we are too generous to military retirees. They rely a lot on comparisons between our military retirement program and those of NATO countries, and they quote economists at the Pension Policy Center saying we need to “modernize” our system based on what NATO countries are doing.

My problem with comparisons to our NATO allies is that the reports don’t consider the government provided social safety nets of these countries – ours are not as strong, and our system of 401ks leaves most people woefully unprepared for retirement. Saving costs by fully or partially replacing the current program with member led investment programs like 401ks will only contribute to this problem of inadequate retirement support. And I don’t think we want to see a bunch of retired vets working at a McDonald’s because their country didn’t provide an adequate retirement system.

Also, before we start considering cutting troop benefits based what NATO countries do, let’s first look into how these countries save costs through efficient operations and reduction of redundancies – such as having one medical corp for all services, along with other areas of operation that are shared by the three services. Or, do their troops move every 2 or 3 years? I’m sure there are other cost saving measure we could copy before having to cut troops’ benefits in order to balance the budget.

Looking into the future, we need to consider that future recruits, and troops considering re-upping, will be wondering: are the financial benefits of a military career and the sacrifices they sign up for in a military career worth the trade off? If not, there goes recruitment and retention.

MOAA wants to know your impressions of the commission’s recommendations. Take their survey: http://ow.ly/IKiWC

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Retirement, Recruitment, and Retention – oh my!

Feb 09 2015

Published by under military matters

At the top of MOAA Spouse’s Facebook page is this:

“Our leaders say they want reforms that aid recruitment and retention. Perhaps they don’t consider treatment of retirees essential to that purpose, but it is. Reducing benefits for those who have already served sends a clear message to present and future military members, that promises were made to be broken.”

So, MOAA wants your thoughts on the above. Please let them know what you’re thinking.

The impetus for this questions is the release of the report from the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission (MCRMC). MOAA is still reviewing the proposals, but now is your time to let MOAA know what you think. Use their Facebook page to post your thoughts so MOAA can tell Congress what milfams are thinking, or take the quick survey (available for a short time).

Additionally, the latest MOAA Military Officer magazine has a convenient pull-out that you can mail to your representative. It’s a preprinted letter that you just need to sign and mail. However, it does help to add a handwritten personal comment at the bottom of the letter. Personally, I wrote that these changes will drastically affect military recruitment and retention – and then I added 4 exclamation points!!!! So naturally, I expect action from my letters.

One of the changes being considered is to make the retirement system more civilian-like. Words such as “portability” and “individual investment” are thrown out, along with the claim that most members don’t get anything if they leave before 20 years. I think this change is a bad decision and that these phrases are hackneyed and off base.

First, this claim is not true because members have the Thrift Savings Plan (TSP) they can participate in – and it is portable.

Second, members who leave make the choice to leave after weighing the pluses and minuses. Supporters of the portable retirement plan like to talk about how members can have choice in their retirement planning (as if the military now tells them “do not plan your retirement!”). Well, that “choice” is there for members to decide in leaving: should I stay and get a retirement at 20 years; or, should I leave with my TSP, no 20 year retirement – but, with a better job on the outside as respects their personal circumstances.

Finally, we can’t civilianize a retirement program for a career that is very un-civilianized. People sign up for a job where they will choose to put their life on the line and follow the restrictions and negative aspects of the military career due to promised benefits that need to exceed those of a civilian job (e.g., a better retirement program). It will be hard to recruit new military members if the benefits of a military career are the same as a civilian job, yet the risks and personal/family restrictions are greater. The same holds for retention. (I can hear the pitch now: “Hey man, the pay and benefits are the same as a civilian job, but here’s the exciting part: you may get killed, have to shut up about politics, do a rigorous annual PT test, move up or be kicked out…oh, and and move your family every 2 or 3 years. Can I get you a pen to sign here?”)

wavingflagFinally, portable and individualized 401ks are great buzzwords – but look around: in most cases these plans leave employees terribly under prepared for retirement. And we don’t want a bunch of military vets working at McDonalds in their retirement years. They deserve better for what they have sacrificed or what they promised to sacrificed if called upon to.

I’m happy if the government decides to add a better TSP type program, but keep the 20 year retirement if our leaders are honest about wanting to keep recruitment and retention at adequate levels. And for you my readers (yes, both of you), please go to MOAA and let your voices be known.

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The Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission Speaks

Jan 30 2015

Published by under military matters

The report from the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission (MCRMC) is out – you know the one: it’s theme is let’s make the military compensation and retirement just like the private sector so we can save money on the shoulders of the member. Of course, this is all in the name of “reform.” Apparently “reform” doesn’t include reviewing waste, duplicate resources, unneeded systems…

You can read a little about it here in an interview by NPR with the head of the commission.

I haven’t read the details and am waiting for MOAA’s take on the findings. Naturally, MOAA is concerned about the impact on readiness and recruiting, as retired Navy Vice Adm. Norb Ryan, MOAA’s president and CEO of MOAA states:

“We’ll have to evaluate the 15 MCRMC recommendations to determine what recommendations we can support and which ones require greater scrutiny, such as retirement and health care changes…The devil’s in the details. Our concern is the health and welfare of the all-volunteer force. The most important element of the AVF is the retention of the experienced, high-quality mid-grade NCO and officer…”

Keep yours eyes open for an MOAA update. If you haven’t already, get online (which I guess you are if you’re reading this) and like the MOAA Spouse and MOAA Facebook pages. Any updates from MOAA on changes to the military compensation and/or retirement programs will be posted there.

You know, I find it interesting that a concern of the commission is that the majority of the military don’t benefit from the current retirement system. In my view, this is perfectly fine: they knowingly make that choice. They know the deal when they sign up, and if they choose to leave early and forfeit the pension, then they must be getting what to them is a better offer.

Additionally, if the commission is so concerned about members having a retirement benefit, then please don’t implement a 401k type program – there are too many studies that show that 401k programs leave the majority of retirees underprepared financially for retirement (I wrote about this in a previous post).

Finally, the head of the commission is a founding partner of the Washington Nationals. I wonder if he was as concerned about government spending when the city of D.C. and their taxpayers footed most of the $667 million cost of the team’s stadium – a strategy that never returns benefits to the city, but sure helps the owners (peruse this site for numerous articles on public funding being a losing proposition for cities).

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Athletes, Soldiers and False Analogies

Jan 22 2015

Published by under lessons learned

Soldiers watch Super BowlThe Super Bowl is approaching and we’ll naturally see some type of tribute paid to the military – maybe a flyover before the game; military members bringing out the flag; or, an ad for a beer company who hopes that showing respect for the military will cause people to crack open a cold one.

This is all good. I think it’s nice to see our military members appreciated, as long as it isn’t patronizing or for obvious commercial purposes (sorry Bud and Miller). And I think it’s great that the NFL, NBA, etc. think about including these tributes.

What irritates me is when the individuals involved in sports (athletes, coaches, general mangers) start comparing themselves to military members. What ticked me off recently is hearing the new GM for the Jets say he was “ready to go war” with his new coach. And a former tight end with the Broncos talked about how he “would take a bullet” for the team’s new coach.

We’ve heard stories of a soldier throwing himself on a grenade to save his comrades, so to hear an athlete say he’d take a bullet for a coach is insulting to those who really are prepared to actually do this act.

Granted, people such as athletes, coaches, and GMs are dedicated, ambitious, disciplined, and, in the athlete’s cases, in good physical shape (well, except for baseball players and kickers). But there’s a big difference in an athlete’s dedication to his team and sport (and a large paycheck) and a soldier knowing that he or she might be required to die for his or her country. Athletes, coaches, and GMs are paid to entertain – they won’t be in a position to possibly die for their country.

I realize that sports are just entertainment, yet when I hear people in that industry make these comparisons it does irritate me because it diminishes what our active duty members are doing out there – for a lot less money and a lot less publicity (and while having Congress call for cuts to their benefits).

I think the time to compare athletes and servicemembers is when we’re discussing those athletes who have sacrificed their careers to serve their country – Pat Tillman, Ted Williams, Bob Feller, etc.

Hopefully, we’ll have a good Super Bowl (if the Patriots can stop cheating) with post-game comments confined to how hard someone played and how happy they were to win – and not some false analogy to being a soldier.

I forget where I read this, but this seems to sum up the topic: “Comparing millionaire athletes who play a game to underpaid military personnel who are often called upon to risk their lives on a daily basis is not wise.”

Image caption: U.S. Soldiers of HHC, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, stand for the National Anthem prior to Super Bowl 44 at Camp Ramadi, Iraq, Feb. 8. Super Bowl 44 pitted the NFC Champion New Orleans Saints against the AFC Champion Indianapolis Colts.

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Boys in Shorts

Jan 16 2015

Published by under school is in session

We’ve had a stretch of cold weather here in Colorado Springs – a few days below 10 degrees and quite a few between 20 and 30 degrees. As my middle schooler gets ready for school, I’ve thought a few times of our days in Germany when I used to get the kids ready for kindergarten and elementary school in winter. The winters there were cold as well and I used to make sure the kids were dressed warm for their walk to school.

And the kids were dressed like all others – prepared for cold weather in a warm coat, warm pants, and gloves.

Now, with the kids making their own clothing choices, I compare past dressing habits to my youngest boy’s current middle school dressing habits. The temperature can be 70, 50, 30 or 20 and he wears shorts to school. And he isn’t alone: the majority of boys stick to shorts year round. At least they have jackets on, but shorts in 20 degrees?! Mary Claire and I have given up trying to change this habit (although to be honest part of me is a proud dad thinking: “Yeah! Good job guys – these are tough boys!”).

And I realize it is a boy thing. My daughter didn’t do this in middle school, and the girls I see at the middle school are in long pants. Maybe this is part of that girls maturing faster than boys theory.

But my oldest son did the same thing when he was in middle school. He attends a Catholic high school now and they don’t allow shorts, although I think he’d have dropped the habit anyway. He’d rather look sharp than bold.

A reason for the difference between Germany and here could be that most kids there walk to school. Here we’re a drive-the-kids-to-school culture so they only spend a few minutes in the cold as they go from car drop off to the warm school interior. However, another reason could be that common sense is more common over there.

The difference certainly isn’t due to any weakness towards cold weather. In Germany the boys were playing soccer in snow, rain, and freezing weather. It was something naturally done. Here, in the states, we have practices and recess cancelled due to cold weather, or I overhear moms asking “isn’t it too cold to play soccer today?” – the same parents whose kids wear shorts to school in even colder weather.

The irony of all this though is that we keep the house at 68 degrees, and my middle schooler will come out and complain about how cold it is. And, yes, he is in shorts.


 Photo on Flickr by Doug, “CK Wolves versus SK Falcons.”

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Never Leave a Fallen Comrade Behind

Jan 09 2015

Published by under Uncategorized

I was looking through news sites on the web (killing time in the hospital when my dad sleeps) and I came across an interesting article by Congresswoman Tammy Duckworth. She attributes her life being saved because her helicopter crew lived by the Warrior Ethos: “I will always place the mission first. I will never quit. I will never accept defeat. I will never leave a fallen comrade behind.”

Her’s is a great story, and she relates too that she keeps that ethos in mind in terms of taking care of our veterans who are now in the care of the VA.

I also came across an article on the new members of Congress and how we have a few who are veterans. Seth Moulton and Ruben Gallego are Marines (one is never a former Marine, correct?) who served in Iraq. Lee Zeldin was in Iraq with the Army. And Martha McSally was the first woman fighter pilot to fly in combat.

What a great group of supporters for our military veterans and the milfam.

As I read about them though, and the issues surrounding budget cuts to the military, I hope these mil veterans in Congress will keep in mind Ms. Duckworth’s thoughts on applying their military ethos while serving in Congress. Specifically, look to not leave their comrades behind as they consider cuts to the military budget – in other words, support their military comrades by not balancing the budget on their backs

As a first step, they can read MOAA’s President Norb Ryan’s comments in the Wall Street Journal last week about the unfairness of targeting member benefits over wasteful spending.

Or, maybe look at cost saving options such as one medical corp for all services.

Or, they can look within their own ranks and listen to Rep. Joe Heck’s comments as the Military Personnel Chair who “called on the Pentagon…to cut waste and cost overruns on weapons systems before looking for savings by trimming pay and benefits for the troops.”

As part of the milfam, we can all welcome the veterans who are new members of Congress – and hope they keep in mind the thought of not leaving their comrades behind as the members look at military budget issues and the effects on military members and veterans.



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Seasons Greetings to MilFams Everywhere!

Dec 23 2014

Published by under end of year reads

Sorry to be late in writing a column, but as I was set to start my piece a couple of weeks ago, my dad entered the ER with a stroke. He’s 91 and it had quite an impact. I’ve been hanging out with him since then, and unfortunately, some things I need to do have been postponed – grading, MOAA blogging, Christmas shopping, etc.

During this time, my daughter turned 16 and my son turned 18 – quite the milestones. And my 18 year-old has started receiving acceptance letters from colleges. I look at my dad, one of the last of the WWII generation, whose flights took him over Okinawa, and then look at my son, who just had an ROTC interview in thoughts of an Air Force career, and think that it seems like yesterday we were IMGP0386taking him to his pre-school classes at the local off base Montessori school in Okinawa.

But here at home we are at the end of the year and approaching the holidays. On a downside, judging by the actions of Congress, there don’t appear to be many holiday gifts for military members.

Congress passed the National Defense Authorization Act that includes some items impactful on individual members. It’s a complicated and huge bill (1,648 pages!), but MOAA has condensed those pages into comprehensive key points that can affect milfams.

Hopefully though, Congress will keep their promise and keep in mind the words of MOAA President Vice Adm. Norb Ryan, USN (Ret):

“We cannot continue to try and balance the budget on the backs of the very people who bear the burden of security for this nation and who have given so much over the last 13 years.”

On a happy holiday note, follow this link to an article with some great photos of military members giving and celebrating the holiday season!

And happy holidays to all – enjoy the season and I promise to get back to writing consistent columns. Oh, and write your Congressman over the holidays and tell him or her to “keep their promise.”

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Dec 04 2014

Published by under military matters

Man, I am late to the party – I just learned about the #KeepYourPromise movement started by MOAA and other military related organizations. The hashtag movement came about in response to the Senate Armed Services Committee proposing tightening the Pentagon’s budget on the backs of service members and retirees (again).

You know the drill – proposals such as cutting housing allowances, increased Tricare fees, adjustments to the health plan. And I’m sure in there somewhere is the idea of changing the retirement plan into a 401K program similar to the private sector (never mind that civilian government employees, including our elected officials, enjoy a pension based retirement program or that the vast majority of 401K programs leave retirees woefully unprepared financially for retirement).

One result of the #KeepYourPromise campaign was a pretty funny picture of former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel asking members to do more but accept less – you can see it here.

MOAA is again working hard to stave off the cuts on members. And it appears to be working. The Hill has an article on milfams bombarding Congress on this issue.

And, the House, per MOAA President, retired Navy Vice Adm. Norb Ryan, “helped blunt the blow to military families and retired beneficiaries.” The House apparently didn’t want to take the military for granted.  MOAA has a good article on this action here.

But, the proposed cuts aimed at individuals keep coming. Per the Military Times, Congress has decided to cut funding to the commissary by $100,000,000 next year. As a result:

“… the plan would shrink the commissary savings compared with average off-base grocery prices to about 10 percent from the current 30 percent, with shoppers having to cover the difference out of pocket.”

As MOAA Spouse asks on their Facebook page: Will you continue to shop the commissary? Will you? Go to their Facebook page and let them know (scroll down a bit for this item – but do peruse the other bits of info posted).

I’m a little baffled at these proposals because I side with MOAA on these types of actions. MOAA has pointed out in the past that these proposed cuts and attempts to make military job benefits the same as a civilian (even given the obvious differences) will just hurt recruitment and retainment.

Who knows though, maybe newly elected Congressmen like Seth Moulton will step up and speak for the service member and retiree. He’s a former Marine officer and a “veteran of four tours of duty in the Iraq war “ and has three degrees from Harvard (wow!). Seth says he wants “to shake up the system.” A good place to start is stop putting the cost burden on military members and families.

You can read about him here and here.

And with MOAA keeping up the good fight, we should be encouraged. But do go to the MOAA Spouse Facebook page and answer their question about your further commissary usage given the upcoming loss of savings.

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