Ending one’s military career is a period of adjustment lasting up to several years as members learn to deal with the loss of rank, status, and established military social networks. Even among those who retire voluntarily, they can feel lost when it comes to knowing what to do with themselves. Making the mental shift takes work. While many look forward to retirement and launch new careers or decide to travel to enjoy retirement, others are consumed by boredom and lack of purpose. Some may find part-time work to occupy their time, they may have a few military buddies that they stay in touch with, and others will isolate themselves or turn to alcohol to manage the loss of who they were in the past.
When it comes to men and women who are released for medical conditions, these challenges are compounded for a number of reasons. The two that I hear most are: (1). They often have young families so worries about finances and future work possibilities cause them a lot of stress, and (2). They are younger and had no control over how they hung up the uniform. This second issue is often more important than concerns about money. Most of them did not want to leave the military but decisions were often made for them by the system. This is particularly true for those released because of operational stress injuries, including PTSD which has increased dramatically in recent years. Many in this younger generation, I generally mean post-Cold War but bad things also happened during those years, have been actively involved in warzones and have been profoundly changed by those experiences - they have no connection with the larger civilian society in Canada - sometimes called reverse culture shock.
Military training and operational experiences transforms people and galvanizes an identity that is often fundamentally different from who they were as bright-eyed, anxious recruits. When it comes right down to it, there is no choice from basic training onward to take on a set of values that emphasizes strength, self-reliance, and dependability and to prove repeatedly to peers and superiors that you can be counted on to do your job, your duty. If soldiers, I also mean sailors and air force, begin to realize that they are not up to the job, they often try harder and become tougher to prove to themselves that they are still good soldiers. But secretly, their confidence and self-worth often takes a tremendous hit as they feel themselves unravel and begin a downward spiral. They may decide to step forward for help on their own but often it is a supervisor or a spouse who alerts them to get their issues under control. But, how do soldiers reconcile a value system that directs them to be strong and to overcome adversity with the world of mental health that requires them to admit to potential flaws and weakness and to turn control over to other people, often civilian caregivers? I see this struggle as the biggest challenge facing ‘trained warriors.’ Many of the veterans I meet see themselves as broken; they are ashamed because they could not get over something that happened and because they let their buddies and their units down. They often see ‘mental health injuries’ as personal failures – “I let my unit down’; “I don’t like myself”; “I don’t know who I am”; “I don’t fit anywhere.”
Within the mental health world, treatment of operational injuries, including PTSD usually means focusing on specific events so they are less bothersome in day-to-day life. Some people are able to come to terms with the past and to rejoin their units but many are unable to put upsetting memories to rest. They are unable to find the focus and direction from the help that is offered to them because it is provided outside of their units. And, the things that are happening to them in their units matters a lot. Sometimes, the help makes no sense to them especially if the solution requires them to talk about very personal things or about their feelings. As I will often hear, what have feelings got to do with anything? This skill of looking inward is something many do not have even though clinicians assume that everyone should be able to do this. It is a real problem for those who may have had a tough time growing up; they want to forget about those years so allowing themselves to be vulnerable can feel like going crazy. I will talk amore about this in a future post. For now, I will just say that people who were hurt or betrayed as children often find it very difficult to trust other people, especially when they don’t have control. The real problem is how can they talk about the fear that if they lose their military identity, the sum of all their training and personal investments, that they will be left with nothing and that all their work to overcome their past lives has failed.
Generally, military people are trained to be pragmatic, concrete, and externally focussed; they are trained to take action to change things and not simply to sit and talk about problems and solutions. So, dealing with the loss of one’s core values and military identity and learning a new way to function can be a monumental challenge. Medically released veterans are often angry, bitter because they believe they were just thrown away. They feel betrayed, that their sacrifices meant nothing in the end, and that nobody understands them. They often have little interest in moving forward in the civilian world – “want nothing to do with it”. So, they are stuck wanting to return to a military past that is no more and forced to re-enter a world that is alien to them.
What can people do? Veterans who can come to terms with their anger at the system and learn to trust and reconnect with other veterans do make this mental shift. They do this by being around other people who understand what they have seen and done, who speak the same language, and who understand what it means to have to say good-bye to the uniform. Sometimes, it happens in social media groups, peer support groups, doing things with military buddies, or in formal group therapy programs. As far as I am concerned, it is not an accident that numerous groups are springing up across the country – as a social creature we are driven to connect with other people like ourselves. Moving out of isolation and shame and being around other people who understand our struggles is probably the most important thing to resolve before other things like school or work can be successful.
John J. Whelan
John J. Whelan, Ph.D., is the author of Going Crazy in the Green Machine, available now on FriesenPress.