From Service to Semis: Transitioning from the Military to Trucking

After leaving military service, veterans often struggle to find employment. This could be because employers don't understand their previous jobs. It could also be because the veterans don't have the required certifications and licenses for their chosen civilian careers (even if they did something similar in the military) or because they didn't have the opportunity to network while serving.

If you're a veteran who's worried about finding employment or an active duty service member planning ahead for your career after service, trucking (within the broader field of logistics and transportation) may be an ideal fit for you. Not only is there a truck driver shortage, meaning the skills are in demand, but many trucking companies actively seek out veterans for employment—these employers understand the discipline, focus, and physical skills obtained during military service.

Additionally, earning your commercial driver's license (CDL) can be a speedy process—sometimes even quicker if you drove military vehicles.

This article is here to help you decide if truck driving is the right civilian career for you. We'll cover commercial truck driving pay, transferable skills and experience, considerations for the required medical examination, which military education benefits could be applied to CDL training, and other options for funding your training.

How Does Truck Driving Pay Compare to Military Service Pay?

As of 2020, enlisted active duty service member pay ranges from $1,943 to $8,498 per month ($23,310 to $101,970 per year), and active-duty officers earn $3,287 to $16,441 monthly ($39,445 to $197,302 per year), depending on years of service, rank, and so forth.

Unless you were very high ranking or served for decades, you may find that trucking earns you about the same amount as—if not more than—you made while in service:

Trucking Career 2019 Median Annual Salary
Long-haul truck drivers $45,260
Passenger vehicle operators $33,000
Delivery drivers $32,020

And those are just some of the more popular trucking-related careers. There are various other relevant transportation careers, which have a median salary of $34,730.

What Skills and Traits Do Veterans Bring to Trucking Careers?

Veterans can be highly suited to careers in trucking because they've spent time honing skills desired by trucking companies, including:

  • Using heavy equipment: While not all service members have worked with heavy equipment, many have. This gives them some background knowledge that may have prepared them for large vehicles.
  • Focusing on missions: Service members know the importance of focusing on the end goal of any mission. Trucking involves getting to end results efficiently and safely without being distracted by things outside that day's assignment.
  • Remaining calm under pressure: Being in the military is stressful, whether or not you've seen combat. Long-haul driving, also called over-the-road (OTR) driving, requires patience while under strict deadlines, handling setbacks like traffic jams, maneuvering safely through all sorts of weather, and more.
  • Staying in good physical health: Trucking requires a surprising amount of strength and stamina, along with a relatively clean bill of health, as does the military.
  • Handling emergencies: The military trains you to always be prepared for unexpected, dangerous situations. On the road, this could include making split-second decisions about how to swerve to avoid an accident or helping after witnessing one, as well as navigating other unique circumstances.

Can My Military Driving Experience Help Me Get My CDL?

Trucking is a rare industry in that your military experience can apply directly to your civilian licensure.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) has three programs to help experienced military drivers transition to civilian careers.

Military Skills Test Waiver Program

If you have operated heavy military vehicles safely for at least two years, you can get your CDL without taking the driving skills test. All states participate in this program, and more than 40,000 former service members have taken this opportunity. You may still need to take a knowledge exam unless your state participates in the Even Exchange Program.

Even Exchange Program (Knowledge Test Waiver)

Done in conjunction with or separately from the Military Skills Test Waiver, the Even Exchange Program exempts experienced military drivers from taking the knowledge test for their CDLs. If you're eligible for both programs, you can directly exchange your military license for your CDL. As of December 2020, 13 states are participating in the program, and 10 more are working towards participation.

Under 21 Military Driver Program

In 2019, FMCSA began a pilot program for military truck drivers ages 18 to 21, which allows those with the military equivalent of a CDL to work as interstate drivers so long as they've been sponsored or employed by an approved company. Previously, drivers age 18 to 20 were only allowed to drive these vehicles within their own state.

For qualifying military truck drivers, this program involves finding a carrier to hire or sponsor you, getting your commercial learner's permit (CLP), passing your exams, and getting your CDL. This may seem very similar to the process for earning your CDL in a traditional method, but there's one key difference: There are only 14 days between getting your CLP and CDL, so long as you pass your exam. Normal trucking programs can take months.

How Will Being a Veteran Affect My Trucking Physical Exam?

Obtaining a CDL requires passing an extensive medical exam (ME). This exam can be completed in most kinds of medical facilities. You can find a list of participating facilities on the FMCSA website.

Many mental and physical health conditions can lead to CDL disqualification. Most of these conditions can affect any individual, such as heart conditions, diabetes, difficulty seeing or hearing, and seizure disorders. However, some conditions may be particularly relevant to combat veterans, including:

  • Missing limbs, hands, or feet
  • Difficulty using limbs, hands, or feet
  • Mental disorders or brain injuries that may impair driving ability

A physical or mental condition doesn't necessarily disqualify applicants. You and your medical examiner need to prove your challenge is under control and won't impair your ability to drive a vehicle safely.

For missing or impaired arms and hands, your examiner will test your ability to manipulate small objects, maneuver a steering wheel with each limb individually and other similar tasks. You may also be exempted for any missing or impaired limb or appendage if you have a functional prosthetic or orthotic device that allows you to fulfill all required duties.

When it comes to mental illnesses or disabilities, your examiner will do a full psychiatric workup. Among other challenges, they're looking for difficulties with memory, reasoning, aggression, depression, and the ability to deal with stresses, shocks, and surprises. After your evaluation, they'll determine if your challenges can be effectively handled using medication and/or therapy. You may not be allowed to drive while adjusting to new medications. Bear in mind, too, that medical marijuana is strictly prohibited.

Before considering a career in trucking, you should think carefully about your mental and physical health. If you're worried you won't be able to fulfill the required duties, consider visiting a doctor and, if advised, getting treatment before beginning a trucking program. You need to be completely honest with your medical examiner—not doing so could get your license revoked and even result in civil penalties.

Will My Military Benefits Pay for a CDL Program?

Many military education benefits could help pay for CDL programs, though not all will. The programs and benefits listed below may cover trucking school or relevant training.

In addition to these benefits and programs, your state may offer additional options for service members or veterans.

GI Bills and Truck Driving Programs

If you qualify for the GI Bill and want to enroll in a non-degree program like commercial truck driving school, you might be in luck. The GI Bill may help pay for your truck driving training and provides up to $83 per month to help with necessary supplies. The specific amount of financial assistance you could earn depends on which GI Bill you're eligible for, how long you served, and other criteria.

In addition to tuition, your GI Bill may cover your CDL examination cost.

In your research, you may see mention of REAP benefits. However, this program ended on November 25, 2015, and benefits for active users ended on November 25, 2019. You should look at other options—the Post-9/11 GI Bill is recommended by MyArmyBenefits.

Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment (VR&E) Programs and CDL Training

The VR&E Program is only open to people who have a disability due to military service, with a rating of 10% to 20%. Those who qualify have a disability that hinders their ability to work in their chosen field, perform some tasks, or get promoted. The nature of the program makes it a complicated option for CDL training. While the program can help with trucking school, those aiming for a CDL must be in good physical and mental health—that is, you can't have a disability or disease that could hurt your ability to drive a truck. That said, if you believe you'd pass the physical exam, it's worth giving this program a try.

Tuition assistance is not the primary goal of VR&E. This program offers a variety of services, including help developing job-seeking abilities, assistance in finding suitable training programs, and career skill matching. All services are determined on a case-by-case basis.

Chapter 35 Benefits for Survivors and Dependents and Trucking School

Chapter 35 benefits are open to dependents or surviving family members of service members who want to attend postsecondary education or certification programs.

To be eligible for Chapter 35 benefits, at least one of the following needs to be true:

  • You are the spouse or child of a disabled or deceased veteran.
  • While on duty after September 10, 2001, the veteran must have been MIA or captured by other forces. The veteran suffered a service-connected permanent disability.

Other benefits are available if the veteran transferred Post-9/11 GI benefits to you while on active duty.

Chapter 35 benefits are paid out in monthly installments of $1,244 for full-time training only, lasting for no more than 45 months. Unlike many other benefits, these can cover training, tuition, housing, and other education-related supplies.

Spouses usually have 20 years after the service member's death if it occurred on active duty or 10 years from when qualification is determined or from the date of death.

Children who qualify for Chapter 35 benefits generally need to be between 18 and 26 years old.

You're allowed to have both Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (DIC) and these benefits simultaneously. However, you may not receive both Chapter 35 benefits and the Fry Scholarship.

Veteran's Educational Assistance Program (VEAP) and CDL Training

When it comes to CDL programs, VEAP can be a good option because it covers non-college degree programs and on-the-job training, as well as test fees. This means you could receive financial assistance for an independent trucking school, fees associated with company-sponsored training, and your CDL examination.

To qualify for VEAP, the following must be true (unless you're in the Air Force):

  • You began service between January 1, 1977, and June 30, 1985.
  • You have contributed $25-$2,700 to your VEAP account.
  • You completed your first service period and weren't dishonorably discharged.

For Air Force members, in addition to the final two requirements above, you must have done the following:

  • Joined between December 1, 1980, and September 30, 1981
  • Enlisted in one of these locations:
    • Beckley, West Virginia
    • Buffalo, New York
    • Dallas, Texas
    • Fargo, North Dakota
    • Houston, Texas
    • Jackson, Mississippi
    • Memphis, Tennessee
    • Omaha, Nebraska
    • Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
    • Seattle, Washington
    • Sioux Falls, South Dakota
    • Syracuse, New York
  • Your specialty was in one of the following:
    • 20723
    • 20731
    • 20830
    • 46130
    • 46230 A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, J, Z
    • 46430
    • 81130

For every $1 you contributed to your VEAP account, the government contributed $2. So, the amount you can get depends on you. If you put in the minimum of $25, they contributed $50, so you'd have $75. If you made it to the maximum of $2,700, they put in $5,400, so you'd be given $8,100. This second amount would cover most or all of the costs of many CDL programs.

You have 10 years from the end of your active duty to use your benefits. If you're no longer on active duty and haven't begun training, you need to send copy 4 of your DD214, Certificate of Release, or Discharge from Active Duty in as part of your application

If you're currently on active duty, you may use the benefits if you've contributed to the fund for at least three months. To apply before beginning your education, you need to have approval from your Education Services Officer and verification of service from your Commanding Officer.

If you've already started your program and want to get your VEAP benefits, you need to give your VA Form 22-1990 application and DD214 to your employer or school. They'll complete VA Form 22-1999 and your Enrollment Certification, then send the forms to the VA.

National Call to Service Program and CDL Training

Unlike the other options, the National Call to Service Program is for tuition reimbursement. You may be eligible if you:

  • Went through your training and served in certain military specialties for at least 15 months and
  • Immediately served in active duty after training or for 24 months in the Selected Reserve and
  • Then went straight to active, Selected Reserve, or Individual Ready Reserve duty or AmeriCorps or similar programs

Benefits include a bonus of $5,000, loan repayment of up to $18,000, assistance equal to three years of the monthly MGIB rate for a year, or assistance of 50% of the less-than-three-year MGIB rate for three years. Not all loans qualify, and your recruiter can help you determine your eligibility.

Military Tuition Assistance Program and Trucking School

The Military Tuition Assistance Program (TA) is offered directly by all branches of the military. TA is less likely to pay for CDL training than other options, as any program you attend must be accredited by a body recognized by the U.S. Department of Education, and this is rare for truck driver training. However, some truck driving programs have opted to earn accreditation or are part of accredited community colleges, and they'll advertise that fact on their websites if that applies.

The amount you can receive and what is covered varies by the military branch from which you're getting assistance.

Air Force

  • Up to $250 per semester hour, $166 per quarter hour, or $3,750 per fiscal year
  • Covers tuition and enrollment, lab, computer, and other fees
  • Active duty and reserves eligible

Army

  • Up to $250 per semester hour, $166 per quarter hour, $4,000 per fiscal year, or 16 semester hours per year
  • Covers tuition and fees
  • Active duty, reserves, and ARNG on active duty eligible

Coast Guard

  • Up to $250 per semester hour, $166 per quarter hour, or $2,250 per fiscal year
  • Covers tuition
  • Active duty and reserves in AD status eligible

Marines

  • Up to $250 per semester hour, $166.67 per quarter hour, $16.67 per clock hour, or $4,500 per fiscal year
  • Covers tuition and fees
  • Active duty eligible

Navy

  • Up to $250 per semester hour, $166.67 per quarter hour, or $16.67 per clock hour
  • Covers tuition
  • Active duty and reserves in AD status eligible

Branches may have additional requirements and restrictions, such as only allowing certain study programs or mandating that degrees/certificates can't be "lower" than or at the same level as any you currently possess. Your superior must generally approve your application. There may be penalties if you fail or don't complete your program.

You also need to be taking classes during your off-duty time, so you may be limited to weekend or evening CDL programs if you're in active duty service.

United Services Military Apprenticeship Program (USMAP) and CDL Training

USMAP isn't for external training programs, but completing it may help you earn your CDL for free or at a low cost after returning to civilian life.

Active duty members of the Army, Coast Guard, Marines, and Navy may apply for USMAP. However, the Coast Guard and Navy don't offer a relevant option. If you're in one of those branches, you're likely ineligible for a CDL-related apprenticeship.

To apply for an apprenticeship, first you select a trade related to your primary and occupational duties. Relevant trades include:

Army

  • 12C—Bridge Crewmember
  • 12N—Horizontal Construction Engineer
  • 12V—Concrete and Asphalt Equipment Operator

Marines

  • 3531—Motor Vehicle Operator
  • 3534—Semitrailer Refueler Operator
  • 3536—Vehicle Recovery Operator

Then, you enroll in USMAP. You must be on active duty, have at least a year left in your enlistment, and meet the relevant job requirement above.

Apprenticeships are completed once you've achieved a certain number of hours or proved competency in several areas, depending on the program.

Combining Military Education Benefits for CDL Programs

If you want to receive educational benefits from more than one source, your options are limited when it comes to benefits directly from the military.

VA education benefits—all of the above, except the TA and apprenticeship programs—can't be combined. If you qualify for more than one, you need to choose the one you want to use, and you can't change your mind.

You won't be able to use the Yellow Ribbon Program for truck driving school. Tuition Assistance Top-Up may be available, but due to the amount you can get from GI Bills versus the truck driving school cost, it's unlikely to be necessary anyway.

As most tuition benefits are allotted through the VA, combining one tuition assistance program with another can be difficult. However, some branches offer additional educational funding options, and there may be military- or government-funded funded scholarships available.

Regardless of the type of benefit you receive, including VA benefits, you may be able to combine them with options offered by your state, outside scholarships and grants, and other funding sources. It's best to talk to your recruiter or other education-focused military personnel about your options. Your school may also be able to assist.

Are There Other Ways for Veterans to Earn their CDLs for Free or Low Cost?

As mentioned earlier, CDL programs and trucking companies often seek out veterans because they're well-suited to the job. As such, there are several options to help veterans pay for truck driving school.

First, check out the FMCSA options in the "Can My Military Driving Experience Help Me Get My CDL?” section above. These are likely to be the cheapest and fastest ways to complete your program and earn your CDL.

If you're not eligible for those options, ask the programs and companies you're interested in if they offer assistance to veterans. Most that do will advertise this on their websites. A few examples include:

C.R. England

Zero Out-of-Pocket training program for veterans who complete a contract and a tax-free monthly stipend in addition to base pay for GI-eligible veterans

CRST Driving Academy

Military veteran recruiters help you get started, at least 25% of your service time could be credited toward your starting pay, and their accredited apprenticeship program could help you make an extra $1,000 to $1,300 each month

Schneider

Military apprenticeship program and salary credit for military driving experience (potentially giving you a higher starting salary)

You may also be able to find assistance through federal or state programs and non-military scholarship and grant programs.