• Eric Roberts

The next war. Quick tips for conquering the military transition process.



It's well reported that military veterans are especially susceptible to suicide and suicide ideation, but why? In this article, we break down some of the reasons that former service members are at risk and how they can set themselves up for success before they ever leave the military. While the effects discussed in this article are especially impactful for veterans, anyone can go through it, as a civilian you can still benefit from these techniques, or you may be able to help someone you know. So even if you have no affiliation with the military, read on anyway. Furthermore, if you find yourself at a low point, SEEK HELP. Talk to a friend, family member, mental health professional, etc. You aren't alone. Others understand your struggle and want to help. If you have nobody, but are reading this, then reach out to me. I'm not even F@#$ing kidding. You can drop me a line on the chatbot on the home page and I WILL get back to you right away.

So let's get on with it:


The military puts its members through rigorous training, and often life or death situations. It's easy to think that service members would be thrilled for their contract period to end so they can return to the civilian world, but it's much more complicated than that.

When joining the military, each service member goes through a disruptive process of indoctrination. Their previous life is over. They are now the property of the government and have only their newly formed friends to their left and right to lean on for support. Many of their previous opinions and views of the world take a back seat to two important pillars, brotherhood and mission. This process is by design. The military needs people to put the needs of the team above their individual needs. They have a time tested recipe for creating such selfless team members, and the need for this culture isn't going to change. Ever.

When we send a service member to combat, we need them to focus on those two pillars rather than be focused on the problems back home. Through this process, the service member changes so much, that they aren't really the person they were before. As humans we all change as we progress through life, but this change is abrupt and drastic. The "new" person that comes out doesn't fit the old mold of who they were before, and that is a critical characteristic. (You might be asking yourself why I italicized the word "we." Well, it's simple. The military doesn't send itself to war. Politicians, representing the people, choose when and where the military goes to fight its wars.)

Upon leaving the military, veterans frequently find that they don't much recognize civilian lifestyle. They don't just leave a job, they leave their tribe. They are sent packing with only a duffle bag and the memories of struggle, perseverance, heart ache and success. Each memory is steeped with the brothers and sisters that were there experiencing it with them. But now that's gone, so get over it and move on right? Unfortunately, moving on isn't easy as Brenner et al. (2008) describe "In response to questions about burdensomeness, the veterans interviewed consistently spoke about a loss of sense of self post-discharge...Sense of loss of that camaraderie and/or the inability to translate warrior ethos principles to a new group of relationships."

Your action: Re-define yourself before you lose yourself! I honestly think this was the key to my transition process. I started lining up interviews for graduate programs about a year before I ended terminal leave. Had I walked off the plane with more bags than plans, I'm quite sure I would have felt lost and alone. I redefined myself as a student with opportunities focused on the next endeavor rather than being a veteran focused on the past. You're going to miss your buddies and have some real FOMO, even if you were displeased with your unit, duty station, MOS (job role for civilian lingo), etc. However, if you focus on the new you and how that person operates in the world, your reintegration can go much smoother. You want to avoid feeling different from everyone else. Kranke et al. (2018) "Veterans’ feeling of differentness from civilians makes it difficult for some veterans to establish social support networks and reach out for help, which often leads to isolation and, in some, harmful coping mechanisms that coincide with suicidal ideations or substance use."

Your action: Seek positive relationships. When I arrived at graduate school, despite having networked with other students and faculty, I still felt like something was missing. I started looking for people like me. I found the student veterans club on campus and was quickly thrust into an officer role and representative of Student Veterans of America. These people spoke my language and could relate to my experiences. Regardless of branch, we just clicked. Of course there was the typical razzing, but it made me feel at home. This sounds crazy, but the #1 predictor of a student graduating college is whether or not they have a friend there with them. In your transition, whether you're heading to school, to the workforce, or starting a business, don't go it alone. There are others like you out there, and they want to help you –– more importantly, they need your help.

If you are intending to rejoin the workforce, or perhaps this will be your first non-military job, make sure you are focusing your efforts in the right places. The military will make you go through transition classes that give a high level perspective on what to do, but they won't actually get you a job. The truth is, unless you work very diligently on your post military transition while you are still in the military, you can likely end up shown the door without a job. This often happens because you a service member, soon to be separated, doesn't want to come off as a dirt bag for putting their well being before the unit or the unit's mission. However unemployment can have some serious impacts over your mental health. Tran et al. (2017) "Findings revealed that long-term unemployed veterans had a significantly greater number of days with poor mental health than long-term unemployed civilians."

Your action: If it comes down to it, don't be afraid to take a lower-level job than you want. Being underemployed is almost the worst, right behind being unemployed. As a wise Lucas Group recruiter once told me "The best time to look for a job is while you still have one." So don't get wrapped around the axle with underemployment. Do your best in the role, but also put in the effort to improve your situation. Luckily there are an abundance informational and recruiting sources. Listen to podcasts like Vet Pivot and View from the Skies. Contact mentor and networking sources like Veterati and ACP. Reach out to the head hunters like Lucas Group and Cameron Brooks. I myself went through Lucas Group after leaving the military and have also worked with Cameron Brooks on sourcing top talent. There are numerous groups that want to help you because they know the struggle and know you add value to organizations.


Longstory short:

1) Your military experience is a part of you, it isn't the whole picture –– you get to write that next chapter.

2) Get out there and talk to people. Don't be the lone wolf.

3) Utilize the multiple available sources that aid in the transition process.

References:

Brenner, L., Gutierrez, P., Cornette, M., Betthauser, L., Bahraini, N., & Staves, P. (2008). A qualitative study of potential suicide risk factors in returning combat veterans. Journal of Mental Health Counseling, 30(3), 211-225.

Kranke, D., Floersch, J., & Dobalian, A. (2018). Identifying Aspects of Sameness to Promote Veteran Reintegration with Civilians: Evidence and Implications for Military Social Work. Health & social work, 44(1), 61-64.

Tran, T. V., Canfield, J., & Chan, K. T. (2017). Differential association between unemployment status and mental health among veterans and civilians. Social Work in Mental Health, 15(4), 419-434.


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