The transition from military service to civilian life is a profound and challenging phase for veterans. Having spent years in a structured and disciplined environment, service members develop a unique sense of identity that is deeply shaped by their experiences in the armed forces.
As they step into civilian life, these veterans face a critical need to establish a new sense of personal identity, reconciling their past with their future. Understanding the factors that have moulded their identity during their military tenure, and addressing the significant adjustments required for civilian life, are essential for their successful reintegration into society.
This article builds upon the two previous articles entitled: The Veterans Quest #1 - The Hidden Battle of Veterans in Transition and The Veterans Quest #2 - Transition and the Perceived Loss of Purpose, that laid a foundational understanding of the plight of veterans as they traverse the, often bumpy, period of transition into civilian life.
“I know it sounds absurd, but please tell me Who I Am.” - Supertramp.
An individual’s sense of identity is enormously shaped by what is demanded of them in their life situation. From before we were born our environment has nurtured us in countless ways to mould us into who we have become today.
During the course of our lives, a significant and permanent shift in our environment can cause us to experience a deep sense of uncertainty that has us questioning who we really are.
Losing a sense of identity in this way can be extremely mentally and emotionally destabilising, and can lead to a host of psychological challenges.
The solution would be to find a pathway, for it is in all truth and ongoing journey, to rediscover a core sense of identity that defines us for who we really are, whatever environment we find ourselves in.
Identity exists on multiple levels and for this kind of discovery we need to go deep enough to discover what is fundamental to our personal and unique design.
While there’s no room here for a full-scale thesis, it’s worth us breaking down this brief overview into 3 critical areas:
Let’s explore each in turn.
Factors Shaping Identity in the Military
1. Camaraderie and Brotherhood: Serving in the military fosters strong bonds with fellow service members. Soldiers often develop a profound sense of camaraderie and brotherhood, relying on one another in challenging and life-threatening situations. This close-knit connection becomes a defining aspect of their identity and social support.
2. Purpose and Mission: Military personnel are driven by a sense of purpose and mission larger than themselves. The dedication to protecting their nation and fellow citizens instils a deep sense of pride and identity linked to their role in the armed forces.
3. Discipline and Structure: The military's rigid structure and discipline permeate every aspect of a service member's life. This sense of order and routine becomes ingrained in their identity, shaping their behaviours and decision-making process.
4. Specialised Skills and Training: Service veterans often acquire unique skills and expertise during their time in the military that are really only of use in a military setting. These abilities contribute to their identity as people around them value them for these skills (e.g. bomb-disposal). Of course, it may pose a challenge to such a skilled individual when no one in civilian life knows or cares about these abilities.
5. Adversity and Resilience: Military life exposes individuals to significant adversity and challenges. Overcoming these hardships builds resilience and fortitude, traits that help to define their identity and may influence how they approach civilian life's obstacles. But who are you when your enemy is vanquished? We all need to find our still centre - that sense of who we are when there’s nothing to resist, nothing to demand our core skills.
The Challenges and Demands of Adjusting to Civilian Life
1. Loss of Camaraderie: Leaving the close-knit military community can lead to a profound sense of loss and isolation. Veterans may struggle to find similar support networks and friendships, leading to feelings of detachment.
2. Redefining Purpose: Transitioning veterans often encounter a void in their lives when their military mission concludes. They must redefine their sense of purpose and find new avenues to contribute to society.
3. Reintegrating into Civilian Society: The military's structured environment contrasts with the more fluid nature of civilian life. Veterans may find it challenging to adapt to the lack of hierarchy and clear-cut chain of command. They’re free to make so many decisions for themselves now, self-guided choices that they had little opportunity to practise in the past.
4. Dealing with Trauma: Many service members carry emotional and psychological scars from their experiences, such as combat trauma or the loss of comrades. Coping with these traumas is critical for establishing a new and healthy civilian identity.
5. Bridging the Skills Gap: While veterans possess valuable skills, translating them into civilian job qualifications can be challenging. They might need to undergo additional training or education to match the requirements of their desired careers.
6. Facing Misunderstanding and Stereotypes: Civilian society may hold misconceptions about military life and veterans, leading to potential stigma and prejudice. Overcoming these stereotypes is vital for building a positive civilian identity.
Establishing a New Sense of Identity
1. Seek Support: Connecting with other veterans, joining support groups, or seeking counselling can help navigate the challenges of transitioning into civilian life and foster a new sense of camaraderie.
2. Embrace Individuality: Veterans should recognize that their identity extends beyond their military service. Exploring personal interests, hobbies, and passions will aid in forming a unique civilian identity.
3. Set New Goals: Establishing new short-term and long-term goals will provide a sense of purpose and direction, giving veterans a renewed sense of motivation.
4. Emphasise Transferable Skills: Identifying and highlighting transferable skills acquired during military service will boost confidence and make them more marketable in the civilian job market.
5. Educate and Advocate: Engaging with civilian communities to share experiences and educate them about military life can help dispel stereotypes and foster understanding.
The Forward March
The journey of transitioning from military service to civilian life is a transformative and often very challenging experience for veterans. Establishing a new sense of personal identity is a complex process that requires introspection, support, and a willingness to embrace change, but it is absolutely vital if a solid foundation is to be established from which the veteran can build their new life outside the institutional structures they’ve formerly been used to.
Challenging though it is, by acknowledging the factors that shaped their identity in the military and addressing the adjustments needed to succeed in civilian life, veterans can effectively integrate into society and find fulfilment beyond their years of service to their nation.
As a society, it is our responsibility to recognise the importance of this transition and support our service veterans as they embark on this path of rediscovery and renewal.
At TEAM ME® we're exploring new ways to elevate the self-respect, self-worth, self-awareness and self-empowerment of veterans in the UK and around the world.
If you are actively involved in supporting veterans at scale, feel free to get in touch to see how our rapid Personality Profiling solution could help you in your own quest to elevate the lives of those who have served - and still have so much more to give.
Pad is a trusted adviser to business leaders across the globe. He is Director at Come Alive Success Coaching ltd. and the Author of TEAM ME - How to Play Your Best Game in Life, and TEAM GUY - Forging Men of Soul & Steel.