For most of us, change is often quite challenging. From July - December 2017, my family experienced a number of significant transitions. We had a baby girl, my husband retired from his GS position at Travis Air Force Base, we sold our home in California, we jumped on a plane and moved to Indiana, we lived with family for a month, we bought a home in an area that neither of us had ever lived before, and my husband started his new role as a stay-at-home daddy. The multitude of changes we faced during this six-month period brought more stress than I have felt in a very long time. However, as I prepared to write this blog and began examining what Service members deal with when they reintegrate into civilian life after retiring or separating from military service, I realized that my stress during the six months noted above was only a fraction of what they go through.
Reintegration is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as “the action or process of integrating someone back into society.” To better understand the reintegration experience of Service members, I interviewed some friends and family who have retired/separated from military service. It’s important to note that while their experiences may be generalizable for many Service members who are transitioning back into civilian life and communities, they will not be representative of all Service members and Veterans.
While there are a variety of challenges during the reintegration process, the most commonly reported ones included determining where to live, career/educational pursuits (i.e., Do I go into the workforce or go back to school? What kind of job do I want now?), and establishing new routines. One thing that most all Service members will say is that the military provides a structure to life that simply isn’t inherently found in a civilian lifestyle. One friend noted, “Going from a set schedule and working outside the home to being a stay-at-home parent and fulltime student has been challenging.” Another noted, “I wasn’t sure if I could do the same job in the same place with the same people year after year.” He indicated that the intrinsic changes associated with military service was one aspect he valued and during the reintegration process he was struggling with fears of stagnancy possible in a traditional civilian career field. Significant changes in one’s life and identity, such as those experienced during the reintegration process, can create a lot of stress for Veterans and their families.
There are a number of services and resources, both through the military and in the community, to aid newly retired or separated Veterans. However, no amount of planning can prepare Service members for all of the impending changes when they finish their military service. One individual I spoke with mentioned being surprised by “the magnitude of challenges associated with the transition.” Another person stated, “I knew it would be an adjustment after 10 years of service, but I was surprised at how difficult it was at times and how long the adjustment period lasted.” With this in mind, it is important for loved ones and behavioral health providers treating Veterans to consider providing extended support and assistance over the reintegration phase and through at least the first year after leaving the military.
One source of potential support, as well as a possible challenge, might be connecting with the VA during the reintegration period. One individual I talked with noted, “It’s been a little difficult getting set up with them [the VA], knowing where to start and what steps to complete. At my initial appointment, the staff was extremely helpful, answered questions and provided information. But I think the process of getting started with the VA could be a little more user-friendly.” On the positive side, this person indicated, “One thing I thought was great at my initial appointment was that I was asked if had adequate housing, food, and income and if I will continue to in the near future. I was asked to list reasons for living and things that bring me joy in life. I’m glad those are a routine part of each Veteran’s appointment.” Remember that within the VA healthcare system, there is significant variability in services and experiences. Also, it’s not uncommon for Veterans to settle down in areas where VA services may not be accessible on a routine basis. In these instances, they will be seeking medical and mental health care in the community, which may bring other potential challenges during the reintegration phase.
Since being with my husband, TSgt (Retired) US Air Force, I’ve noticed different community reactions when people learn he is a retired Service member. The primary reaction is that people show respect by saying “thank you for your service.” However, in one talk with a friend, she noted that “people usually focus on the fact that I am back home and won’t have to move anymore. Most people have commented how much easier it must be as a civilian.” This particular vantage point dismisses a deeper understanding of the many losses experienced by Veterans transitioning to civilian life. Overall, we civilians cannot fully understand how much the life of the Service member is altered by this shift from active duty service to civilian status. As one friend told me, “Transitioning out of the military is so much more than not having as much contact with coworkers/friends. It is an entire lifestyle change. Also, some of us might like certain aspects about the military that civilians assume we wouldn’t. For example, I didn’t mind moving every few years. I looked forward to the excitement of a new environment, people, and work tempo.” These experiences remind me how important it is to not make assumptions or generalizations about military service and individuals’ experience of the reintegration process. Simply asking Veterans to share what it’s been like transitioning out of military service and into a civilian lifestyle is imperative.
Behavioral Health Interventions
For those of us who work in the behavioral health field, I was curious as to what we could do better to treat Service members reintegrating following military service. In an interview, one person mentioned, “A social worker met with me at the end of my initial VA appointment to ensure my transition was going ok and that I didn’t need to speak with a behavioral health provider that day or in the immediate future. She was great and really empathized that this is an adjustment. I think just doing that – acknowledging that it’s a huge life change – and that’s ok that it might not be a completely smooth transition.” Also, another suggestion was that behavioral health providers can assist Veterans by, “Helping us find ways to regain some of the things we loved about military service in civilian life.”
Lastly, I asked what advice they might give to other Service members preparing for this reintegration phase. One piece of advice was, “It will be an adjustment, and perhaps a more challenging one than you anticipate. That’s perfectly ok. If you need support, talk to people who can support you. I know everyone has good intentions, but if you find yourself constantly explaining to certain people why this transition is significant, these probably aren’t the people to vent to and expect support from. As a civilian, you can still find ways to incorporate aspects of the military into your life. There are always resources to assist you with whatever you’re facing.”
As you can see from the different reactions and experiences, no two people will face the same reintegration process following military service. However, there will likely be features of change and challenges present in each person’s journey. As a community of behavioral health professionals, we need to do our part by becoming educated about Service members and Veterans, and their needs.
For Service members struggling with behavioral health concerns while also undergoing the reintegration process, consider reaching out to inTransition, a free, confidential program sponsored by the Psychological Health Center of Excellence. I used the program frequently when working with Service members who were transitioning out of military service. Through inTransition, Service members and Veterans get connected with a coach who provides assistance with establishing local mental health care. To enroll in the program, simply call 800-424-7877 or outside the US call 800-424-4685. Here is a link for more information about the inTransition program https://www.pdhealth.mil/resources/intransition
Dr. Erin Frick, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist and Military Behavioral Health Psychologist with the Center for Deployment Psychology (CDP) at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland.