“If you loved being in the Army so much, then why did you get out?” Change the branch of service as necessary, but that’s a question I hear asked in some variation by the friends and family of Veterans on a regular basis. The truth is this is a very valid question, with an extremely nuanced answer. And it’s extremely relevant in today’s environment of military drawdown. Here are some thoughts, based on my experience and observations from working with Veterans.
In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll go ahead and say right now that there are going to be some pretty sweeping generalizations in this article. The U.S. military is an extremely diverse organization, full of individuals that all have a unique perspective on life, and each person makes decisions based on their own set of circumstances.
However, I believe there are some themes that encompass the critical mass that are useful to observe as a whole, understanding there are valid counter-examples for each.
So, we’re going to explore this topic in two parts – why Veterans leave the military, and what causes them to miss that period in their life so much (hindsight). Then I’ll get to what they can do about it (moving on).
Everyone leaves the military eventually; these are some of the major reasons I have observed and experienced.
1) Being in the military is a tough life, especially for families. With deployments, constant training, an uncertain work schedule, and a general sense of unpredictability, being in the military is not everyone’s lifelong cup of tea. Service members often join after high school or college as a single person with few responsibilities, looking for adventure and challenge. Add a few years, maybe a spouse and perhaps children (or the hope of one), and it can go from busy, to nearly impossible to endure.
2) The grass is always greener. Since most join the military before having any other full-time job, they have little basis of comparison. They see a relentless barrage containing solely the positive aspects of their civilian counterparts lives via social media, they can be misled to the conclusion that civilian life is mostly frat parties, cupcakes, and free money.
3) The military was always a means to an end. Some (maybe most) have a generally positive experience in the military but don’t see it as a permanent career for themselves. Or they view it as a stepping-stone to help pay for school, gain life experience, leave a difficult situation, etc., things that might have been challenging for them to attain otherwise.
So, if they left on their own accord, why do they miss it so much? If there’s one certainty in life, it’s that most Veterans love to talk about their time in the military and tell war stories. And they generally do it with a sense of longing or nostalgia. So, if they loved being in the military so much, why’d they leave? Why do some never fully transition? Here are two thoughts:
4) Veterans look back at their time in the military with rose-colored glasses. Similar to raising children, people tend to remember the positive and discard the negative over time. The same way that people fondly remember a baby’s first word or steps, but conveniently forget the crying, tantrums, lack of sleep, etc. Ask any Veteran to describe their time in the military, and they’ll tell you about the cool places they got to visit, the gear they got to use, this one time when “no kidding, there we were…” etc. – and conveniently forgetting the “hurry up and wait,” constant need to stand in lines for paperwork, other people looking through your belongings under the auspice of “health and welfare,” to name a few unpleasant parts of the military culture.
5) They don’t know what they’ve got, until it’s gone. Being part of something larger than themselves, the gut-wrenching sense of team that one develops when deployed, the massive shots of adrenaline from being in combat, the sense of purpose in one’s life – these are all very difficult to replicate in the civilian world. And they are things that Veterans can miss dearly once they realize how much they valued that aspect of service.
This is where hindsight comes in. It takes time for some Veterans to realize what is now missing in their lives. The excitement of something new (starting college for the first time, a new job, or moving back home) can wear off pretty quickly, and the reality of life can set in. Bills, health care, employment challenges, etc. – these are things that virtually all separated Veterans have to deal with, and they can be magnified when a person is already struggling to cope during their transition. And it grows over time.
Unfortunately, this can lead to a difficult reintegration after leaving the military. The truth is, we all know someone like this…a Veteran who is just not doing as well as they should. Not necessarily clinically depressed, or addicted to drugs/alcohol, or suicidal (these folks exist, but that’s a topic for another article), but just not doing well because they didn’t fully reintegrate and haven’t found their place in society.
So, what can be done about this? How can Vets move on? Here are 2 quick potential solutions.
Staying in shape. Physical fitness is a great way to deal with this transition – it’s proven to be good for mental and physical healing, stress reduction, and overall health – all things that aid in a balanced life and can help the transition. It’s also a wonderful way to make new friends and do something fun and team-based. And finally, sweating with friends a few times a week can provide a sense of familiarity, as this is likely something that Veterans did when they were in the military. Know some Veterans (or yourself) who could benefit from some exercise with other Vets and supportive members of the community? Check out your local chapter of Team Red, White, and Blue – a great Veteran Service Organization (full disclosure, I work there – but it’s still great)!
Community Service. Another way that Veterans can fill some of the void that might exist when they’ve no longer got a mission larger than themselves is community service or volunteerism. These are both great ways that one can fill that need for purpose while doing something good for the community. Also, it’s a chance for Vets to show fellow citizens that Veterans are leaders, both at home and in the military!
Coaching youth sports, serving on a local school board, leading at a church – these are all tremendous ways to serve, and can provide a great sense of fulfillment for Veterans, just like their time in uniform. Or they could volunteer with an organization like Team Rubicon – another great non-profit that uses Veterans to do disaster relief, or The Mission Continues – an organization that focuses on Veterans and giving back through community service.
This isn’t rocket science and I won’t claim to have been the first to offer these as solutions, but time and again I have seen results with either, and especially both of these approaches. The best part is the virtuous cycle they can both start – helping themselves leads to increased capacity, which usually leads to increased effort to get others to do the same. Whatever path someone chooses, the key to success is action. Watch what great things happen when a Vet picks one (or both), and see how that bleeds into positivity in the community!
JJ Pinter is an Army Veteran and the Director of Operations for Team Red, White, and Blue. In his spare time, he practices both yoga and functional fitness, and enjoys coaching youth sports.
This article first appeared in The Havok Journal on March 4, 2015.