Since 9/11, the U.S. has sent about 1.6 million American soldiers to trouble spots in the Middle East as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom (Iraq) and Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan). As the conflicts continue year after year, large numbers of young men and women in the armed forces spend one or two deployments in the combat zones and then return to the U.S. to re-enter civilian life.
What challenges do these former soldiers face as they build a new civilian life after life in the military? What are the most important priorities for the re-entering veteran?
Reconnect with your family.
The first order of business for the new civilian who has a spouse and perhaps children is to reconnect with his or her family and gradually re-establish his or her role in the family constellation. The watchword here is “gradually,” because jumping back into old roles with both feet will not be in the best interests of anyone. While you have been away, routines and a division of responsibilities have emerged that have allowed the family unit to function without you. Let those routines continue until you have figured out that you are ready to contribute and how you can best contribute. Your new role may be different from the one you played prior to your deployment, so keep an open mind.
For example, if your wife has been mowing the lawn, perhaps you do not need to reclaim that chore! On the other hand, if your wife has a job now that she did not have before, you may need to be prepared to cook dinner several nights a week. If everyone communicates their needs, preferences, and constraints, a new set of arrangements can be worked out. And while you are figuring this out, remember that a family is not a military unit following orders to carry out a group mission! A family is a collection of individuals bound together by love and committed to provide a safe, nurturing environment for each member.
Take care of your own mental and physical health.
Whether a family person or a single individual, the returning veteran may have lingering physical and mental health issues caused by military service in a combat zone. Physical wounds or orthopedic injuries may need ongoing treatment, physical therapy, or periodic visits to a physician for followup. Obviously more severe injuries will necessitate extensive rehabilitation and ongoing therapy. Veteran military benefits will cover these services but it is up to the veteran to follow through and complete needed treatments for maximum possible recovery.
According to a Rand survey published in 2008, there are many veterans (perhaps 300,000) who have suffered traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) during their service in Iraq or Afghanistan. Any returning veteran who thinks he or she may have experienced TBI as a result of proximity to an explosion or bomb blast needs to be under the care of a physician. Evaluation by a neurologist is highly recommended.
Even more common, affecting perhaps one in five combat veterans, is post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD, major depression, or even suicidal thoughts. Treatment for these problems is available and very important to avoid many related risks, such as heart disease, dependence on drugs or alcohol, chronic unemployment, and divorce.
Prepare to enter the work force.
The returning veteran needs to take stock of his or her readiness for employment. If a national guardsman or reservist, you may have the ability to reclaim your previous job. Firms of a certain size are required to re-hire such workers after they return from a period of active duty. However, if your company has folded, moved, or was a very small business, there may not be a place to return to. Or, you may be ready to move on to a different type of work, perhaps related to skills you acquired in the military.
If your college education was interrupted by your deployment or if you aspire to a career that requires a college education, the GI bill has recently been updated and expanded to include veterans of the post-9/11 conflicts in the Middle East. The “Post 9-11 GI Bill” will pay for tuition, an allowance for books and supplies, and a housing allowance. The amounts available depend on the length of your service, the cost of the college or university, and other factors. In general, the tuition assistance provided is pegged to the cost of a state university in your state. If you decide to attend a private college, other funds will be needed to make up the difference. The “Yellow Ribbon” program is one possible source.
The benefits under the new GI bill are not limited to traditional colleges and universities. They can also be applied to technical training associated with apprenticeships in skilled trades, such as construction-related trades. A helpful program called “Helmets to Hardhats” (see sources below) can help connect veterans with these opportunities. The advantage of an apprenticeship model is that you can be paid while you are learning.
Identify your transferable skills and credentials.
As you consider preparing for employment, it is important to remember that the skills and experience you gained during your military service are relevant and need to be incorporated into your thinking and into your resume. Although some skills may seem specialized, in fact you gained “transferable” skills as well, such as the ability to learn about complex machinery and operate it successfully, to lead teams, to follow through on assignments even in life and death situations, and to solve problems quickly and creatively.
Employers realize that veterans have worked to high standards, are reliable, and drug-free. If you helped land planes on an aircraft carrier or operate a nuclear submarine, you have demonstrated the kind of skills and character traits that will make you an excellent prospective employee. If you led your infantry unit on house to house searches for explosives, you are presumably well qualified to lead teams on civilian missions.
If your military service resulted in a security clearance, you have an extremely valuable credential that can give you entrée into many defense or security related jobs in the Federal government or in firms that contract with the government. The Department of Defense, the Department of Homeland Security, and the intelligence agencies such as the National Security Administration and the Central Intelligence Agency all welcome veterans.
Your status as a veteran with an honorable discharge will also entitle you to preference in Federal hiring (although no preference in promotions, assignments, etc. once hired). You may have heard of “five point preference” or “ten point preference” (for wounded veterans). This refers to an awarding of extra points on employment examinations based on veteran status. This preference applies across the Federal government and is not limited to the defense-related agencies. Detailed information about veteran’s preference is available on the website of the Department of Labor shown under “sources” below.
Be patient with yourself.
The pace and rhythm of civilian life is obviously very different from that of a soldier on duty overseas. Particularly if you have served in combat zones, you will need time to digest what you have seen and experienced and to grieve. If you have been injured, you face additional challenges to adjust your self-image, to adapt to some physical limitations, and chart a new course. A great deal of transitional assistance is available from the armed services, from Federal, State and local governments, from nonprofit organizations, and from organizations of veterans. In fact, there is so much “buzz” about assisting veterans these days that you may feel overwhelmed by information and attention.
The process of re-assimilating into life back in the U.S. will take time and you may experience setbacks. By taking first things first – reconnecting with family, attending to your physical and mental health, and then preparing for entering the civilian workforce-you will maximize your chances of a successful transition.
RAND Corporation (2008, April 19). One In Five Iraq And Afghanistan Veterans Suffer From PTSD Or Major Depression. ScienceDaily.
Helmets to Hardhats website
Department of Labor E-laws Veterans Preference Advisor
Department of Veterans Affairs website re Post 9/11 GI Bill Benefits
Additional Excellent Resources for Returning Veterans:
TurboTAP.org DoD Transition Assistance Website
National Resource Directory website for injured, ill, disabled service members, veterans, and their families
VetFriends.com jobs listings vets assisting vets website
Women Veterans in Transition website-part of
The Business and Professional Women’s Foundation