My husband, an active duty Service member in the Navy, passed his 20-year mark earlier this year, which has led to multiple discussions in our household about potential next steps. So perhaps not surprisingly, when recently reading the 2016 Blue Star Families’ annual report, I was drawn to the content on the transition from military to civilian life.
The Blue Star Families’ (BSF) annual Military Family Lifestyle Survey examines the experiences and challenges encountered by military connected families. The 2016 BSF Survey was the 7th iteration and was conducted in conjunction with the Institute for Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University. Respondents included over 8,300 Service members, Veterans, and military family members. The Comprehensive Report was released this past spring.
One of my colleagues, Dr. Lisa French, wrote a blog post in 2014 about transitioning from military service to civilian life; she noted that this transition is a major life change. Current research indicates that while some Veterans make this transition seamlessly, many struggle with various aspects of the transition experience. This transition has been noted as particularly challenging for post-9/11 Veterans. According to a 2014 Los Angeles County Veterans Study, over two-thirds of today’s Veterans report difficulties “adjusting to civilian life” (Castro, et al., 2014). In general, difficulties are most acute during the first year following separation from the military.
According to the 2016 BSF Comprehensive Report, the top three transition challenges for post-9/11 Veterans were:
One of challenges most commonly reported by Veterans, particularly during their first year out of the military, is feeling as if they don’t “belong” in civilian society. Ahern et al. (2015) conducted interviews with 24 Veterans as part of a qualitative investigation of the nature of post-9/11 Veterans’ transition to civilian life. Three overarching themes emerged from their research. First, they noted that the military is often experienced as a family that both takes care of Service members and provides structure. Relatedly, they also found that Veterans often experience feelings of disconnection from people at home and a loss of purpose when returning to civilian life. The third theme to emerge was that social support from Veterans who have successfully navigated the transition experience helps to mitigate transition difficulties.
Finding employment is a large part of the transition from military to civilian life, and it has been noted as one of the biggest challenges of this process. The average length of unemployment following separation from the military has increased over the last decade. The 2016 BSF Survey revealed that close to half of both pre- and post-9/11 Veterans (43% and 45%, respectively), as well as veteran spouses (60%), labeled their employment transition as either “difficult” or “very difficult.” One common struggle Veterans face is translating military skills to the civilian workplace. Recent research (Greer, 2017) has also shown that female Veterans experience higher unemployment rates than their male counterparts, which is particularly true among OIF/OEF veterans. In addition to the aforementioned issues, behavioral health concerns (such as depression, stress, and suicidal thoughts) can also be post-transition challenges for Veterans. Those who experience the transition from military to civilian life as difficult often also experience corresponding behavioral health problems. On the 2016 BSF Survey, of those who reported difficulty with their transition, 43% reported moderately severe to severe symptoms of depression (compared to only 14% of those who reported a smooth transition). Similarly, those Veterans who struggled with the transition were more likely to indicate often feeling stressed (41% vs. 11%) and had a greater likelihood of having considered suicide during their time in the military (23% vs. 10%).
The 2016 BSF Survey is one of a number of recent studies and reports providing insight into the experiences of post-9/11 Veterans as they transition from military to civilian life. As large numbers of Veterans continue to make the transition from military service to civilian communities, this will remain an area of opportunity for ongoing research.
Blue Star Families. (2016). 2016 annual military family lifestyle survey: Comprehensive report. Retrieved from https://bluestarfam.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/ComprehensiveReport-33.pdf
Ahern, J., Worthen, M., Masters, J., Lippman, S.A., Ozer, J., &Moos, R. (2015). The challenges of Afghanistan and Iraq veterans’ transition from military to civilian life and approaches to reconnection. PLoS ONE, 10(7). Retrieved from http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0128599
Castro, C.A., Kintzle, S., & Hassan, A. (2014). The state of the American veteran: A Los Angeles county veterans study. USC Social Work Center for Innovation and Research on Veterans and Military Families. Retrieved from http://cir.usc.edu/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/USC010_CIRLAVetReport_FPpgs.pdf
Greer, TW. (2017). Career development for women veterans: Facilitating successful transitions from military service to civilian employment. Advances in Developing Human Resources, 19(1), 54-65.