The transition out of the military seems to come in a few important stages. Getting started and being willing to truly do what it takes to begin a recovery is probably the most difficult. After that, taking responsibility, building healthy relationships, finding a supportive community, and staying active are all important self-choices. In the next stage, getting involved and giving back are essential to setting goals and providing a sense of purpose. Finally, seeking professional development, employment, and education will improve confidence and set a stage for continued growth.
Based on my own experience, here are the five stages of transition for those veterans who may struggle to acclimate to the civilian world right away.
Stage 1: Climbing Out Of The Hole
This is where you realize something is wrong, but you haven’t begun yet to take steps to fix it. If you are not willing to take personal ownership for your life, then it’s very difficult to get out of this stage.
The problem is that most veterans who are here have given up on caring. Broken hearted, hurt, sometimes dependent on alcohol or drugs to numb the pain, and stuck in a cycle of making poor choices as a result of low self-worth or confidence. Our lives are largely defined by our outlook, desire to improve, and motivation to succeed. If you’ve stopped caring then this is a major roadblock.
How to fix it? This is difficult because many of these veterans don’t care to be found. All the programs in the world will be of limited help if they don’t desire to participate for the sake of actual wellness. We need to look into this more. But a key starter would be direct mentorship.
Most veterans in this stage will only listen to the people they care about most: the ones they served with. For instance, most messages I receive from people who are getting ready to step into Stage 1 sound like this: “Hey man, I’ve seen you do a lot of volunteering lately and checking in at the VA or Vet Center. Does it help? I’d like to get out of the house and help people more. How can I get involved?”
Of course, once they do get involved, they generally tend to get a similar message down the road and the opportunity to help someone else. The main question I have here is: How do we make this happen more often?
Stage 2: The Pain Stage
I refer to this as the “pain stage” because in some ways it hurts to start facing all of your problems and seeking help. This is where you make a committed decision to change your life. Much like quitting smoking, it doesn’t work if you don’t really want it to. You must take steps toward your personal improvement and stick with them. The pain comes because as you open yourself back up to feeling again, there is an emotional dump truck full of hurt that is trying to get out of you.
For several months after almost committing suicide, I used to just start crying for no reason in class, while waiting for the bus, while doing homework, etc. A friend put that into perspective for me by saying, “Tears are the Keys that unlock the soul.” Crying is healthy and good and it shows that something really is changing inside. Stick with it.
Where to start? Professional resources are necessary. Vet centers and professional counselors can be of immense help. When I first went to speak with a counselor, I was so angry about being there that I actually just yelled for the first 20 minutes. Veterans feel like counselors don’t understand because “they’ve never been in combat, they don’t have any idea what it’s like or how to relate to me, they just have some stupid diploma hanging on their wall.”
I voice recorded several sessions in my phone about how pissed I was about having to talk to someone who “didn’t understand.” Long story short, I did the programs they suggested. I stopped going in just for chats and started to do intensive recovery programs that they said would help. Six months later, I was hugging my counselor at the end of each session and saying, “Thank you.”
Meanwhile, I made an intensive effort to rebuild relationships with the people around me. I started to really care about my roommate and classmates and wanted to know about them and build actual relationships. I also started praying again. I had one simple prayer over and over, “God, please help me to be a better man.” While I’m not going to push religion on anyone, I do believe that following a “God of your own understanding” is a huge help to healing emotional and spiritual wounds.
Next, I started to get more involved in veterans organizations and make friends who supported me and who I supported when they needed it. Talking about experiences makes them less scary and sharing burdens removes a lot of hurt.
Stage 3: Finding Your Passion
Get involved with things that are important to you. Whether it’s painting, hiking, snow sports, running, fitness, volunteering, or something else, immerse yourself in something that makes you want to be a better person and something that gives you goals to strive for. A large part of regaining self-confidence and improving your view of yourself comes from striving to be better. If you know that you are working to become better daily, then it’s hard to have a poor outlook on life.
What to do? Everyone who has put on the uniform shares a few core values: service to others, sense of purpose, desire for community. So volunteering is a great start. Find an organization that aligns with your goals and values and start helping others. Every time we volunteer, just by giving a piece of ourselves to others, we gain so much more than we could ever imagine.
Another key is fitness in some form. Whether it’s yoga, triathlons, body building, rock climbing, learning to ski, swimming, or whatever else, physical exercise removes a lot of the anxiety, depression, and stress we carry around. It also reminds us that even when we want to give up, we always have one more set left in us. It makes us set goals and push ourselves and we gain confidence as we achieve these goals. Fitness doesn’t have to be military style; it can be whatever you want to make of it. Even if you are out of shape, sign up for something and use it as a fitness goal.
Most importantly, have fun. I have been passed by a 6-year-old kid and a 70-year-old man juggling in a tuxedo while running a marathon before. If they can do it, so can you.
Stage 4: Professional Development
Whether it is using the G.I. Bill, applying for jobs, taking new courses, learning a trade, writing personal blogs, or sharing your experiences with others during speaking engagements, this is the next main stage to help you make a successful transition from military to civilian. When I left the Marines, I thought I was nothing but a doorkicker and I would never be above an average student in college. I was scared of college. Bu, the discipline and motivation I gained in the military put me on track to be an excellent student. All I had to do was apply myself.
Getting an education proved that I wasn’t “just a grunt” and it gave me the confidence to continue pushing further. The day I received my diploma, I can’t explain the amount of pride that I had. College and work also re-introduced me to the civilian world and required me to accept different opinions, embrace new views, and admit that I had a whole lot to learn from these “non-military types.”
Who can help? A key difference in this stage is that there is a massive amount of support that can come from universities, corporations, and entrepreneurs. The good news is that much of it is already being done. Many universities have a veteran transition office and many employers are now training their human resources representatives to understand more about military service. Additionally, some tech firms and entrepreneurs are helping by making new software, courses, and other materials available open-source. What this means is that there are many more people now who are capable of walking veterans through the professional development transition than there were a decade ago.
In addition, many leading companies are actively seeking veterans to fill essential roles within their organizations due to the leadership, technological adaptability, experience, and motivation that we bring into the workspace. The main problem at the moment is that much of this information changes so often (such as internships, programs, etc.) that it’s not available in one commonly accessible area. Hopefully this will change in the near future. In the meantime, the future is yours.
Network, make effective use of your G.I. Bill (don’t waste your benefits at an online for-profit school), learn new tech skills (there are many free courses online through Coursera, MIT OpenCourseware, and others), and push for continuous professional development. Just as you had to work for promotion in the military, the civilian world is every bit as competitive.
Stage 5: Pay It Forward
Everyday, service members are transitioning from the military into the civilian world. Much like you, they know little or nothing about properly using their G.I. Bill, finding good veteran service organizations, writing a resume, and finding employment. Moreover, many of them have a mindset that to admit there is a problem is “weakness.”
Give them the advice you wish you had when you transitioned. Whether it’s 20 minutes of your time in an airport lounge or trading contact info to provide direct mentorship, you can drastically change the trajectory of a fellow veteran’s transition by just helping. Remember, we all wore the same uniform and swore the same oath. We are still all in this together.
Why you? Mentoring and helping others is the cornerstone of what life is all about. Help others to build a firm foundation and never stop continuing to seek the help, community, relationships, and fulfillment that you need.
Just because you’ve made it out of your downward spiral doesn’t mean it’s all over. Life is hard and always changing. One moment you’re offering a helping hand, the next moment you may need one, so don’t be afraid to accept a helping hand again. Remember the importance of confidence, personal relationship building, helpful community, exercise, holding yourself accountable, and good resources.