Serving in uniform on behalf of the country is a special life in many ways. It means taking on a new identity and adopting a set of values that few people in everyday life understand or fully appreciate. We develop confidence, pride, and self-worth linked intimately with our ability to carry out our military roles; the people we are at home is usually of secondary importance. We have very little in common with everyday people who seem undisciplined, lack focus, and occupy themselves with trivial things compared to the adrenaline-soaked military world. It also means that soldiers, sailors, and air force men and women live compartmentalized lives. One’s military life and civilian roles are easily divorced from each other – they have nothing in common. And, it is important to compartmentalize these roles. After all, it is not cool to act like an RSM when teaching one’s son or daughter how the dishwasher works and for those who do, strained marriages and parent-child relationships are often the lingering results.
When men and women leave the military either voluntarily or because of injury, the price to be paid for a lifetime of compartmentalization shocks many of us: “It was like leaving a huge part of myself behind.” It can feel like a profound loss and disorientation. Part of the way forward, or making the transition through no man’s land, if you will, means integrating one’s military and civilian worlds. One of the hardest things to face is having to do an honest values checklist – figuring out our true values which may or may not be the same as the ones we adopted to serve. It may mean giving up some of these values and remembering the other ones that had to be packed away. One of the biggest challenges comes down to the issue of emotional suppression – having to keep our true thoughts and emotions bottled up. The very things that make us human. Being stoic and focused were of primary importance. Having to face loneliness, uncertainty, or lack of confidence in managing day-to-day relationships and waiting for permission to be oneself have to be overcome in order to move forward. Admitting to anxiety but giving new things a shot anyway, taking time to say good-bye to the uniform on your own terms, talking honestly with family and friends about losses, irritations, or confusion, figuring out who you want to be as a good man or woman are all necessary parts of making the mental transition back to ourselves as people. It means learning to truly speak up.
John J. Whelan
John J. Whelan, Ph.D., is the author of Going Crazy in the Green Machine, available now on FriesenPress.