Accepting Change and Moving Forward: How to Come to Terms With Your New Normal Post-Military

Photo credit Chenega
By Connecting Vets
By Wade Spann

Transitioning out of uniform is often one of the hardest things a servicemember will do. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a Marine, a soldier, a sailor, or an airman. Your life for any number of years was defined by that uniform you wore every day, until you took it off for the last time. The services have become better about providing resources and support to transitioning personnel, but it often neglects the personal side of the equation—the day-to-day, the identity, and the struggles you may find yourself experiencing.

Reflecting on the many years since my transition from infantry Marine to contributing member of our community, I found a lot of things that worked for me, but also a lot that did not. There is no silver bullet. For me, the struggle was mostly personal, emotional, and mental. Society is more aware of PTSD as a signature wound of our decades’ long wars, but we too must be cognizant of it in our own bodies and minds. Reflecting on my own transition, I made numerous mistakes and missteps, but I also had some victories that are worth sharing. I would like to highlight a handful of tips that may assist others. 

First, accept change. This is a must. Nothing in this world stays the same. The more I tried to stop changing, the more I resisted the changes in my life, the tougher and more exhausting my transition became. The military expects us to be adaptable and adaptability should be applied to new things in our life post-service.

Accept that there is no one-size-fits-all path. What works for your battle buddy, may not work for you, and that is okay. Everyone’s journey in the military and in life is different. Where you are and what you are feeling is unique to you. This is the same when it comes to treatment: there is no silver bullet that will fix everyone for everything. Diversify the methods and types of treatment and seek out new experiences. The VA has great services, but for my own journey I needed to explore other methods of treatment for PTSD. I practiced equestrian therapy, backcountry expeditions, meditation practices, and various sports and group focused treatments. These were never a waste of time (some worked better than others) and I always took away something to help me along my life’s journey. Try it all, seriously have an open mind and be willing to experience and learn new methods of treatment. 

Read or listen to others who’ve experienced war. I suggest Karl Marlantes or Sebastian Junger. These authors articulate what I’ve felt and thought but couldn’t put into words. The perspectives gained from learning from others is invaluable, this is similar to listening to the crusty sergeant in the platoon who’s been around a lot longer. Podcasts and other mediums are worth exploring, too. We live in an age where professionals and experts are a lot more accessible than before, and they are putting out tons of content for free for us to use and to guide us through things that were never openly discussed decades before in our society. Take a break from Joe Rogan (great though he is), and find something new that challenges you.

Another piece of the puzzle I found was to team up with others with no military experience. This was not easy at first especially after being told about the civilian-military divide. I can say without reservations that the only divide is made up between veterans. Civilians are normally just curious and unsure what to say other than the token “Thank you for your service.” By sharing your experiences with others you lessen the sting of the memories and you give others a perspective as to what sacrifice is to you. I’ve met plenty of civilians who’ve experienced far more personal tragedy and trauma. Remember, the body doesn’t care where the trauma happened or when, trauma is trauma and the body reacts the same. By opening up and being vulnerable you are allowing your own healing to happen. Others will see you as a testament to what makes this Nation so unique and worth adding to our National treasure. 

Be open and honest. This was my hardest fight for years. I fought with tooth and nail to deny that I had PTSD. This was partly because of shame, we all have pride and the shame or suspected shame of having PTSD was too great for me to let into my life. It took up a lot of mental and emotional energy I should have been applying to heal myself. Eventually, I accepted it was real, mostly from encouragement and acceptance from those closest to me. For your own life and those around you that love you, accept and seek assistance. We all owe it to ourselves and those we lost in combat to live the best life we can. Getting over the barrier to talk to someone -- whether a mental health professional or counselor -- is critical. 

Identify your new purpose, the community you want to be a part of and your own identity. These three things are a common theme. Leaving the Marines, I felt like I lost my identity. This was very hard for me to let go. I was a Marine grunt with multiple tours in places like Ramadi and Fallujah. It felt like the most defining feature of my identity, but it was only part of who I was—a big part, to be sure, but a part nonetheless.

If I held onto it to the exclusion of everything else, I would be locked in the past, not looking to the future. Letting go of this part of my identity felt like betrayal to the bloodshed and the gruesome realities of war. I had to change how I looked at it and how I looked at myself to honor my past and be flexible enough to adopt new relationships outside of a platoon and outside of the uniform. I learned that my identity was more than just being a Marine, it was a key part, but life had to build off of that. I began to think of my experiences in the Corps as a house’s foundation, it was rock solid and everything else would be built off that. I’ll always be a Marine, but I am not just a Marine.

Post-uniform life is easier if you are used to setting goals. I changed my purpose from success in combat to success in school or at work. When it came time for me to get out, I spoke to my commanding officer while in Ramadi. I told him I had three goals, become a bartender, go to school, and join a fraternity. I ended up only doing two of those goals, but I still set them and said them to hold myself accountable.

This is not a static process, you must keep setting new goals (even small ones) for yourself. This was something I failed completely at, after four hard years of school and working as a bartender I never reset and established another set of lofty goals to aim towards. So, once a goal has been met or is close to completion, reset, and establish new ones that build off or expand on the original goals. 

Find and become a part of a community. I was fortunate when I got out I came back home to the Washington D.C. area where I grew up. I had some family in the area, friends I grew up with, and I was fortunate to run into fellow veterans. I feel this was a key part to me overcoming the pitfalls of a tough transition. They were my safety net. Most couldn’t directly relate to what I was going through, but they supported me and offered me compassion. I realize that a large portion will not return home from where they signed up and may not have that kind of support system. I’d advise staying involved in organizations that pair veterans and civilians, keeping in contact with the ones who got out with you. Be open to finding new communities, look at volunteer work, and find ways to connect with people. It won’t be the same as a foxhole or the back of a MRAP, but connecting with people will help you find you, and help you define yourself. 

I hope these tips help; I wish someone sat down with me and talked me through what it would be like when I got out of uniform—not the paperwork or the DD-214, but walking back into the civilian world and charting that next chapter of my life. My life is, now, a lot better than it was. It wasn’t a linear path. There were a lot of hard ups and a lot of deep downs. Your path is unique and you will find your way. Semper Fi.

Chenega is a Connecting Vets paid partner.