The day after I separated from active duty service, I walked into a recruiter’s office. It was a completely unplanned visit that I later swore to my husband resulted from curiosity to see if there were any Reserve positions for my career field. Actually, it resulted from my initial difficulty accepting I was now “just” a civilian. Whether coming off of active-duty orders after deployment for Reservists and Guard members, retiring after hitting the 20-year mark, or simply separating after serving out a commitment, all military members will eventually transition out of their service. This transition inevitably means a shift in identity from being a part of a clearly defined community to having to develop a more individual self-definition.
Loss of rank is just one clear example of the transition. Learning how to address superiors and co-workers without necessarily using “sir/ma’am” at the beginning of each email can be a challenge for those used to a strict, formal system. Another example is facing new, ambiguous situations such as selecting a primary care provider versus having one assigned. Even deciding what to wear everyday can remind a veteran of the change that has occurred. While these are relatively minor day-to-day examples, larger changes such as finding a job and possibly having a change in available social support can have a big impact.
That’s not to say that for many the transition from active duty to veteran status is uncomfortable or undesirable. When I mention I have recently separated, I frequently hear “Congratulations!”-ironically, usually from someone currently on active-duty. These service members describe anticipating more freedom in choosing where to live, working fewer hours, or even not “having” to deploy (see Dr. Ken Furman’s Staff Voices article for a discussion of the importance of viewing deployment in a positive light). They cite fewer computer-based trainings, never-ending meetings and last-minute taskers as perceived benefits of civilian life. I must regretfully point out that these exist on the other side as well!
As Mental Health Providers, it is important to consider the potential impact of a pending or past transition to veteran status on patients we see. A patient I worked with who had recently retired was struggling to adjust to his co-workers in a civilian position, who in his opinion lacked close adherence to company policy and did not demonstrate a “sense of urgency” when completing tasks. As a result, his supervisor had expressed that he may need to leave his position. For patients in treatment who return from deployment and then soon after retire or separate, they may simultaneously have to process both past and anticipated experiences. If a provider fails to incorporate into their conceptualization a veteran’s view of his/her service as contributing to their sense of self, treatment may be inadequate.
As with any adjustment, over time the identity shift from military to civilian mindset will sink in for most people. For now, I still keep a uniform hanging in my closet as a reminder.