Military to Civilian Transition is Hard on Veterans and Families


Even healthy, well-adjusted Veterans have difficulty with the transition from military life

I am a Veteran of the United States Armed Forces.  I have a doctorate degree, a happy and healthy family, and a successful career.  I know all about transitions and resiliency. Afterall, I am a psychologist who has spent the past 7 years in the military, married to the military, or serving the military and veteran population in various capacities.  This spring I wrote an article explaining why military homecomings are often harder than good-byes. I am now tackling the topic of military transition to civilian life.

Close your eyes.  Imagine back to your 18th birthday.  Where were you?  Who were you with?  What were your life plans?  What about your 21st birthday?  What was that like? You may have been working a minimum wage job.  Maybe a struggling student.  Maybe married with kids.  You were figuring out your life.  You had choices and options.  You tried to find a way to control your future.  You lived.  You learned.  You hopefully grew as a person with each early and middle adulthood milestone.


Now imagine this.  While your friends were starting their first "real" job or going to college, you were in the middle of the forest learning survival skills in case you become captured during war.  You were told when to eat, when to urinate, and when to sleep. You had no control over your life.  You said "yes ma'am" and "yes sir".  You went where the government told you.  You met the love of your life and married them as soon as you could and later learned you would deploy 1 day after your first-born's birth.  You missed birthdays and holidays.  You missed the first days of school.  You missed your child's first prom and high school graduation. You had career certaintly and a consistent (if meager) paycheck.  You were rewarded for good actions and discplined harshly for poor decisions.  You were successful.  You had a book of rules to follow.  Everything had a standard operating procedure.  You thrived in the structure.  Loving it and hating it simultaneously.  There were very few, if any, "gray areas".


Then one day you take off the uniform and you walk away.  Maybe it was a celebratory retirement of 20+ years of service.  Maybe you were medically retired because of an illness or injury sustained while serving your country.  Maybe you made a poor decision that in civilian life would result with the proverbial "slap on the wrist" but because you wore the uniform, cost you your career.  All of these result in an aburpt end where one day you take off the uniform and you are no longer "Seargent" or "Major".  You are simply Jim or Jane.  Your name means nothing because it has no rank or title.  Your clothes do not identify you or set you apart.  You no longer have to be at PT first thing or have a list of expectations and strict instructions.  You may choose what job to apply for.  You may have breakfast with your family or attend your child's ballgame.  Good, yes, but strange.  Different.  Uncomfortable.


Every day hundreds of soldiers, marines, airmen, and seamen transition from actve duty to civilian life.  With the transition comes an unnerving sense of freedom.  With the transition comes an eerie loss of identity.  A confused state of "what now" and "who am I".  You see civilians making poor decisions with little ramification.  People are fussing over petty things.  These things do not make sense because they are not important. They are not life or death.  You dont know where to turn.  You apply for jobs that are the perfect fit with your military experience but are repeatedly passed up because while you were serving and accumilating real skills, your competition achieved a degree and yet has no skill set.  Your spouse expects you to help out more around the home, but the work is mundane and boring.  It seems miniscule compared to the missions and actions you completed while in uniform.  You know you should enjoy the morning and the restful pace, but your mind and heart race with this question, "Did I do the right thing?  Should I have stayed longer?"  Your children are excited and you know you should be as well, but you arent.  You don't know who you are or where you are going. You are older and wiser than your years, but you have never lived as a civilian.  It's new and foreign.  It's a struggle that challenges you and your family.  Unfortunately, many Veterans do not cope well and turn to alcohol, drugs, or suicide.  If you or someone you know is transitioning (it can take years), there are many things that can help.  


Get involved in a community organization.  Join a club.  Keep up your PT, whether as a group or alone.  Keep in touch with your military budies.  Talk with your family and your friends.  Know that it is ok.  You are not alone and this struggle is not abnormal.  It is just a struggle that few discuss.