In war, there is nothing more definite than the line between life and death. For many who’ve seen combat and have developed their sense of self within the parameters of war, this line can become a barrier to successful reintegration or psychological recovery. It becomes the means by which a service member’s value system is defined. When they return home, every decision is weighed against the likelihood that it might bring death or save life. Even in the relatively safe confines of training, where mishaps can bring serious consequence, decisions are like a two-edged sword that can either muster success or dire straits. Even as I read these words, I realize there is no way we, as civilians, can understand the heaviness of carrying such a measure. The description seems like emotional hyperbole, yet when briefed by active duty members and veterans I know, I’m told it fits the mold for many who are now bound to their new normal by discharge or retirement.
If their sense of worth has become dependent on the stringent conditions of the military culture or the valor and grace of surviving war, then being without the structure provided by those conditions can seem like a disintegration of self. On the other hand, because service members have been trained to make decisions by using definitive guidelines while being prepared for flexibility, their transition can bring great asset to the civilian world. The mission for transitioning veterans includes shedding a now unnecessary “battle” mindset and shifting to one based on new parameters and guidelines for survival. Or perhaps that’s not it at all.
It might be helpful to encourage our veterans to shed nothing, holding fast to this “battle-mind” while, as civilians, we learn to help them apply those tenets to new situations.
With the task of transition upon them, many veterans are reliant on civilians who extend a hand of gratitude, yet that hand is void of the necessary understanding required to make the move successful. In addition to the necessities of providing for themselves and their families, veterans need support for clearing any detrimental residue of the military career. These effects include frequent separation from loved ones, loss of battle buddies, moral injury, or possibly post-trauma wounds. Each of these has effects that can be lasting if not responsibly addressed. Once separated from the military, they are often also separated from the cohesion of a unit that fed the need all humans have – a need for connection and validation.
The reinforcement that came from within this group of battle buddies could sustain an otherwise weary warrior and remind him or her of their worth. Without it, there is often a profound sense of loss – loss of self and purpose.
It becomes more valuable than ever that transitioning veterans retain the positive attributes of their development while building on the same with post-military growth. It is never surprising when a military or veteran client in my office includes disclosure about their lives prior to their service career. This includes their original trait development and how it may have affected or been affected by their military service. In these disclosures we often find the compass that directs their healing and growth toward a balanced, centered being. In helping them integrate their pre-military identity with their post-military growth, I often share with veteran clients the words of Edward Tick, author of War and the Soul, who stated, “A warrior is a servant of civilization and its future, guiding, protecting, and passing on information and wisdom”. Together we decide that the virtues of “guiding, protecting, and passing on information and wisdom” are not specific to being a combat warrior and can be expanded to a greater sense of selfhood. For many, these qualities were present prior to their military connection and can certainly be nurtured after service discharge. Reminding a veteran that their identity does not exist only within the confines of war (or training for war) is paramount to helping them find fulfilling lives after service. Equally important is the message that they need not abandon their mental Kevlar and dismantle their battle-mindset in order to join the ranks of the civilian workforce.
Reminding a veteran that their identity does not exist only within the confines of war (or training for war) is paramount to helping them find fulfilling lives after service.
As a psychotherapist, my role is to help veterans eradicate, or effectively manage, any debilitating effects of time served while helping them rejuvenate and repurpose all that is positive about their core identity. At the same time, we call on our corporate and business community to create an understanding of how the transitioning veteran can move seamlessly into the civilian workforce and continue a mission of contribution, using vocational success toward a grounded sense of presence in society as a whole. Taking proactive steps in this mission can yield benefits we should hope are deemed worthy by every community.
Want to join the mission of helping transitioning veterans? Consider the following:
PsychArmor Institute (www.psycharmor.org) – a free resource that offers training on how to effectively engage the military community. PsychArmor has an extensive library of trainings that includes helping corporations/business leaders engage our transitioning veterans, as well as trainings for veterans on how to offer valuable peer-to-peer support.
Give An Hour (www.giveanhour.org) – helping healthcare providers in the community ‘give back’ by offering free services to the military community.