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.

Add comment

Log in or register to post comments

afterdeployment.t2.health.mil Community Terms and Conditions

  • If you have feelings of suicide, hopelessness or depression - please call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.

  • afterdeployment.t2.health.mil reserves the right to edit and/or remove any user-generated content that violates these Terms and Conditions. The contents of the afterdeployment.t2.health.mil site, such as text, graphics, images, information, and other material contained on the afterdeployment.t2.health.mil site ("Content") are for informational purposes only. The Content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health care provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on the afterdeployment.t2.health.mil site. If you choose to participate in the afterdeployment.t2.health.mil forums and/or blog ("Community") you agree to these Terms and Conditions.

  • Community posts and comments are reviewed by the Moderators for appropriateness before they are published to the Community. Posts and comments are reviewed between the hours of 0800 and 1700 hours Pacific Time, Monday through Friday and will go live immediately after review unless they are deemed inappropriate based on these Terms and Conditions at which time they will be deleted without notification.

    You will not be contacted at any point by any member of the afterdeployment.t2.health.mil staff, nor any related agency or organization. If you are in need of assistance or medical attention, please contact the DCoE Outreach Center or National Suicide Prevention Hotline listed in the top right corner of your screen.
  •  
  • You agree not to hold afterdeployment.t2.health.mil liable for anything stated within the Community. Messages and/or comments posted at this site are the sole opinion and responsibility of the poster. afterdeployment.t2.health.mil makes no claims, promises or guarantees about the accuracy, completeness or adequacy of the information contained within the Community.

  • afterdeployment.t2.health.mil and its Moderators reserve the right to remove, edit or delete without notice any and all content placed in the Community.

  • Moderator and/or afterdeployment.t2.health.mil action may be final. Actions may be reversed by afterdeployment.t2.health.mil or a Moderator after review of the matter.

  • Using the forum to solicit discussions contrary to the Terms and Conditions may be considered unacceptable.

  • It is your responsibility to be familiar with and remain updated to current Community Forum Terms and Conditions. All users of the Community must comply with these Terms and Conditions. Infractions of any Term or Condition may result in revocation of forum privileges.

  • General content that is inflammatory, vulgar, sexually explicit, rude or otherwise inappropriate will not be tolerated and will be removed.

  • Always be respectful of the Community, afterdeployment.t2.health.mil employees, and Moderators. Be civil, clean, and decent in all posts. Open discussions of varying points of view are encouraged but only if they remain constructive and not inflammatory. Personal attacks are neither allowed nor tolerated. Anyone using/ posting inappropriate content, language, personal attacks, engaging in hate speeches and rants, or being disruptive to the Community's positive environment may be barred from all further discussions and/ or the afterdeployment.t2.health.mil Community.

  • The Community is not a venue for personal or private vendettas or causes, including political debates.

  • Links to adult content, pages with links to adult content, or messages describing anything inconsistent with these Terms and Conditions will be removed.

  • Do not post copyrighted material or articles written by others without their permission.

  • Do not post altered-text as an attempt to defeat forum word-filters or otherwise circumvent the rules.

  • Nicknames, signatures, and avatars are not allowed on the site.

  • Keep forum thread discussions on topic, and within the subject of the forum. Please do not "hijack" or "bump" the thread to gain additional exposure to a post or yourself. Please do not
    cross-post within other forums and threads.

  • Content and Spam that is posted for the sole-purpose of unrelated promotion will be removed and may result in a permanent loss of forum privileges.

  • Anyone posting another member's personal or website details will be banned. Please do not post sensitive or confidential information to the Community about yourself or other members. Examples include account information, private communications with moderators, etc.