1. Stay in touch with some of the people you were there with. No one is going to listen or care as much as they do about that part of your life and probably no one will ever understand it as much as they do, so don’t lose touch and check on each other.
2. At the same time, try to make civilian friends. The military is an important part of who you are, but don’t let it be the entirety of your identity. Sure, civilians might not understand deployments or military culture, but they do understand sports, homework, popular movies, the best restaurants in town, and all the other things that interest you and will affect your life going forward. If you find yourself only associating with fellow veterans, ask yourself if that’s because civilians are rejecting you, or whether it’s because you’re rejecting them. So, like the Girl Scouts teach: “Make new friends but keep the old/ One is silver and the other is gold.”
3. Keep working out and being physical. Sounds stupid and simple, but running, hiking, climbing, kayaking, swimming, or doing Tae Bo in your basement helps the body feel active and purposeful. Physical fitness and physical stress is a key component to military service and also a good way to work through depression and trauma (even though it may be the last thing you want to do).
4. Learn a hobby. Anything. Ideally you can do in the middle of the night, when you can’t sleep, like painting or playing guitar or reading ancient history.
5. Pets are good. And they’ll love you even when you don’t love yourself.
6. Religious services can be good, even if you are not religious. You are part of a community, there tends to be some emotional honesty, and some sense of the higher purposes of life. You’ll also find out about opportunities to volunteer. (See next item.)
7. Volunteer work is good, especially if you are between jobs. You can help people who need it (like teaching English to refugees), serve a higher purpose, and feel better about yourself.
8. Find a cause. One thing that’s powerful about being in the military is the sense of contributing to something bigger than yourself. You’re not just an individual, you’re serving your country, your community back home, and your comrades to your left and right. One of the things that is most jarring about transitioning is suddenly being an individual attending school or getting a job primarily for your own benefit. Find a cause to volunteer for or a community organization to get involved in, and give yourself that sense of higher purpose again.
9. Give your life structure. Going from the military to civilian life or school is to move from a highly structured environment to a highly unstructured one. Many transitioning veterans struggle with this. Ease your transition by building accountability for yourself into your schedule. Instead of working out on your own, sign up for a class or a running group that meets at a specific time. Intentionally build routines for studying, chores, and leisure, and incorporate contact with others into those routines in order to keep yourself accountable.
10. Tone down your f*cking language. Most civilians aren’t accustomed to hearing two or three profanities in every sentence. Generally, be careful of sounding too aggressive, demanding or dark.
11. When civilians ask you about your military experience, it is best to converse one-to-one. If they get intrusive and ask The Question , deflect with humor. (That is, “Did you kill anyone?”)
12. When an old buddy begins to lose it, if he is from your unit, do what you can to help, within reason. But don’t try to carry it by yourself. Aim to get him or her to professional help ASAP.
13: Don’t mistake your veteran status for being an expert on geopolitics, Islam, Afghan tribal relations, etc.
14: In civilian life it is OK to walk on the grass. Even to lie down on it. Just look first. Civilian dogs can be nasty, and humans too.
Got some more? Please post in the comments. The more of these lessons, the better. What have we left out? What helped you make the transition back to civilian life?
The Council of the Former Enlisted was created by Tom in order to boost the voice of enlisted vets in the world of military commentary. It is an informal organization that whose members discuss their thoughts with each other, and sometimes write columns for the Long March. If you are interested in getting on the waiting list to be a member, please e-mail Tom at the address over on the left next to the postage stamp photo of him.