Why Leaving the Military is So Hard and 4 Rules to Get It Right
Connection. That is the reason why leaving the military is so hard. It all stems from our biological and psychological need for belonging. How powerful is our need for connection? Brene Brown, renowned author, social worker, and researcher, says "connection is why we're here, it's what gives purpose and meaning to our lives, and belonging is in our DNA. And so 'tribe' and 'belonging' are irreducible needs, like love." The military gives us a sense of purpose, but it also gives us the comfort and security of shared empathy that comes from connection.
Our impulse for connection is so strong that the fear of disconnection can be overwhelming. Scientists have discovered that isolation and social rejection trigger the same neural pathways in the brain that recognize pain. In other words, disconnection hurts. Many service members would rather return to combat than return to society. At least in a military formation, service members know where they stand. Isolation leads to despair, and the consequences could be catastrophic.
Maybe the anxiety and sense of urgency to find a new job has more to do with our emotional need for a sense of belonging than it does with our desire to secure a steady paycheck. The civil-military cultural gap is so wide that returning to the civilian world is like traveling to a foreign country. People don't speak the same language. The traditions and social structure are different. We need assurance that we belong somewhere once we don't belong to the military anymore.
Unfortunately, this process is inevitable. Everyone who wears the uniform from the newest private to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff will someday transition from the military. So, how do you make this process easier on you and your family? Here are 4 Rules to help you get it right:
Rule 1: Leave Your Garbage at the Front Gate
I assumed that putting some space between myself and the military would alleviate any latent issues surrounding my mental, emotional, and spiritual wellness. I was wrong. Combat changes you. If you haven't noticed these changes when you returned from deployment, I can guarantee you will recognize them when you return to society. Don't assume that you can ignore any anxiety, sleep related problems, or moral injury. Know that these reactions are perfectly normal consequences of frequent and repeated exposure to highly stressful and traumatic situations.You've suffered long enough. Don't allow these conditions to affect your life (or that of your family) beyond the military.
Because the current program of transition doesn't have a mechanism to optimize whole health before you leave the military, this is something you are going to have to do for yourself. The physical exam, dental appointments, and mental health assessment for disability benefits are not enough. The military culture surrounds you with people of like mind, body, and spirit. When you leave the familiarity and comfort of that insulated culture, all of the filth that you carry with you will decay and metastasize. There is a reason why social issues like substance abuse, divorce, and suicide plague the veteran community. The trash you carry with you into the civilian world doesn't go away. It rots. Other people would prefer to stay away from your garbage, so make it a point to leave it at the gate when you leave.
Focus on optimizing your physical, mental, spiritual, and emotional wellness. You may not have to pass a fitness test anymore, but you still need a strategy to maintain your health and fitness. As you consider your mental wellness, I would strongly recommend mindfulness. Neurologists have discovered that meditation can actually rewire your brain and heal the consequences of prolonged exposure to stress. As you consider your challenge to climb the corporate ladder, bear in mind that many CEO's meditate regularly. Look into the potential benefits of reputable retreat programs that improve your spiritual wellness. Finally, emotional wellness provides greater resilience through the transition process. Reconnect with those activities that bring you a sense of joy and personal fulfillment. Ensure that the healthiest version of you reintegrates back into society.
Rule 2: Get Comfortable Being In Your Own Skin
You may have gotten so used to being a soldier, sailor, airman, or marine that you don't know how to be anything else. Let's be honest with ourselves for a moment: Much of our trepidation about leaving the military stems from the fear that we won't know who we are once we remove the uniform. The uniform gave us a sense of purpose. It validated our sense of self-worth. We did the hard work to make ourselves worthy of belonging to something greater than ourselves, and now, we are terrified of becoming ordinary.
You won't have the protection of digital camouflage or body armor anymore. When you disconnect from the military, it is perfectly natural to feel somewhat exposed - even naked - out in society. Fear is a perfectly normal initial reaction to the prospect of immersing yourself into an unfamiliar culture with people you may not have much in common with. The one thing you can control is your self-awareness and how you decide to show up. Know your WHO and understand your WHY. Leave the uniform hanging in the closet and invest some time and energy getting to know the real you.
If you don't feel comfortable with your own identity, how will anyone else be comfortable enough to trust and connect with you in a meaningful way?
Know your values. Know your purpose. The military is not your end state. It is just one more experience along your journey to grow into the man or woman you were meant to be. Better things await you in life beyond the military. Be authentic because you are worth it. The greatest gift you have to offer society is yourself. Step into vulnerability with confidence and intention. Your journey as an ordinary hero is just beginning.
Rule 3: Build Your Bench with Great Teammates
Reintegration is hard, but nobody said you had to do it alone. Surround yourself with advocates who have your best interests in mind. Professional coaches can help you uncover your unique purpose, reveal your passion, and optimize your potential. Mentors through programs like American Corporate Partners can help you navigate a new profession or career path. Fellowship organizations like Team RWB, Team Rubicon, or The Mission Continues provide social engagement and networking opportunities with veterans in your local community. These advocates want to connect with you during the reintegration process to help you discover an empowered life after the military.
As veterans, we gravitate toward other veterans. That is perfectly natural, but don't dismiss the perspective of non-veterans. Remember, you are stepping back into their world. We can learn from people who never served in the military. Many non-veterans might have just what you are looking for in the civilian world - connection, a sense of purpose, and professional fulfillment. Think of it this way: When you arrived at your first duty station, you sought the advice and counsel of high performing colleagues and leaders in the unit. You watched them. You listened to what they had to say. You learned about what to do and what not to do in order to succeed. Why not follow that same methodology as you look to transition back into society? The perspective of non-veterans may prove to be extremely valuable.
Finally, be mindful of everyone on your team. You aren't the only one going through transition. Your family is struggling with many of the same transition issues that you are. Be strong at the core, and build your bench with teammates who share your interests. Why face the most difficult period of your life alone when you can face it with a strong team of allies?
Rule 4: Let It Go
For me, this was the hardest rule to follow. When I retired from active duty, I relocated to a non-military community with my family. The school year had already started. Unlike our previous experiences, many of my children's classmates had parents who never served in the military. As Aidan and Everett started to share their story and make new friends, the most common question they were asked was, "How many people did your dad kill?" I only know that my boys were asked this question because they came home and asked me the same question. No veteran likes to hear that question, but hearing it come from your children is particularly distasteful.
Ice-breakers among the adults didn't always fare much better. I know of too many veterans who - upon meeting their neighbors for the first time - were asked, "How are you handling the PTSD?" It is easy to cynically reword that initial question this way: "I'm worried that you are broken. I want to ensure that my family and I don't have anything to worry about in our neighborhood." These are real interactions with people unfamiliar with the military experience. As you read them, you may have jumped to the same conclusions or had the same reaction that I did. I was defensive. I felt unwelcome. I wasn't just angry, I was downright pissed off. Unfortunately, these judgments didn't help make connections with others in my community. They only pushed people away.
I had to let go of the judgment. Kids will be kids, and grown-ups only behaved this way because they didn't know any better. Ignorance is a powerful adversary to social acceptance for any minority - veterans included. The choice before us is to build bridges or walls. If we ever hope to bridge the cultural gap between the military and society, we need to demonstrate a combination of courage, patience, and understanding. If we choose to build walls, our minority class only becomes further isolated and disconnected from society. Rather than feel sorry for ourselves or react to these situations with anger, be the leader. Communicate constructively so that the truth might dispel the myths. Approach every interaction as an opportunity to create a deeper understanding and appreciation for the military experience.
Transition isn't about leaving the military. It is about reintegrating back into society. It starts by making meaningful connections in life beyond the military. This process is made harder by the clear purpose, shared identity, and social norms of the military culture. Even without these obstacles, connection isn't easy. Set the conditions for success. Leave your garbage at the gate so that you don't have anything holding you back. Get comfortable being in your own skin so you have the confidence to reach out and form trusting relationships. Build your bench so you don't have to face this challenge alone. Lastly, let go of the judgment and negative energy that will only push you away from the very society you seek to join.
Remember that the military is not the end of anything. It is just one phase of your personal journey to lead, inspire, and achieve. Start off the right way so you can connect, inspire, and live the life that you have earned through your service to the nation.
Jason Roncoroni is a retired Lieutenant Colonel from the Army and a professional leadership coach. As the President of Ordinary Hero Coaching, he specializes in coaching and developing mid-senior level military leaders to be successful executives and veteran leaders across society.
Photo courtesy of author