This is a difficult time in American history. We are currently in the longest period of sustained warfare our country has ever experienced. Those returning from the frontlines may be trying to make sense of life after the military.
Whether you’re separating after four years, retiring after 20, being discharged, or returning home due to injury or illness, transitioning isn’t easy. This is a sensitive time for veterans and their families. Let’s take a closer look at common challenges and ways to overcome them after transitioning out of the military.
Back to Flip-Flops: Military to Civilian Transition
Military life and civilian life are as different as jack boots and flip-flops. You’ve been trained in a way of doing things that differs greatly from everyday civilian life.
Making the military-to-civilian transition requires a new way of thinking, as highlighted here by Marine Sergeant Jon Davis:
“You get a little fat and you try not to yell at random strangers for wearing flip-flops at the store or walking while holding their phones and then you realize, "Wait... they can do that. I can do that too!" So you just spend a while going full on hippy. You let it all go. Grow your hair, beard and just slum it like the civies for a while. Of course at some point, that wears off too, and you feel disgusted with yourself and find some medium that you are happy with. For me, I don't work out that much, but I still always keep my high reg haircut.”
You may not be thinking about going full on hippy but chances are you’re trying to figure out where you fit back into the structure of your pre-deployment life. After all, time didn’t stop while you were away.
Tips for Transition Success
The key to a successful transition out of the military lies in how you approach it. You have the power to create our own reality. By staying focused, you can make this change work for you.
Keep the following in mind when you are transitioning out of the military:
- Enjoy planning: Take joy in planning your goals for civilian life. Develop your strategy with care and focus on objectives that you have for your career, finances, education, and family. Make actionable timelines for yourself and celebrate when you reach milestones.
- Stay energized: It’s easy to allow what’s happened before to get in the way of what’s happening now. There will be hard times, but this is no time to procrastinate. Being successful in transition means approaching obstacles with the same “can do” attitude that you had when you were deployed.
- Be confident: Your military experience is an extremely valuable asset. Don’t view your time in the service as a liability in the eyes of a civilian employer. You have skills that have been honed in the demanding fires of military life. Traits like good discipline, teamwork, leadership, and commitment are important in the eyes of employers.
You may be thinking this sounds good, but wondering how to really cope with the new realities of civilian life and what you’ve experience while serving this country. Try taking each aspect step-by-step. The first, and one of the most important challenges, is reconnecting with your spouse and kids.
Reconnecting With Your Spouse
Perhaps one of the people who missed you the most while you were away was your spouse. They married you to be with you and while you were gone they missed you.
Your absence meant they needed to find different ways of doing things. Upon your return, it’s important to acknowledge their needs and come to agreements on how things will be done now that you’re back.
Here are a few ways to re-spark your relationship and overcome the challenges that come with being away from each other for an extended period.
- Ask about your spouse’s experiences while you were away. Engaging in meaningful and non-judgmental conversation about what’s happened in your absence is good for both of you. Talking and listening to each other makes it easier to understand what levels of trust and comfort you both need now that you’ve returned.
- Make an effort to adapt your routines and not your spouse’s. When you’ve been spending most of your time in a tense, high-threat environment, you’re used to doing things your way. Making sure to understand and appreciate how your spouse did things in your absence is crucial to successfully negotiating shared responsibilities.
- Talk to your spouse about what happened while you were away. It’s easy to talk about your experience with others in your unit, but once you get home, your spouse is your unit. Sharing your experiences, for better or for worse, can not only be cathartic, but it can also bring the two of you closer together with a new level of trust and intimacy.
- Keep an eye out for indications that stress or anxiety is affecting how you interact with your spouse. It’s not always easy to acknowledge when we’re becoming aggressive, angry or withdrawn. No matter how strong your relationship is, unchecked negative emotions represent a real danger to healthy relationships. Try talking it through with your spouse, and if nothing works, seek professional advice.
- Take your time. Sometimes good progress leads to complacency. There’s no point in rushing things or trying to do everything at once. Reconnecting to civilian life takes patience. In order to achieve a healthy level of physical and emotional connection without serious discord, an understanding of the time it takes can make all the difference.
After your spouse, and not far behind on the “missing you” meter, are your kids. In many cases they may not really understand why you’ve been gone. No matter how well-balanced they are, it’s difficult for kids to cope with an absent parent.
Reconnecting With Your Kids
Compared to spouses or other family members, children are less able to cope with an absent parent. They don’t yet have the emotional skills to rationally understand why one of their parents has been gone for a long period of time.
Making sure your family unit is as strong as it can be upon your return is key. Connecting with your spouse and children will make your transition that much easier.
Ponder these actions when asking yourself how to reconnect with kids who’ve grown while you were away:
- Understand that children learn and change quickly. Perhaps when you left your daughter was playing with dolls and upon your return has joined a softball team. It’s not our fault if we were away while they were learning things we thought we should be teaching them. It’s important to embrace your child’s development and fit yourself into it with little disruption.
- Talk to those who’ve been involved in your child’s development while you’ve been away. The growth of a child involves more than your spouse. Talk to your child’s caregivers, teachers, friends, and family. Become reintegrated with what’s been happening in their life by speaking to those closest to them.
- Don’t expect too much from yourself right away. You may need time to settle back into the role of being a parent, and your children may need time to reconnect with you. It might also be prudent to set some time aside with your spouse to determine shared parenting responsibilities. In the end, be careful not to shove your way back into the parenting role without ensuring your children are responding well to your overtures.
We understand not everyone is married with children. If you’re a single service member, this doesn’t mean there’s nothing you need to do. Sometimes reintegrating back into normal social circles is just as important as reconnecting with your family.
Reintegrating With Social Life
Even if you aren’t single, you have a family and friends. Getting out and reestablishing old bonds will help you rediscover the joys of civilian life.
Take time to reconnect with friends and family. Sometimes it may be difficult for your parents, siblings, or close friends to understand why you’ve changed from your experiences. That lack of understanding could result in conflicted feelings: they’re happy to have you back, but may feel they need to tiptoe around you. Keep lines of communication open to their needs.
Expect people to want to spend time with you. Sometimes, when you’ve returned from a long deployment, all you want to do is be alone. Understand that your friends and family have missed you and they may have unrealistic expectations for how much time and energy you can devote to them. Be calm in how you approach doling your time out to loved ones.
Finally, avoid isolating yourself. Withdrawing into isolation is a particularly acute problem for single service members. Often they’ll feel as though their old friends or family won’t be able to connect with them emotionally and intellectually.
Going into isolation is neither an easy or healthy option. Reach out to other veterans for friendship or get involved in civic activities that allow you to help or meet new people.
Coping with PTS
Dealing with post-traumatic stress (PTS) is never easy. It can have a tremendous impact on one’s life. Symptoms of PTS can negatively impact both how you feel and how you interact with people.
Among those transitioning, anywhere from 30,000 to 300,000 veterans will be suffering from the impacts of invisible wounds of war. Even those who aren’t suffering from PTS may have been directly affected by overseas events.
Fortunately, there are a number of healthy ways you can manage PTS symptoms:
- Educate yourself: The first step in conquering something lies in knowing it. Learning more about your symptoms, the root causes, and how you can manage them makes it easier to cope.
- See a therapist: If you’re finding that it’s becoming difficult to manage your PTS symptoms, there’s nothing wrong in seeking professional help. Trained professionals are effective tools in alleviating PTS symptoms. They’re compassionate men and women who can provide you with support and teach you effective ways to manage your symptoms.
- Join a support group: There are large numbers of support groups out there for military veterans who suffer from PTS. Listening to what other people go through offers insight on how to deal with your own struggles. If you’re looking for new friends who understand what you’ve gone through, support groups are fertile ground.
- Get involved: Participating in volunteer activities or joining service organizations can give you a sense of accomplishment and belonging. If you’re a person of faith, there are groups within churches and non-affiliated civic organizations that provide transitional resources. Getting connected to the community in which you live is an important step in re-rooting yourself. Community involvement gives you access to larger social circles.
Even those veterans not directly affected by intense combat experiences may have trouble reintegrating back into civilian life. The veteran mindset is influenced by a military culture that handles stress differently.
Making Stress Your Friend
Stress doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Every aspect of our lives involves some sort of stress. When we channel that energy into a challenge, stress can help us grow and flourish.
The key to managing stress is in finding the right balance. Though some stress is good for you, figuring out the right amount of it can be tricky. Every person is different, and how we handle our stress is rooted in how we perceive it.
Next time you’re wondering how much stress is right for you, consider the following:
- Good stress helps you stay motivated, focused, and inspired. It instills a sense of enthusiasm and ambition and helps you maintain a high energy level.
- Bad stress makes you feel unmotivated, fatigued, and uncomfortable. You may feel physical symptoms such as headaches or insomnia. Even the simplest tasks may seem difficult and you might experience severe mood swings.
If you’re finding that your stress levels are too high, take control over what you can and learn to be flexible regarding the things you can’t. Identify what causes you stress and take care to make realistic, healthy choices in response to it.
Transitioning Back to the Job
The military was your job. Once you’ve transitioned back into civilian life, finding work is a vital next step. Keeping yourself occupied with a profession you enjoy helps you stay grounded and reintroduces you to the civilian skillsets you need to maintain a healthy and happy post-deployment life.
Chances are you have special skills that helped you stand out while you were away. Look for opportunities that allow you to tap skills you gained while deployed.
Here are some tips on the best way to transition back to a civilian job:
- Utilize services: There’s no shame in using the services of agencies such as the VA or state or county-run veteran services. Traditional veterans service organizations exist to help you transition back to civilian life.
- Get assistance: Sometimes getting help from a mentor, sponsor, or job coach is the best way to identify what skills you should highlight. It’s not always easy translating military skills into civilian language.
- Attend events: Most major cities have career fairs for military veterans. There are an abundance of recruiting firms out there that specialize in finding civilian jobs for military veterans.
- Review options: Don’t shoehorn yourself into a position that you don’t feel is right for you simply because you’re feeling the pressure to get a job. Keep in mind that your opportunities aren’t only limited to the private sector. Government jobs at the state, county, and city level are quick to hire military veterans who are used to a regimented hierarchal structure.
- Get educated: If you spent your immediate years after high school in the military, there’s no harm in revisiting your education once you return. The military offers great educational benefits such as the GI Bill®¹ to make this step in your transition easy. Research certification programs, degrees, or training for a trade will help you learn new skills, enhance your job prospects, and give you a real sense of purpose.
Getting a job once you’ve returned is about more than providing for your family. Work instills a sense of confidence and purpose, something you may be feel is missing now that you’re no longer an active part of your unit. If you’re looking for ways to get the most out of your job search, we’re here to help.
Vista College Can Help You Succeed in Life After the Military
Vista College is here to help you adjust back to life after the military. Whether you’ve got a career in mind or just want to take a few online classes, we have the tools you need to reach your transition goals.
At Vista College we provide the resources and guidance that you need to take this new transition in your life to the next level. If you’re unsure of what classes you should take or have general questions about how to make your education work for you, call us today.
¹GI Bill® is a registered trademark of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). More information about education benefits offered by VA is available at the official U.S. government website at http://www.benefits.va.gov/gibill.