Getting Out: Finding Meaning and Purpose in Your New Identity as a Civilian

Author: Dr. Katy Stanfill is a licensed clinical psychologist at the National Center for Telehealth & Technology (T2). In her former professional life, she was a Navy helicopter pilot.

Even when we know that change is good for us, it can still be hard, and sometimes painful.

When I got off of active duty in 2007, I thought, “I went to my transition class, I got accepted into grad school…how hard can this whole, ‘become a civilian’ thing be?” I was wrong: it was hard. In some ways, it is still hard. And I was a “lucky” one. It took less than a year to process my VA claim, I had a support system of friends who were also transitioning out of the service, and I had a relatively clean bill of physical and mental health. In some ways, the change is about logistics. In other ways, the change is about culture. I quickly learned that in the civilian world, “swearing like a sailor” wasn’t necessarily looked upon favorably. And telling a coworker that you wanted to “shoot so-and-so in the face” when you were angry was actually taken quite literally – and raised a few eyebrows. So yes, now you can pick out your clothes in the morning (look out fashion police!), you can get a nose ring (are you sure?), you can live in the city you choose (now Mom says you have no choice but to move back home!), but how do you find that sense of purpose and meaning that you once felt while you were in uniform?

One of the most important steps for a successful transition is to acknowledge that it’s okay to feel like the process is a butt-kicker. Time and again, service members say, “getting out is way harder than any deployment ever was.” In addition to all of the paperwork, possible med boards, extra classes, and not to mention the what-am-I-going-to-do-with-my-life-when-I-grow-up decision, you are faced with the identity shift of becoming a civilian. Many people report that they can’t relate to their buddies who are still on active duty and they also can’t relate to friends who have already made the transition. But the catch is that the transition is never complete; those buddies that seem like they have already figured it out are likely still managing the change. The reality is that no matter how many years you served in the military, it is an ongoing process to define your identity once you step out of that uniform.

In addition to acknowledging that it is okay to feel like the identity shift is a tough one, the next step is to do something about it. I came across this article that eloquently reviews some things you can do to help yourself get through the transition, namely by taking what you learned in the military and making it work in the civilian world. Also, no matter your experience in the military, you likely at one time felt a sense of duty, purpose, and meaning when you put on your uniform. It can be difficult to find a way to fill that void. You’re proud of what you have accomplished, but you’re ready for the next challenge. This Time magazine article reports on a movement by many veterans to make community service their next challenge. Veterans everywhere have struggled to find a way to live a life with purpose and meaning. Organizations like The Mission Continues are helping veterans find opportunities for service. Find an event in your hometown to help homeless veterans here (or organize a Stand Down event yourself with their how-to guide).

Keep in mind you are still part of a community. Check out organizations like Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, Veterans of Foreign Wars, The American Legion and American Women Veterans to actively become more aware of the community that is surrounding you. You are not alone.

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