Military Service to Civilian: Making Peace in the Chasm Between

By: Crystal McFadden, LPC

There will never be two identical stories shared by military veterans about any situation. Especially, regarding their transition from military service to civilian life. Each story of service and transition is unique. It can be in the variance of difficulty. Or the momentum of success (or lack thereof), and the level of connection (or lack of connection) felt with others. Regardless of the transition story, peace can be found. And when we better understand the reason this journey feels difficult in the first place we can move forward. “In the beginning” if you will, there is a common path for service members. That when understood can enhance healing and transition quality. This beginning is important because despite the unique entry points and childhood background when joining the military. There are several similarities endured at a critical period in our brain development.  

women of the military salute

Have you ever noticed, despite initial razzing about which branch one another has served, there is a unity that overrides the typical need for the length of time known?

Somehow an initial trust is established between individuals who have served when they find out another veteran is in the conversation. Those in the vicinity can likely sense the excitatory response going off in their brains, exclaiming the silent hope of “You get it!” in some fashion. Odd, right? Not if you have walked in those boots yourself. Regardless if an officer or enlisted, combat or never deployed, if you graduated high school then served in the military and transitioned into civilian life. An evident bond or level of respect is likely quick to be established.  

With that said, many of us joined the military between the ages of 18 and 25. Some serve one contract term (typically 2-6 years). Some serve 8-12 years with circumstances changing the plan. And others chose or are forced to retire after 20-30 years of service. During this same period, between post-high school to mid-twenties, those who did not serve began experiencing life through college, work, or travel. The identity and personality exploration of those outside the military had a chance to form freely during the brain’s final stages of frontal lobe development. Those who were actively serving in the military had a slightly different formation of neural pathways.  

Military Service to Civilian Life

The chasms between these two paths can be identified significantly more so in the valleys between military service and civilian life. Figuring out how to function in civilian culture can feel like an epic canyon trail. A space varying in-depth, some tight squeezes, and extreme darkness at times. I have found that many of the ways our brain formed while serving as a young adult in the service. Versus forming in the freedoms of choice and mistake making leave each side questioning why the other functions as it does. Neither wrong, but different. Veterans left a sub-culture that emphasizes team solidarity, mission completion, creative problem solving, direct order obedience, and a sense of urgency within a highly diverse population.

Non-military young adults likely developed in an environment with options, flexibility, challenges, politically correct language, unspoken rules, and cordial greeting spaces, with sensitivity and roundabout approaches regarding “suggestions” to improve. All while adding in time to process before choosing whether or not to take action. Adjusting, understanding, and assimilating can take some time. We need to make peace to see ourselves for where we are today.

So how do veterans begin to make peace with the differences between our brain patterns and those who have never served?

How do we find employment, enjoy relationships, earn promotions, and find joy day-to-day? In a world that seems different than us in multiple areas of our life. To be blunt. The same way we deal with any other piece of this world that thinks, acts, functions, and is different than we are. Here are a few ways to consider taking action.

  1. Self-Awareness: 

    Knowing more about ourselves can enhance our thoughts, emotions, choices, and relationships. Do NOT overlook the power of a self-check-in every once. Whether online assessments, working with a great counselor and even journaling. Self-reflection can go a long way to identifying common themes and root motivators.

  2. Strength and Struggle Analysis:

    Peel back layers to see what is working well and not so well in our world. Even when we “feel” like nothing is going right, I know you can find something that is working. Even if it is simply the realization that you are not alone. One way to do this is to make a list of things in your life that fall into each of the following categories:  Family, Friends, Work, Learning/Education, Recreation/Leisure, Spirituality, Memories, Recent Laughs, Resources.  You can even add some categories important to you. Once you make a good list under these headings. You can begin to identify specifics that are going well or working for you in that category.

  3. Listen to and learn from others:

    Stories from others who have served can be healing in more ways than we ever expected. Sharing our own story in trusted spaces can also be quite cathartic. Ideally, there is a ratio to listening and learning from these stories. My advice would be for every one or two stories of those who aren’t doing so well currently. To counter it with five to ten stories of those who figured out how to successfully thrive in their civilian shoes. 

As I mentioned, our stories of transition may never match anyone else’s. But we can glean nuggets of wisdom to adapt to our own journey. We can see that this chasm is not as large as it feels and we are not alone. You are not alone. 

By: Crystal McFadden, LPC
Speaker, Writer, Licensed Counselor
Woman and Veteran Business Owner:  Crystal Cnvrstns, LLC | IG: @crystalcnvrstnsllc


Women of the Military

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