Posted: December 5, 2016 at 9:55 pm

By Isaac Zivkovic, Nick Tabidze, and John Allen


Men and women who have served in the armed forces seldom share the same story. Their experiences are highly varied, but most struggle to readjust to civilian life.

As service members prepare to leave there are numerous requirements, including mandatory counseling before they receive their DD-214 – a single page form detailing an individual’s activities while enlisted. Getting the paperwork in hand is the first official sign of the reality of their situation but, as research and interviews show, the psychological break doesn’t necessarily happen as quickly.

This is usually a time of excitement but for some it can be terrifying.

While the future beckons there is something more ambiguous being given up. Military culture is, by its very nature, close and communal. Often times men and women serve for years with one another through garrison life and deployment.

The level of reliance shared within a given unit runs deep because it is designed to operate under great levels of stress and few resources no matter the skill set. That said the camaraderie and dependence a service member may experience can also vary depending on factors like combat and shared psychological strain.

The Department of Veterans Affairs can provide a variety of services to usher departing service members to the next phase of their professional lives but it can do little to prepare veterans  for the psychological strain of being separated from the culture they have become dependent on. The problem can be compounded by the disabilities and financial hardships often associated with military personnel.

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A popular route for veterans since the beginning of conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan is college. According to VA census data the number of enrollees spiked by 43 percent in 2010 when the Post 9-11 GI Bill became fully enacted. A majority of these students are listed non-traditional students or out-of-state. These men and women not only deal with a lack of familiarity, but also academic challenges and adaptation to a new environment.

Or as Jerry McCarthy, director of Veterans Affairs at West Virginia University puts it, “being flown in from Fallujah and being parachuted into Morgantown and expected to adapt.”

George Booth was a combat medic, he described the transition as painful but doable. He said the hardest initial adjustment was simply learning how to turn it off.

Booth attributed much of his reintegration success to his family and having two young daughters to cheer him on but also, in part, to the comfort of finding his first job with like-minded ex-service members.

Booth added that he felt blessed in his transition but said that his case was far from the norm. One shortcoming he made a special point to observe at West Virginia University was the lack of a physical space where veterans could find support.

One issue that goes largely addressed by the professional community and is unquantifiable is the functional problems veterans face in engaging civilian coworkers and peers.

This is a social skill that can be hard to process, especially for those who were in a position of authority in the military.

Veterans agree that maintaining camaraderie, especially in the time immediately following discharge from active duty, is highly important. Smith adds that it is just as important for veterans to go out and create new networks. 

He said simply stepping outside and reaching out to others can be the best predictor of success in reintegration.

There is no single answer to what ultimately leads to a successful reintegration. In some cases it goes hand-in-hand with rehabilitation for physical and mental trauma, in the worst cases the combination of stressors may lead to permanent consequences.

Smith says there is a strong connection between well-being and finding new identities in new social networks.

Jennifer Oliva is not only a law professor at West Virginia University but she is also the Director of the WVU Veteran’s Advocacy Clinic. The clinic represents West Virginia veterans in legal preceding before civil and criminal matters. Professor Oliva attended West Point Academy and further pursued her education at Georgetown Law and the University of Oxford. Professor Oliva is United States Army veteran and is also admitted to the bar in California, Delaware, the District of Columbia, and West Virginia.

There are two hyperbolic narratives or stereotypes that Professor Oliva is bringing to the table of discussion, the uber invisible tough or broken and scary veteran. Professor Oliva believes these narratives are fictitious as they perpetuate society’s unresponsiveness in aiding veterans.

As a civilian, it may be difficult to identify a veteran who is suffering from some form of depression or ptsd, but some clear signs are withdrawal or isolation from social activities, substance abuse as a means to cope with nightmares, hyper vigilance, or aggression.

 

Working with the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America organization, Prudential conducted a study to better understand veterans’ experiences and perceptions around finding civilian careers. While veterans of all age groups were included in the sample, the large majority, and the focus of this research, are post-9/11 or Gulf War-era II veterans.

Two-thirds of veterans experienced a difficult transition from military to civilian life. Close to half did not feel ready to transition. Veterans name “finding a job” as the greatest challenge in transitioning, with transferring military skills to a civilian environment a major hurdle. Aside from the difficulties of the current job market, one of the greatest challenges veterans report in finding a job is explaining how their military skills translate to the civilian workforce. Nearly all believe they have the skills needed to land their ideal job, but the majority express concerns about how to translate their skills to a business environment.
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Two-thirds say they are facing a health challenge as a result of their military service. Veterans who report a physical or mental health challenge have had more difficult transitions, show the highest need for support, and report greater employment concerns.Not all veterans received support or training for transitioning to the civilian workforce.
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More than half said they received transition support. The primary source was the Transition Assistance Program, which less than half found effective.
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