Transitioning to civilian life is no easy feat, even if you’ve been wildly successful as a military service member. In fact, a Pew Research Center survey found that about a quarter of veterans say it was very or somewhat difficult for them to transition to civilian life.
This doesn’t mean you can’t thrive when you leave the military, though. If you’ve been struggling to find a groove in your new normal, here are some of our favorite places you can turn for support.
What Makes the Military Transition to Civilian Life So Challenging?
The military prepares service members with a wide range of skills, from physical fitness and leadership to critical thinking under intense pressure. Most of these skills transition well into civilian life. An exceptional officer or noncommissioned officer can make an even better manager.
However, the conditions of civilian life are fundamentally different. You won’t have someone else setting your schedule anymore, so you’ll need to practice self-discipline. You may feel like you don’t have a clear purpose immediately. And you might find that the civilian world does not fully comprehend all you’ve done in the military.
Some of the most common challenges veterans cite in the military transition to civilian life include the following.
Managing Mental Health and Combat-Related Stress
Veterans with a history of trauma are significantly less likely to report being well-prepared for transitioning to civilian life. About half of combat veterans describe their transition as stressful, compared to just 18% who did not see combat.
Managing Individual and Family Expectations
When you leave the military, you and your family will have to learn new roles and responsibilities—and it will undoubtedly be an adjustment for everyone. For the first several months, you may struggle to find work, leaving you as a stay-at-home parent or spouse. You may feel like you’ve lost your purpose or sense of identity. At the same time, it may be difficult for your family to see your struggles. It can be stressful to prepare for some of these unforeseen challenges.
Relating to People Who Have Not Served in the Military
Civilian life is different. Non-soldiers may make insensitive comments or ask intrusive questions. They may not understand your experiences, or they may relate to you as a stereotype rather than a human being.
Finding a Job
Entering the workforce, especially for the first time, can be challenging. You might not be aware of resumes or interviewing conventions, or understand how to use your military service in civilian life. It might also be challenging to grasp the significance of networking as an integral part of landing your dream job. If you do not have a college degree, you might not be able to get credit for all of the skills you've learned in the military.
Confronting a Lack of Recognition
The civilian world may be appreciative of your military service, but it may not recognize the skills and experiences you had in the military. A job interviewer might see your military experience as one long hiatus from the working world, and may consider only your formal education, not your military experience.
The military structures your life for you. When you become a civilian, you have to do it yourself. That means finding friends, building a community, sticking to a schedule, and making good decisions. After depending on the military to manage almost every aspect of your life—from how you look and dress, to how you spend your free time, to where you can go, to what kind of medical benefits you use—you’ll need to find new ways to emulate that sense of connection.
Getting Access to Services
Finding a doctor, dentist, therapist, and other service providers can be overwhelming and challenging if you’re accustomed to relying on the military.
Having Mixed Emotions About the Transition
Even if you want to leave the military, you might second-guess your decision at times. You may miss the structure of life as a soldier and the camaraderie of your military friends. You may also question whether you can contribute as much to the world when you become a civilian. It’s easy for all of this pressure to weigh heavily on you.
How to Make the Transition Less Difficult
Take Stock of Your Civilian Life Options
Begin planning your transition to civilian life as early as possible—ideally before you even leave. To get you started, the Transition Assistance Program (TAP) provides valuable information and resources to service members regarding topics such as going back to school, obtaining a career, and exploring entrepreneurship opportunities. Most service members begin TAP one year prior to their transition from military to civilian life. Reach out to your transition assistance coordinator for more information on this program.
Some potential paths to take after leaving the military include:
- Returning to a job you held before enlisting: If you were only in the military for a few years and liked your pre-service job, returning to that role or one like it may be an option.
- Civilian contracting with the military and related organizations: Many former military members are able to earn an excellent living by working with civilian contractor organizations. Talk to other veterans about what they’re doing; the people who served with you may be able to refer you to a good company.
- Finding a new job: This can be a challenging path, especially if you joined the military right after high school. If you do head straight into the working world, consider working with a soldier-owned company or one that often hires veterans. These companies are more likely to recognize your value, and they are less likely to see you as someone with experience gaps or only a high school education.
- Returning to school: Going back to school is a great path that can help you slowly return to civilian life while preparing for a career that utilizes the same skills you used in the military.
Prepare Yourself Emotionally
About a third of recent veterans have a mental health condition that requires treatment. Mental illness is no different from physical illness; both require treatment. You cannot think your way out of depression, anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Sometimes the daily realities of military life — the routine, the camaraderie and the familiar roles — conceal mental health issues. Transitions to civilian life can trigger underlying mental health issues, and the coping skills you learned in the service may no longer serve you as a civilian.
Stress is not good for any mental health condition, and change is almost always stressful. Here are some strategies to emotionally prepare for the transition to civilian life:
- Review your VA mental health options so you know what services are available in your area.
- Take stock of your mental health. What are your current coping skills? How well are they working?
- Understand any mental health diagnoses you have. Read up on your condition, on which treatments work best and on common triggers for worsening symptoms.
- Consider how the transition to civilian life may affect your symptoms. For example, if you find crowds intimidating, attending school in person may require some support.
- Begin working on your mental health treatment plan as soon as possible. Therapy can work wonders, especially in conjunction with the right medication. Don’t wait for a crisis. Get the support you need now, because your therapist can serve as a vital member of your civilian transition team.
Get Credit for Your Skills
The military has taught you a lot. No matter what path you choose, it’s important to get credit for the skills you already have. Make sure you list important skills and experience on your resume. Even then, however, you may find that not all recruiters value military experience.
One of the best ways to ensure you get credit for the skills you already have is to go back to school. The VA will pay for a significant portion of your education, so overlooking this opportunity is like giving away free money and completely ignoring the chance for a brighter future.
Choose the Right School
Not all schools have a lot of experience supporting veteran students. Choose one that does. Southern Nazarene University (SNU) understands what it means to serve. We support soldiers at all stages of their journey in the military — whether you’re earning your degree on active duty or are making the transition to civilian life.
Our innovative VETS Center is fully staffed with former veterans and current soldiers’ family members — people who deeply understand the experience of transitioning to civilian life. Whether you’re exploiting your options for a future career or dealing with VA headaches, we can help. Undergraduate students can also get credit for up to a year of their experiences and skills, including military experience, via our prior learning assessment.
No matter which school you choose, be sure to ask the following questions:
- Do you offer unique services for veterans?
- How many veterans do you currently enroll?
- Do you have experience working with the VA system?
- How many veterans do you have as instructors or administrators?
SNU would love to help you turn the page to a fulfilling next chapter, as you make the military transition to civilian life. You deserve only the best, after sacrificing so much for our nation. To learn more and get help managing the financial realities of transitioning to civilian life, check out our free guide, Using Your VA Benefits for Education.