A “Civilian.” This is a dreaded word for some. It is confusing and anxiety provoking for many. Everyone at some point leaves active duty service, and there is a period when the person has to rediscover who they are outside of the military. Whether it is looked forward to with excitement or dread, it is an adjustment process that takes time and is almost never what people think it will be.
Transitioning from active duty service and the anxiety involved begins up to a year prior to taking off the uniform. There are plans to be made that will have an impact on the next phase in life. There is also reflection on the past and learning to let go and move on. It is a grief process. People think they are losing something. They are. Any change in life means letting something go, even when you want the change to occur. But not many changes in life lead a person to anxiously believe that what they are losing is their entire lifestyle, who they are, and how they know themselves to be.
What I believe Service members fear most about transitioning out of the military is losing their identity and, subsequently, everything they know about themselves. But while this is a common anxiety, it isn’t true. The key to successful “transitioning,” such as it’s called, is wrapped in the realization that “You” really aren’t what is changing.
Most soon-to-be civilians I’ve talked with during the years, both professionally and personally, have this notion that once they are no longer in active military service, everything changes including themselves. I admit, I even had a spark of this notion. But here is the truth of the matter - who you are does not change. You just have to change how you reflect it. Your work role is what has changed. True, this role has dominated your life 24/7 like few other jobs can. And true, it is more than a job. It is a lifestyle. But while you are leaving the rules of the military lifestyle, the core elements are something you take with you. Honor, duty, the need to respect, the desire to serve and help others, military experiences that most in our country will never truly know, a vigilant eye, incredible aim, and want of adventure. These are some of the things that draw and keep Service members in the military, they are pieces that they will take with them, wherever they may go.
So many transitioning Service members are asking the wrong questions. Instead of “How am I going to change to be a civilian?” and “How am I going to leave all of this behind?” the real questions are “How do I WANT to be as a civilian?” and “What am I forever taking with me?”
There is no way to really know what it is like until you begin your civilian life. It is never what people think it will be like. It is both very different and exactly the same as your active duty life. This can be shocking at first. In a matter of a day, no one but you (and your doctor) gets to know how much you weigh, for example. You can join political movements, date (almost) whomever you choose, expand your wardrobe, go wild with accessorizing, grow facial hair. It is a very odd sense of personal freedom. But the structure that you feel you are leaving isn’t really left behind. Civilian workplaces tend to have the same structure, albeit less obvious and clear. Yet I find that former Service members tend to pick up on the civilian structures quickly given their experience watching for it in the military.
I think the hardest part of transition is the sudden onset of many, many choices. I recall how overwhelming it was to have to expand my wardrobe. I had no clothes to go to work in, apart from well-used uniforms that would never pass in a civilian work environment. This initial part of transition – the “expanding of the wardrobe” – is actually my favorite part to watch in others now. Even those who were the most grounded and confident senior officers have been known to whisper to me during morning meetings “Dang, how many weekends to I need to spend shopping for clothes? And it is so weird figuring out what colors I should wear!” Moving from a culture where many of the daily mundane decisions were already made to one where almost none are forthcoming is a journey. It can be a fun one though. You get to learn different ways you want to express yourself. This isn’t a “new” part of you, just a new opportunity. This part of you was laying dormant, until circumstances allowed it to reintroduce itself.
Many former military stay working and living around the military. I did this, and personally found it to make my transition more difficult and easier at the same time. On the easy side, there is comfort knowing that people around you have had similar experiences. There is comfort in being able to say adios to the many rules of active duty life while still being around it every day. I found it harder to let go of my role and duties as an officer and “learn my new lane” as a civilian. I remember seeing an officer huddle, knowing something was up, but also recalling that it was no longer my business, “not my lane”, and having to keep walking. I believe I felt more of the loss of letting go of my previous role being exposed to it so frequently. But I also think it helped as I am repeatedly exposed to what I DON’T miss. It was like a switch flipped in my brain where one moment I was lamenting that “I no longer get to be so involved” to thinking “Wait a minute….. I no longer HAVE to be so involved.” I admit, a grin spread on my face in that moment. I started to realize that I get to be as involved as I would like instead of what I have to be.
I often find myself telling transitioning Service members “You are about to join the bigger club.” They are not “leaving the military.” That brother/sisterhood never leaves unless you choose to cut it off completely. Instead, they are joining the club of the retirees/former military. Believe me, there are many more of us than there are on active duty! It is a unique club with its own wisdom and culture. A group of people who have been through transition, know the challenges, and have learned that they aren’t that different at their core now than they were back then. They have been through the process of discovering different ways they want to reflect who they are, both in work and leisure. But they share the same sense of what it is like to serve others and everything that goes with it.
So, to my transitioning Service members, let me be the first to welcome you to the start of the next journey. It will be strange, time-consuming, and full of sometimes difficult reflection on what has been. However, it will also be an exciting time where you rediscover new ways to reflect the core self you will always be.
Dr. Debra Nofziger, Psy.D., is a Military Internship Behavioral Health Psychologist with the Center for Deployment Psychology (CDP) at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland. She currently hold the CDP position at Brook ARmy Meical Center in San Antonio, Texas.