02/12/2013 02:28 pm ET Updated Apr 14, 2013

The SEAL Who Killed bin Laden and the Consequences of Early Military Separation

When Esquire released its article about the U.S. Navy SEAL who killed Osama bin Laden, my interest sparked. Not because it was another SEAL story or because it related to bin Laden, but because it dealt with an alarming issue most Americans just don't understand: "What happens when service members leave the military early?"

I can relate to the mystery SEAL, as I too left active government service only a few short years shy of retirement. The SEAL who killed bin Laden reportedly served 16 years with only four to go. I served more than 14 years active government service with less than six to go for retirement.

The military should serve as the foundation for an individual's career. Within that career, we decide our own fate. I am reminded of an old military saying still heard today, "Be careful what you volunteer for."

Throughout military service, voluntary and at times "volun-told," decisions must be made on individual and team needs. Those decisions will force members into specific paths which should help mold long-term career goals. Common mistakes are made however when it comes to military career shaping.

I am often asked questions by young adults inquiring about military service. Questions almost always comprise of "Which branch should I go into?" My response -- that depends on what you want to be when you grow up -- meaning, if you want to eventually become an accountant, maybe the infantry isn't the right choice.

Too few young adults have the proper mentoring today prior to entering military service. The military is not a "jobs program." It is a duty often comprising of grave risks that rarely comes with any significant recognition or reward. Point taken -- even killing bin Laden didn't come with any individualized public recognition or great reward.

The question should never be "which branch," rather it should always be "what job." What job within the military will prepare an individual for the outside world? What specific skills will be learned to land that dream job?

I know of no individual, especially within the enlisted world, that simply retires and lives off his military pension. A military pension is not enough to feed a family and pay all the bills. You still must have additional income.

Many persons decide to leave service prior to reaching that pension. Decisions are often professional in nature but more often dominate personal needs like protecting one's family. The ongoing war in Afghanistan has taken a toll on military families. Because of this, some service members would rather leave the military than lose their family.

Such a decision is completely understandable but the decision also comes with consequences.

If you seek civilian government work, know that certain jobs have age requirements. If you already passed the age limit, start looking for something else because you simply will not be authorized to get that dream job you always wanted like a special agent commonly referred to as an 1811.

Throughout one's military career, ask whether you have a college degree prior to separation. If you don't, start working on it immediately.

Finding a job in today's economy is almost impossible with just a high school diploma or an associate's degree. Let's be very real though, finding a good paying job is incredibly difficult with just a bachelor's degree, too. Don't leave the military without your degree!

Tuition assistance is easy to obtain which will allow service members to take free college courses while on active duty status. Also look into taking College Level Examination Program (CLEP) exams. These tests will allow you to take a written exam and if you pass, you will earn college credits that will help expedite the process in obtaining a degree. And don't be a fool -- upon entering basic training, invest in the Montgomery GI Bill and when applicable, use it!

There are no excuses when it comes to earning a college degree while on active duty status. There are loads of options that can be secured in taking college classes even while deployed in a combat zone. Universities and college counselors are accustomed to working with deployed military service members. They will bend over backwards to assist you.

While most Americans appreciate those who served, your service is not a guarantee for work in the civilian sector. Sure, some initiatives have been made to assist service members obtain civilian employment however, you can never count on those initiatives. Learn to count on no one but yourself when it comes to job security!

I am overly grateful for the years I served this great nation. More importantly, I am overly grateful for having supervisors and mentors who refused to allow me to leave service without being fully prepared for the outside world. It's a tough decision to make, but it can be done.

Just because you killed Osama bin Laden, seized tons of illegal narcotics or rescued hundreds of lives in a natural disaster, it does not mean you will gain monetary income for life through the government.

Rules are set forth for military and government employees and no one is exempt from those rules. If you don't do your minimum 20, while it's hard to swallow, you're entitled to nothing. Make sure you prepare yourself before jumping ship.

Kerry Patton, a combat disabled veteran, is author of Contracted: America's Secret Warriors.