Life After the Military: Transitioning from Service Member to Civilian
After being in the military, veterans face a variety of challenges reintegrating into civilian life. This article will discuss these challenges, the existence of transition stress, and resources that are available to help make the transition easier and more successful for military service members and veterans.
Challenges of Becoming a Civilian After Service
The structure and experience of military life is very different from life outside of the armed forces. More than half of all service members who are transitioning from active duty to civilian life face significant challenges that make it hard to adjust.1
Life at Home
Life in the military is highly regimented, and military veterans may struggle with getting accustomed to a life involving many new choices.2 While the military provides basic needs and direct supervision for active service members, new veterans have to adjust to providing their own food and housing, getting and maintaining housing, and not always having someone to turn to for guidance.2
Deployment means that service members are away from family and friends for long periods of time and reintegrating when returning home can be difficult. Families adjust their roles and routines while service members are deployed, and it is an adjustment for everyone when a veteran returns home.2
It may be especially difficult to reconnect with family who don’t know what combat veterans have experienced while deployed. Plus, losing the support of peers with shared experience can be very isolating.2
Adjusting to a New Work or Learning Environment
Military experience provides a wealth of skills but doesn’t always teach how those skills carry over to civilian jobs.1 Rather than accepting a job right out of the gate, 80% of military vets report searching for the perfect job.1
By not knowing how to apply military skills to civilian jobs, and waiting around for the perfect opportunity, veterans may begin to feel stressed, overwhelmed, or unprepared for the civilian workforce.
Learning how to prepare a resume, search for jobs, apply to positions, and interview can be difficult for new veterans who are accustomed to military careers.2
Veterans entering college may also have difficulties.4 Dealing with physical injuries, chronic stress, or mental health issues can make it hard to focus on classes.4 These factors, along with the inability to relate to other students who have no experience with military service or deployment, can impact the ability of veterans to connect with their peers, which is an important part of the college experience.4
Mental Health After Service
Combat exposure, trauma, and the stresses of military life can increase the risk of mental health disorders, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and substance abuse disorders (SUD).3 Separation can be another stressor, triggering symptoms of anxiety or depression, or worsening existing mental health issues.5
This can be compounded by difficulty accessing support services, such as medical or mental healthcare.2 While healthcare is provided in the military, veterans must apply for benefits and services through Veterans Affairs (VA), schedule appointments, and arrange transportation to/from appointments.2
Transition Stress: Different from PTSD
PTSD is a familiar term with a lot research and treatment options available. Transition stress is a common issue that isn’t always recognized, however.6
PTSD affects a minority of veterans, although most veterans experience transition stress, which can be misdiagnosed as PTSD and treated incorrectly.6 Transition stress incorporates all of the difficulties in separating from the military, including: 6
- Feelings of isolation.
- Loss of purpose and identity.
- Trouble finding employment.
- Strained relationships with loved ones.
While PTSD develops after exposure to trauma, transition stress relates to readjusting to civilian life without sufficient preparation or support.6
Substance use is an issue that occurs in some active-duty service members, and this behavior is not likely to stop upon separation from the military.8 As one of the most common health issues veterans face, substance use can increase during separation and make the transition to civilian life more problematic.8
Alcohol or drugs can be used to manage symptoms of other issues, including chronic pain or mental health disorders, or it can be an unhealthy coping skill to deal with isolation, loneliness, anger, or a lack of support during the stressful readjustment period.8
Veteran Transition Assistance
A transition assistance program (TAP) is offered through the Department of Defense (DoD) to help service members successfully transition to civilian life and begins more than a year before separation.10
This program provides education, training, and support for service members approaching discharge, to assist them in reaching educational and career goals, as well as learning about financial planning and VA benefits.10
Transition assistance offices can be found on most military installations within the U.S. and overseas and are divided by branch of service.11 Certain branches of the military have their own TAP, including the Marines, the Navy, the Air Force, and the Army.
There are many resources available to veterans who are looking for work after separating from the military. Some sites to check out for more information include:
- VA Careers and Employment provides information about programs, how to apply, educational and vocational counseling, and support for dependent family members and small family-owned business.
- The U.S. Department of Labor assists vets looking for employment and links potential employers to veteran applicants.
- Veterans.gov is a search engine run by the U.S. Department of Labor for veterans seeking employment.
- My Next Move is a job search engine run by the VA for veterans.
- Feds Hire Vets is a website that assists veterans with finding jobs in the Federal government.
- Hire Heroes USA helps military service members, veterans, and their spouses search for jobs and get connected to employers looking to hire them.
- Paralyzed Veterans of America provides support and information to paralyzed veterans, as well as employment assistance for all veterans.
- Recruit Military helps veterans search for jobs that work with veterans and offers a search engine where you can search for jobs by keyword or military occupational specialty (MOS).
Transition stress, mental health issues, and substance use disorders can make it difficult to focus on reintegrating into civilian life and employment. Treatment facilities can provide care and support through the difficult transition out of the military, and some cater to the specific concerns that veterans face. Receiving treatment can give you the tools needed to get a fresh start and succeed in any path you choose.
- Turner, D. (2020). Vets Facing Difficult Transition to Civilian Jobs.
- U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Common Challenges During Re-Adjustment.
- National Alliance on Mental Illness. (2020). Veterans & Active Duty.
- Elliott, M., Gonzalez, C., & Larsen, B. (2011). S. Military Veterans Transition to College: Combat, PTSD, and Alienation on Campus. Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice, 48(3), 279-296.
- Derefinko, K.J., Hallsell, T.A., Isaacs, M.B., Colvin, L.W., Salgado Garcia, F.I., & Bursac, Z. (2019). Perceived Needs of Veterans Transitioning from the Military to Civilian Life. The Journal of Behavioral Health Services and Research, 46, 384-398.
- Clark, J. (2018). For Most Vets, PTSD Isn’t the Problem, ‘Transition Stress’ Here’s What That Means.
- Mobbs, M.C., & Bonanno, G.A. (2018). Beyond war and PTSD: The crucial role of transition stress in the lives of military veterans. Clinical Psychology Review, 59, 137-144.
- Derefinko, K.J., Hallsell, T.A., Isaacs, M.B., Salgado Garcia, F.I., Colvin, L.W., Bursac, Z., … Klesges, R.C. (2018). Substance Use and Psychological Distress Before and After the Military to Civilian Transition. Military Medicine, 183, 258-265.
- Lan, C.W., Fiellin, D.A., Barry, D.T., Bryant, K.J., Gordon, A.J., Edelman, E.J., … Marshall, B.D. (2016). The Epidemiology of Substance Use Disorders in US veterans: A Systematic Review and Analysis of Assessment Methods. The American Journal of Addictions, 25(1), 7-24.
- Department of Defense Transition Assistance Program. About DoD TAP.
- Military One Source. (2020). Transition Assistance Programs and Resources.
- U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (2020). Your VA Transition Assistance Program (TAP).