Visiting Fort Knox: Of Songs, Symbols and Gold

Together with a colleague from the Department of Education, I recently visited Fort Knox, located outside Louisville, Ky. No, I did not see our country’s gold reserve – not even the building where it is stored.  But, what I did see was the latest iteration of the Army’s virtual transition assistance program (Virtual TAP), designed to reach service men and women stationed in remote locations where brick and mortar programmatic delivery is not possible.  The revised transition assistance program, created as part of the VOW Act to facilitate transition from military life to civilian life for exiting service members, has already launched and will be fully operational, inclusive of optional tracks related to high education and career and skills training, in short order.

I was impressed.  The Virtual TAP was designed to do more than simply click through a series of slides with a test at the end to demonstrate knowledge acquisition – a result that would not necessarily change behavior or outcomes.  Instead, the program delivered on its initial goal of engaging service members in the learning process –– with empirical data to confirm results prospectively.

Through the Virtual TAP, service members have access to a live counselor 24/7 with whom they can actually chat. And, since the Virtual TAP is in its first phase, future phases will enable even greater engagement including interaction among service members in different locales participating in the same module, live instructor feedback, scenarios (such as mock job interviews) and problem-solving — all activities designed to reinforce learning.

The purpose of my visit was to learn about and try the Virtual TAP, in order to provide constructive feedback from the Department of Education’s perspective.  That mission was accomplished.  However, two unrelated aspects of being on Fort Knox captured my attention and yes, my heart.

First, because I had on-base overnight accomodations, I was able to hear the nightly playing of TAPS. A piece of music I had not heard much since the 1950’s at summer camp. there was and still is something haunting about the melody, something melancholic about the lone bugler playing in the night, something compelling about a shared end-of-day ritual across a military installation where 40,000 men and women work.

Second, I received two military challenge coins – one delivered by a thoughtful former paratrooper now in charge of Virtual TAP and another by a remarkable Brigadier General overseeing the entire TAP implementation process across the Army.  These coins – like the bugler playing TAPS – are a powerful symbol. For me, they represent recognition of the Department of Education’s effort to work with its agency partners to improve TAP’s development, implementation and assessment. I was and am honored to receive these coins on behalf of my government agency.  And, these coins – as their name implies — challenge all of us to continue our efforts on behalf of our military.

So, while I may not have actually seen gold at Fort Knox, I certainly experienced gold – an enriching experience that showcased excellence and tradition and reinforced for me that our transitioning Army soldiers are in good hands indeed.

Karen Gross is a senior policy advisor at the U.S. Department of Education