My Marine Corps squadron came back from Afghanistan shortly after Thanksgiving 2012. I had spent the last few years as part of the enlisted aircrew on UH-1Y attack helicopters, which meant working on aircraft and operating the machine guns mounted on them. I knew my purpose for enlisting had finally been fulfilled, as joining our nation’s ongoing war against terrorism seemed a sacred duty to me from the day I watched the Twin Towers fall.
I thought I was ready for whatever came next in life. I thought I was prepared to look toward the great unknown of the civilian world. Needless to say, I had a very arrogant approach to the next 10 months during demob, before I actually got out. And like most Veterans, I had a transition full of unnecessary stumbling blocks as a result.
Shock and Awe
We had to maintain a relatively high operational tempo after my unit returned. This meant training up new members of our squadron and ensuring that all the new aircrew got enough flight hours to be trusted without instructor supervision.
Because of the rigorous demands of these final military duties, it was difficult to find the time and energy to properly prepare myself for a successful transition. Sure, I went to the mandatory transition classes, but those felt like drinking from a fire hose. Retaining it all was difficult, and discerning what was important and relatable to our particular post-military dreams was hard.
But these career worries just scratched the surface of my problems. At the time I got out, my personal life was a mess, and my mental health was in poor shape at best. Our squadron had dealt with the loss of several Marines, we had recently returned from a very active combat deployment, and, just like half of all married Marines today, I had recently gotten divorced.
While you’re in the military, you don’t have much time (or need or interest) to sit down and actually address your personal problems. Yet when you’re holding a freshly printed DD 214 in your hand, time is all you seem to have.
My active duty service time officially ended in October 2013. I drove off Camp Pendleton in Southern California on my last day, ecstatically smiling, blaring music from my car. I was a free man with no idea what came next.
I ended up in San Diego in the spring of 2014. I attended community college to knock out prerequisite classes before transferring to a four-year university to pursue a business degree. While I was grateful for the support of my girlfriend Kelly (also a Marine) during this period, it was at this point that I realized I needed more professional help and guidance. I simply wasn’t prepared to start a new life and assume a new civilian identity. I didn’t a have a plan.
My experience is that, while you’re in the military, you take for granted that a schedule exists — written by someone else — to ensure that you’re completing purposeful tasks each day. When you exit, you have to rediscover a purpose to keep yourself moving forward. You have to stay accountable — not to a unit full of friends who will call you out on your stupidity and whose lives depend on you in the field, but just to your own self. You have to discover who you are again, outside the identity you cultivated as a member of the armed forces.
These tasks can be much more daunting than they sound. During your final year on active duty, you may be better off if you start deciding which habits are important to you. Then, be sure to maintain those habits after you leave the military. Don’t neglect the daily routines that helped bring you success during your time in service. The habits of disciplined work hours, physical activity, and maintaining high standards are easily transferable to any goal you set your mind to once you get out.
Luckily, the Post-9/11 GI Bill was an unexpected saving grace for me. The classes I attended — and the income I received from it — provided me with some much-needed structure and financial breathing room to get my priorities straight. Without a real plan and nothing internal driving me anymore, having my bills paid and going to class created at least a hint of order, even if not of my own design. This underutilized military benefit helped me to start moving in a positive direction professionally, which in turn gave me the time to focus on rebuilding myself personally.
Facing Inner Battles
Like many combat Veterans, I was having a hard time with insomnia, anxiety, anger, and survivor’s guilt from the memories I had repressed during my enlistment. I also had serious unresolved pain in my back, knees, and right shoulder. After talking to a few other Marines I respected, I decided to reach out to the VA for support.
I was referred to an official Veteran advocate organization, my local VFW, which assigned someone to represent me for a medical claim so I could get the mental and physical support I needed. I had been intimidated by the process before, and I had heard so many nightmare stories that I didn’t want to even start. I was worried that the VA would lose my paperwork, take months to see me, or even deny my benefits altogether. I was also used to choosing self-administered care over going to Medical during my enlistment and risk depleting its precious resources for those who seemed to need it more. But with someone who had been through the VA process dozens of times before by my side, I felt much more confident.
Today, I’m thankful that those initial negative thoughts didn’t override my desire to improve. It took a few months, but I ended up getting the help I needed. This was all because I simply decided to stop listening to my self-destructive negativity and took action.
During this period, it became apparent why people re-enlist after they get out: They miss their military family, and they realize that the military culture simply doesn’t exist in the civilian world. Many of us — myself included — let ourselves get pulled into isolation as a result. In my opinion, this isolation is the most dangerous aspect of the Veteran transition. It’s where people fall into depression, self-pity, hopelessness, and just a general purposeless existence.
The solution to avoiding this isolation can be as simple as reaching out to your friends and family, even if it feels strange at first. Knowing that you’re not alone in this world — that you’re neither the first nor last person to feel these things — can also make the mental obstacles we face much easier to conquer. Remember: You didn’t fight your battles alone while you were in the military. Don’t try to do it when you’re out.
Returning to Human
Discovering who you are and what drives you — after suddenly separating from the only life you knew for the last several years (if not longer) — is no easy task.
For me, this discovery started to take place only after I got the support I needed. These resources gave me the chance to look both inward and outward, toward the future. Who was I now (not 12 months ago)? What did I value? Who did I want to become?
I think these are all very common questions we face as human beings. But they are especially poignant when you’re forced to assume an entirely new persona than the warrior you once were.
The path I took to find these answers involved a lot of reading, self-reflection, and identifying the people I admired and the traits or habits that made them great. From people as varied as the great Stoic Marcus Aurelius and the Holocaust survivor (turned psychologist) Viktor Frankl, I learned to find meaning in life and purpose in suffering. From the daily examples set by fallen Marines in my unit like Corey Little and Eric Seaman, I reflected on what it means to be kind, optimistic, and determined.
But it was also the way music spoke to me, the way the artists expressed themselves honestly and fearlessly that helped me find my own voice. And it was the examples of courage and sheer will displayed by people like Elon Musk that inspired me during this time, as he dragged humanity kicking and screaming into the future. I came to realize that there is no one-size-fits-all solution in the transitioning process, but there are plenty of people and traits worth emulating to ease the journey.
Committing to Forward Motion
With all the changes that new Veterans experience, it can be easy to grow paralyzed with indecision — a sort of “analysis paralysis.” But this resistance to progress must be fought through. My experience is that it doesn’t really matter what direction you’re making progress toward, as long as you stay in motion. My recommendation is to identify what type of person you are and what circumstances let you thrive both personally and professionally. Then, make a plan to get there.
For me personally, I found that helping others through their own hard times gave me incredible energy. I found that learning new concepts and teaching them to others was surprisingly empowering. Equally important, I found that spending time with my dogs (away from people) renewed my spirit, and that my motivation to fight global injustice in Afghanistan could be repurposed to right everyday wrongs as a civilian.
Whatever invokes a strong internal reaction in you as a unique individual is something you can start to take note of as a critical element to your future happiness and success. Rather than ignore those traits within yourself, start making them work for you instead.
Looking internally for broad answers first can help. Do you love structure, clearly defined rules to clearly defined games, and the feeling of predictability? Then you will probably do well working in environments and for companies that provide those elements for you. Does the thought of taking orders again crush your soul? Then you might (like me) do better on a more entrepreneurial or nontraditional path, for example, in business.
As you consider your future life, think back on the times when you experienced a sense of “flow” at work, during a hobby, or in your personal life. What were you doing? What kinds of actions were you taking and skills were you using? I personally found leveraging various people’s natural strengths to achieve a common goal highly addicting, so I looked for those opportunities in a career. Asking yourself these questions will help you define the person you want to become and the kind of life you want to live.
For me, these reflective, intentional steps made all the difference in my transition out of the Marines. I started as someone who knew nothing about myself — other than the fact that I was lost, aggressive, and angry. Only gradually did I transform into someone I could be proud of today. I fought the nightmares, the horrible memories, the broken relationships, and the lack of direction until I had beaten them into submission.
The transition from military to civilian life can be done successfully. But you have to know what you want from life, and you have to be willing to work hard to get it. The only way you do that is by listening to the voice inside, while committing to yourself and those around you that you will make your biggest dreams into your reality.