4 Tactics to Help Veterans Transition to Civilian Life

Life after the military poses a unique problem for an ex-jarhead -- mainly, how in the hell are we supposed to readjust to a civilian world after our training and experiences have made us anything but civilians? These four steps can certainly soften the blow and smooth the transition.
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Man with dog admiring sunset on Pacific Coast at Monterey Bay
Man with dog admiring sunset on Pacific Coast at Monterey Bay

Truth be told, I never envisioned joining the Marine Corps. In fact, I was leaning strongly toward the Air Force, at least initially, because I wanted the best technical training the military had to offer.

But I quickly realized that the Marine Corps was my true calling. There was something nostalgic, even primal, about it. Something deep down said it was the right choice for me. Yet as hard as it was to be a Marine, reintegrating into society as a civilian proved much harder.

There's a saying that's drilled into Marines: Improvise, adapt, and overcome. Failure is never an option, and every Marine is taught to understand that. It's more than just our programming; it's our way of life.

But life after the military poses a unique problem for an ex-jarhead -- mainly, how in the hell are we supposed to readjust to a civilian world after our training and experiences have made us anything but civilians?

A Rocky Re-Entry

Veterans need more help integrating into society successfully: A Pew Research Center survey found that 44 percent of veterans who returned home during a 10-year post-9/11 period struggled to readjust to civilian life. Military members are supposed to be prepared for anything, so how is it that so many veterans struggle to adapt to the simple monotony of daily life?

For starters, the military takes care of soldiers' basic needs so they can focus on more pressing matters, such as winning wars. The military supplies food, housing, dental and medical care, and a guaranteed paycheck every month, and therefore those concerns never cross the minds of those on the front lines. Returning to all those responsibilities in the civilian world can present a bit of culture shock.

A change of this magnitude brings with it a high degree of uncertainty and resulting decision fatigue. Once troops leave that regimented environment and enter one with seemingly endless options and possibilities, the mental fatigue starts to set in. Unfortunately, so does the stress.

Readjusting to civilian life, whether professionally or personally, varies by individual. But remembering these four steps can certainly soften the blow and smooth the transition:

1. Allow time for self-care.
No veterans have volunteered to me their stories of difficulties adjusting to civilian life -- because they've been trained not to. In the military, talking about feelings is taboo, and displaying openness and vulnerability is viewed as a sign of weakness.

The military's mission is to win, and as harsh as it might sound, when it comes to war, only the strong survive. However, replacing that hard-edged philosophy with the equally harsh truths of a more civilized world -- which seem to contradict every lesson the military taught you -- can be harrowing.

It's important to recognize that the emotional journey back to civilian life will take longer than the physical journey. During this time, you have to focus on taking care of yourself on many unfamiliar fronts, not just your physical well-being.

Though plenty of rest and good nutrition is key, your emotional, mental, and spiritual well-being are just as important.

2. Keep a circle of other vets. Oftentimes, the most difficult -- and beneficial -- action is talking to other vets.

You don't have to talk about war or combat trauma, or even the military in general, though the conversation will likely head that direction. The important thing is that you have access to someone else who knows what it's like to be a vet, someone who can buoy you back up when times get tough.

That shared experience and mutual support is s why recovering alcoholics do much better when they can talk to other recovering alcoholics. Keeping in touch with buddies from your unit or those who understand the ins and outs of a warrior's life can do wonders to help ease the transition.

3. Find a routine that simulates the military environment.
Working out simply because you worked out in the military is not enough. You must work out under the same conditions. That means with other people -- and I don't mean going to a gym where others engage you in fleeting moments of small talk or provide the occasional spot on the bench.

I recommend going to the gym with people you know and exercising with them in a manner that mirrors your military routine. Maybe it's combat training or trail running; perhaps you enjoy negotiating obstacle courses, performing speed drills, or training in martial arts.

Whatever it may be, try to maintain that same routine. A nugget of consistency from your former life can be a boon to your comfort in your new normal.

4. Wear your service with pride. Regardless of your experiences in the military, odds are your countrymen are proud of your service. You should be, too.

Additionally, employers cannot glean a complete understanding of your work potential if you disguise your past. A typical human resources manager won't comprehend the significance of title and rank, so provide a point of reference for your experience. For example, a commanding general can list the equivalent civilian title as chief executive officer.

Don't disguise your rank to civilianize your resume -- that discounts your military faculties. As veterans, we can help the civilian sector understand more about the military. The more that companies understand about military service, the less intimidated they'll feel and the more excited they'll be about opportunities to bring veterans aboard.

The bottom line is that readjusting to civilian life is a long process. It takes time, patience, and a whole lot of soul searching. However, if your training has taught you anything, it's that you can handle just about everything.

You can find meaning in civilian life; it just takes a commitment to adjusting to your new normal.

Brook Price is president and co-founder of Forte Strong, a failure-to-launch program that gives young men the skills and character traits they need to tackle the challenges of life. Brook has more than 16 years of experience working for some of the most prestigious leadership programs in the nation, most notably Outward Bound and the U.S. Marine Corps.

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