Military-to-Civilian Transition

Military-to-Civilian Transition. Photo of person in civilian attire standing next to military boots, bag, and flag.
Photo by Benjamin Faust on Unsplash

Each year, roughly 250,000 military service members transition back into the civilian world.

In 2018, I went through my own transition out of the Marine Corps. I personally don’t know an individual who didn’t experience a range of difficulties in trying to readjust to civilian life.

If you’ve never experienced it, then it would be difficult to understand.

It’s not easy. It’s scary, stressful, and anxiety-inducing.

Veterans face a wide range of complex struggles as they attempt to reintegrate themselves back into society. There are a variety of programs and services that are meant to assist the service member or veteran.

How effective are they? What can be done differently?

Veterans most commonly find difficulty:

  • Relating to civilians who don’t know or understand the military experience.
  • Reconnecting with family, adjusting to changes, and reestablishing a role.
  • Joining or creating a social community.
  • Entering the civilian workforce, applying for jobs, interviewing, creating a resume, and translating military skills in terms civilians understand.
  • Returning to a job (National Guard or Reserve), having to catch up, being put into a new position, adjusting to workplace culture, and some also experience worry and fear about possible job loss.
  • Creating his or her own structure in a chaotic and uncertain (civilian) environment.
  • Adjusting to providing their own necessities (food, clothing, housing, etc.) and being overwhelmed with choices in civilian life that are not at all present in the military.
  • Adjusting to a new pace, a workplace that is highly competitive instead of functioning on collaborative camaraderie, work hours that are set instead of continuing until the mission is complete, and becoming familiar socially with civilian workplace interactions, communications, and lingo.
  • Learning to get services established that were previously fully provided to them by the military (doctor, dentist, life insurance, etc.) and trying to navigate benefits and services offered through the VA, and figuring out all the documentation and paperwork on their own.

Military Transitional Stress

Military transition stress is nothing to take lightly.

Image by BedexpStock from Pixabay

Of course, there has always been a focus on PTSD, other mental health problems, and substance use disorders among veterans.

But the stress experienced throughout the transition phase is one of the most universal challenges active duty service members and veterans have to endure. It is infrequently mentioned and is most often underplayed and misunderstood.

Transition stress can overlap with, lead to the development of, and/or worsen mental health issues, substance use disorders, behavioral difficulties, etc. It is a highly taboo topic, so it makes sense as to why it is just known among veterans and hidden from the general population.

Mental health, in general, is a barrier veterans have to face and deal with in rejoining society.

Americans tend to have the wrong mindsets and views of military veterans. For example, many still believe that individuals returning with PTSD are dangerous, or that the majority of vets are “mentally ill.” Stigmas like this also make it difficult for vets to find employment.

Adding the topic of military transitional stress on top of what is already highly stigmatized would only create more hardships and barriers for veterans. But while these stressors tend to only last for a short while, if left unmanaged and unaddressed, then they can grow and severely worsen.

Personal Experience with Transitional Stress

I originally had enlisted to gain a sense of pride I had never felt before in myself. To push me and to prove that I was useful in some way. All those things I earned and much more for myself, but then it came my time to leave.

It felt like I was going to go back to being nothing again. It felt like I had finally found a place in the world where I was meant to be. Sure, the experience was filled with the good, the bad, and the horrible. But overall, it was a life-changing experience that I will never regret.

For a long time, and to be honest, even now, I get into these nostalgic moods and talk about that time with my husband and others I served with. At first, I would stress hard over what I was supposed to do or go next.

My husband and I were discussing this topic the other night and both noted the same thing from our experiences. We both went through our transitions with something not all veterans have, a familiar and supportive environment, and someone/others there who truly understood us.

Remaining near the base, we were able to see friends who were still in. We had another Marine veteran who lived with us, others in apartments beside us, and another who lived right across the street.

I wasn’t in anymore. Life was completely different. But there still was something extremely familiar there. The community I had just made my official exit from was still very much present.

We had a support network, a family, and each other, and I am grateful we were able to be there for one another.

And yes, sure, the VA benefits are great and very helpful, but nothing was touching at the root quite like that was.

TAP is not enough

Each individual branch has its own version of transition programs. Some even seem to be more successful than others. Yet veterans, especially younger veterans, are finding this process more and more challenging.

A survey from late 2019 showed that nearly half of post-9/11 veterans (47%) said it was difficult, compared to 21% of pre-9/11 veterans.

In 2019, former President Donald Trump notably altered the DoD’s Transition Assistance Program. However, these new TAP requirements aren’t changing anything, veterans are continuing to struggle.

All it did was add more boxes to a checklist. So it looks great and these government agencies get to say they did something significant.

However, it still fails to address any of the real problems veterans are facing today.

It’s hard to not feel as though active duty service members aren’t anything more than a piece of government property. When your time is up, either by choice or not, you are thrown out and pushed off to the wayside.

This isn’t an argument that the public doesn’t respect veterans, that is a whole other topic. What I’m discussing here is the government’s responsibility to ensure all service members and veterans are taken care of.

That very much includes the military-to-civilian transition!

The DoD and VA’s TAP

  • DoD TAP: “The Transition Assistance Program (TAP) provides information and training to ensure Service members transitioning from active-duty are prepared for their next step in life – whether pursuing additional education, finding a job in the public or private sector, or starting their own business.”
  • Capstone: The DoD TAP process includes an element called Capstone which measures whether or not a service member has met all Career Readiness Standards (CRS), verifying the member has an Individual Transition Plan (ITP) and is ready to transition.
  • CRS: “Career Readiness Standards (CRS) are a set of career preparation activities service members must complete to depart from active-duty and be considered career ready.”
  • VA TAP: “The VA portion of TAP is a one-day, in-person course called VA Benefits and Services. The course offers interactive exercises, real examples, and covers topics important to you like family support, disability compensation, education, and health care benefits.” Online courses are available for service members, veterans, family members, and caregivers.

Transitioning from military to civilian life is one of the most crucial elements of service.

The way it is viewed needs to change in the military and the process drastically needs to change. Systems of support need to be focused on in order to help service members and their families mentally, emotionally, physically, and financially as they adapt to civilian life.

The TAP fails because it is too focused on giving groups of individuals a load of information that is crammed into a very short time frame. It’s like, “wasn’t that a great experience, sorry you got so messed up, but here’s a bunch of benefits, programs, and services you can forget to look up and probably give up on because you won’t be able to figure it out by yourself.”

It’s horrible because there truly is a wide range of really great services and programs that are open to being used by veterans. It’s just the system is not set up to help veterans get there. 

TAP is extremely narrow in how it approaches the transition process.

The revisions of the TAP by the DoD and VA aren’t going to cut it anymore. It doesn’t focus on the individual who is transitioning and their needs.

This article is a great read! It really digs into the many aspects of the true reality of transitioning from the military. As it picks apart everything that is wrong with the TAP, it also gives great ideas on how to improve outcomes for transitioning service members.

“This narrow focus on employment, education, and benefits ignores the many complex and dynamic elements present in the military to civilian transition process. A central element absent from TAP’s focus is helping military members adapt to the loss of military culture, camaraderie (i.e., relationship connections), and support systems.”

Whitworth, Smet, & Anderson “Reconceptualizing the U.S. Military’s Transition Assistance Program: The Success in Transition Model”

Addressing problems impacting service members as they Prepare to transition

Unit Responsibility

Military-to-civilian readiness has been unfocused. Units and commands are unprepared and disconnected.

A problem that deserves more attention is how a service member’s unit and leadership are essentially uninvolved throughout the entire process. This places the burden and stress completely on the individual service member which leaves them especially vulnerable.

The situation that these service members are in should be looked at as the responsibility of their leadership to have a smooth military-to-civilian transition. Not just the TAP!

Food Insecurity

How are military members expected to be mentally, physically, and financially prepared to make this giant leap back into society when they are struggling to afford necessities (e.g., food)?

According to Feeding America, roughly 160,000 active duty service members are food insecure. Nearly half of Feeding America food banks are serving active duty service members and their families. A report showed that 29% of lower enlisted reported being food insecure in 2019.

Food insecurity in the military has been attributed to:

  • Low salaries for enlisted.
  • High rates of unemployment among military spouses.
  • High costs of living near military bases.
  • High costs of childcare.

Having to face being food insecure is extremely stressful.

It places the service member, their spouse, and children at high risk of a variety of negative health outcomes.

Consequences of food insecurity include the following:

  • Diabetes
  • High Blood Pressure
  • Obesity
  • Asthma
  • Anemia
  • Developmental Problems
  • Cognitive Problems
  • Mental Health Disorders
  • Social Issues
  • Behavioral Problems

Post 9/11 veterans are especially vulnerable.

“The number of food-insecure Veterans is also high among those who served in the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. These Veterans are almost twice as likely to be food insecure compared to the general population.”

Most Americans seem shocked by this problem, somehow it’s been hidden in plain sight for years. Meanwhile, those in the upper echelons just continue to pretend they don’t know it exists.

Military culture also acts as a barrier.

It’s a norm to hide struggles like this due to it being viewed as the service members’ fault somehow.

US military men and women, predominantly the lower enlisted, with families and children are hungry. They have difficulty paying bills and keeping the lights on.

COVID-19 has both exposed and exacerbated this crisis.

This has also made the public at least aware of these issues and that it extends across all branches.

Substance Use & Military Life

Military members transitioning to civilian life are placed at a higher risk of substance use.

Research has found that 46% of veterans report alcohol or substance abuse during active duty and 42% reported alcohol or drug use after transitioning to civilian life.”

Causes of substance use among active-duty members and veterans:

  • Stress
  • Military Culture
  • Deployments
  • Trauma (combat exposure, military sexual trauma, etc.)
  • Chronic Pain
  • Physical Injuries
  • Mental Health Disorder(s)

Substance use is already a major problem among active-duty service members, with a lot of barriers to treatment. It is the responsibility of the DoD to improve the culture of military life to better address this issue long before the member begins their transition.

More than one in 10 Veterans who seek care at the U.S. Veteran’s Administration meet the criteria to be diagnosed with a substance use disorder—slightly higher than the rate among the general population.”

“The more stress a service member experiences while they transition from active duty to civilian life, the more likely they are to use alcohol or other substances.”

Emmalynn Pepper Clemmensen, M.S., LPCC, CRC “Challenges of Transitioning from Active Duty to Civilian Life

It’s Time For a new outlook!

Invest in the military-to-civilian transition process

We invest in the recruiting, training, developing, and retaining of military service members. It’s time to invest the time, energy, and money into the military-to-civilian transition process.

It is the responsibility of the DoD to ensure service members are fully prepared to make that transition. Failing miserably for this long now should be justification enough to force change to happen.

If Congress can take money away to force the Pentagon to try to pass a clean audit, then why hasn’t there been more done on demanding and pushing for progress and support for those who have served this country? Or tackling any of the numerous issues that impact service members who are transitioning (low salaries, food insecurity, substance use, etc.).

Perhaps, also, the DoD should be required to provide protection and care for individuals for their entire MSO (military service obligation).

train leadership to aid in the Military-To-Civilian Transition process

It is also the responsibility of the service member’s unit and command to care for the well-being of the service member. Leadership needs to become involved overall.

There needs to be increased focus on training leaders to help ensure a smooth transition while providing support and lowering stressors throughout the military side of the transition process.

Sharing again from my personal experience, I had one leader who continued to stay in contact and reach out. I can honestly say that saved me in one of my darkest moments. It helped to give me that push I needed to keep going. That is part of military culture that should be more of a norm to extend past service.

Start Transition Mindset Early On

It is my view that active duty service members should be putting themselves into the mindset that they are transitioning earlier on. This can include the following:

  • Being out of uniform/duty for the last few months of active duty service.
  • Step away from role/job and become fully focused on their new mission, a successful transition.

TAP also could be a much larger program!

Instead of only going over benefits, education, and “how to dress for the job you want” it could actually be covering all of the complex elements of transitioning:

  • Loss of military culture
  • Loss of community
  • Loss of support systems
  • Loss of identity
  • Loss of purpose
  • Unhealthy coping mechanisms
  • Impacts of physical/psychological wounds
  • Impacts of developing as a young adult in the military

Build A Community for Veterans to Live Together

What I am proposing here is housing communities in each state. Each with a familiar environment and sense of community to help new veterans ease back into society. This would include housing that in ways socially resembles military housing and barracks.

The housing could be available for any newly transitioned veteran, including veterans with spouses and children. The DoD, VA, and other various government and non-profit agencies could work together within these communities and areas to:

  • More efficiently, check up on veterans physically and mentally.
  • Provide further education on services and resources available.
  • Assist with job searching, resume writing, and skill translation.
  • Adjustments to civilian life (creating structure, schedules, routines, etc.), cultural differences, and social connections.

This would be a massive and extremely expensive project to undertake, but if the Pentagon could spend in total over $14 trillion on the war in Afghanistan, then we have proven this is most certainly feasible. Making veterans has never been an issue, whether our country is willing to take care of them has remained the overarching problem.

One thought on “Military-to-Civilian Transition

  1. Gosh, honey.. I have mad respect for our military. Admittingly, I’m especially fond of our Marines. The choices to fight for a country, to face uncertain timing of potential death, and to attempt to return to civilian living is incomprehensive. Thank you so much for everything you’ve been through. Thank you for serving and sharing your journey.

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