The transition you never asked for: Finding meaning after losing your military career to disability
You can build back your life
- Military Life
“I think it’s time we initiated your medical board to retire you,” my neurologist said solemnly as he closed my medical file. I was 31 years old, close enough to taste my next promotion, with two combat tours and almost eight years of service under my belt. I couldn’t help but agree with his assessment. Nearly three years earlier I’d suffered a small stroke, which had caused seemingly irreparable damage to my vestibular system. I couldn’t ride in a vehicle, look at a computer screen, or even sit in my desk chair at work without the world spinning violently. Severe brain fog, light and noise sensitivity, and extreme anxiety made it feel like I was walking through a carnival funhouse with a nasty hangover every day. I had tried my best to push through and hide my condition from my new unit, but after a middle of the night trip to the emergency room during a field exercise and a subsequent week in bed, I raised the white flag. Thus began the long road to fully embracing a life I never asked for – one with a potentially permanent disability and a new identity as a civilian.
If you’re finding yourself unexpectedly or unwillingly facing medical discharge and the fear and uncertainty that comes with it, you are not alone. What felt like the end of the road turned out to be only the beginning of a new life – one filled with gratitude, connection, and purpose. Here are seven years of hard lessons and helpful tools I’ve gathered along the way which you might find useful in building a meaningful life.
Use your benefits
As a disabled veteran, regardless of what level of disability you’re assigned by the VA, you have access to a plethora of life-enriching resources. Don’t hesitate to make full use of them.
If you’ve lost or lost use of more than one limb or a lower extremity, or are blind or require the use of a wheelchair or mobility device, you may be eligible for a housing grant from the VA to purchase, build, or modify a home to make it accessible and safe for you. The VA also has grants available if you need a specialty vehicle or equipment, like a wheelchair lift or a motorized scooter. They offer assistance for a variety of other special claims related to your disability, too, like clothing allowances or prosthetics.
You’re probably already familiar with VA healthcare benefits but may be hesitant to enroll, especially if you already have a current healthcare provider through Tricare. Even if you don’t plan on using your VA health care just yet, get enrolled soon after you separate from the military. That way, you’ll be in the system and can receive medical evaluation and treatment, file new disability claims, and access your full entitlements. If your medical needs aren’t being met, be persistent. I’ve learned over the years to advocate for myself and to recognize when I’m not being taken seriously. Ask for what you need.
If securing employment as a civilian seems intimidating, the VA offers a full spectrum of services through Veteran Readiness & Employment (formerly known as vocational rehab). If your disability interferes with your day to day self-care and functioning, the VA provides independent living services to provide counseling, referrals, and access to grants. They also have training tracks that can help you learn new skills and find employment that accommodates your disability. You can read more about VR&E services on their website.
Know your rights
People with disabilities have certain protections under local, state, and federal law thanks to the Americans with Disabilities Act, which includes hiring and workplace protections from discrimination. Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA), an organization founded in 1946 by veterans returning from World War II with spinal cord injuries, was actively involved in fighting for passage of the ADA. Today PVA advocates for the rights of disabled veterans and Americans with spinal cord injuries and diseases, such as Multiple Sclerosis (MS) and ALS, by lobbying congress to pass legislation that benefits people with disabilities. They also provide up-to-date information on their website about your rights as a person with a disability.
Your limitations are not an automatic disqualification from the workplace; under the ADA you have the rights to certain workplace accommodations for your disability like specialized equipment, accessibility, or an adapted work schedule.
If you’re seeking federal or government employment after your military service and have a service-connected disability, you have the option of claiming Veteran’s Preference. This federal law gives you an advantage in the hiring process if you meet the eligibility requirements. Veteran’s Preference doesn’t guarantee you’ll be hired, but it can give you an advantage when applying for competitive service.
Get employment assistance
PVA has a Veterans Career program (VCP, formerly known as PAVE), which helps veterans (not just those with disabilities) find meaningful employment after serving. Their team of vocational rehab counselors and employment analysts can help you identify and overcome your potential barriers to employment. VCPhelps veterans through the whole process of hiring – from developing a great resume and cover letter to practice interviews.
Employment assistance like the Veterans Career Program can be incredibly instrumental in helping you secure a job that matches your abilities and interests. This is especially true if you’ve never had a career outside of the military and are struggling to translate your skills and experience into civilian terms. Even if you don’t want or need one-on-one help, you still have the option of joining a virtual career or networking event.
It’s easy to fall into the mindset that you’ll never be as good as you used to be before you got sick or injured, or even thinking that nothing will ever really compare to being in the military. But the truth is there’s a whole big world out there that needs your unique skills and perspective and can benefit from what you have to offer, whether it’s writing a book, public speaking, leading a team, or technical skills. Internalizing your own value can be brutally hard when you feel like your body is the enemy, so give yourself time and space to decide your next steps and figure out what you want to offer to the world at large.
Grieve your loss
The kind of grief that often accompanies a disability or chronic condition is what some mental health professionals call infinite losses. Every day existence can feel like a reminder of what you’ve lost, whether it’s independence, your ability to participate in activities that you used to, or even cognitive and memory function. Coming to terms with new limits and new ways of doing things doesn’t come easily for most of us who thrived in high-demand environments and could gut out anything that life threw our way. When you factor in mourning the loss of your job, identity as a service member, and a daily sense of purpose, life can feel overwhelming at best, and futile at worst. Giving yourself permission to grieve and feel the pain of what you’ve lost is not only healthy, but necessary. It keeps you from getting stuck in a rut of bitterness and makes room for growth and change. Leaning into trusted family and friends and fostering meaningful emotional connections while I grieved helped me feel less alone and gave me a safe place to feel everything I needed to feel. My mantra that came out of my grief over the months was, “I don’t have all of my health, but I have enough for this,” even if “this” was just getting groceries or doing 30 minutes of exercise. It helped me acknowledge that I wasn’t whole, but I could still be grateful for what my body was able to accomplish.
My first attempt at seeking support for my mental health was demoralizing. Even though I was suffering from PTSD the therapist I was seeing told me in our second session together that I wasn’t bad enough to warrant continued treatment. She only helped people who could barely dress themselves in the morning, and I was a high-functioning citizen. She didn’t understand that I hid my condition behind productivity and performance, like a wind-up toy on the verge of being overly tightened. It took me two years to get the courage up to seek treatment again, and this time I found an incredible therapist who helped me find healing and hope that I never thought was possible. If you haven’t found what you need, keep looking. The right person to help you is out there. If you are enrolled in Tricare, you can easily search for an in-network provider near you. Psychology Today has a great search tool to find a therapist based on location and insurance type. Or, once you’re enrolled in the VA you can seek support through their services.
Integrating back into the civilian world with a disability after having your military career cut short can feel deeply unfair. It’s a level of disappointment that few people will ever truly understand. But if the military has taught us one thing, it’s to adapt and overcome in the face of fear and adversity. My physical condition hasn’t changed since leaving the military, but I’ve discovered deep wells of resiliency and adaptability within myself that have allowed me to live a full life and do things I never thought I’d be able to, like compete in triathlons and write a book.
Don’t let your current reality keep you from creating a new, better one for yourself. Take advantage of all the resources out there to help you on the journey and connect with people who can help you get where you want to go. Keep moving forward with hope. There is life on the other side of disability. Trust me.
This article was made possible by PVA’s Veterans Career Program.