Making the Transition from Active Duty to Civilian Life

The transition from military to civilian life can be a welcome one for many servicemembers. However, despite enjoying many aspects of civilian life, 27% of veterans report that having difficulty adjusting to civilian life.1 That number rises to 44% when looking only at veterans who served in the years since 9/11.1   

Civilian Reintegration Challenges for Veterans

Veteran returning home

While veterans often find that a return to civilian life is positive—because they can spend more time with their families, for example—there are still challenges in the transition to civilian life. Some of these challenges include:2

  • Transitioning to a new career/finding employment outside the military.
  • Reestablishing family roles and responsibilities.
  • Relating to people who are not veterans and who don’t understand military life.
  • Creating a new social network outside of fellow servicemembers.
  • Adjusting to the lack of built-in structure that military life provided.
  • Finding outside services, such as doctors and dentists, that were previously provided by the military.
  • Working to understand and utilize VA benefits.
  • Adjusting from military culture, which affords little choice, to having to make many choices on any given day as a civilian.

Veterans, Transition Stress, and PTSD

While post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a risk for veterans, there are many other struggles that veterans experience that do not always get the same amount of attention as PTSD.3 In fact, the dominant focus on PTSD may detract from other issues veterans experience as they reintegrate into civilian life. 3 

A less-talked-about issue that veterans face is transition stress, or the turmoil they experience after they leave service. Higher levels of transition stress increase a veteran’s risk for future physical and mental health problems, including suicidal thoughts. Most first suicide attempts by veterans occur after they’ve left active-duty service.3

The reasons for the stress that new veterans experience when returning to civilian life are complex. One major issue is that close to half of all active-duty military are young (25 years old or younger).

Adolescence and young adulthood can be a challenging time for civilians as well as servicemembers. When factoring in the challenges of forming identity, raising self-esteem, and uncertainty that are normal to the development of a young adult, civilians may have more time and space to move through these challenges naturally.

In the military, servicemembers are placed into an environment that contains concrete and straightforward answers and that is very effective in raising their self-esteem and belief in their abilities. During an unexpectedly difficult transition to civilian life, a veteran may find their self-esteem damaged and having to grow it again outside of the military environment.

This can be exceedingly difficult if they are also grappling with some of the following issues common to new veterans: (all of pages 2-5)

  • Loss of identity as a servicemember.
  • Unresolved grief over the loss of fellow servicemembers.
  • Nostalgia for the camaraderie and unity of military service and feelings of isolation as a civilian.
  • Shame and guilt related to having to harm others in the line of duty.
  • False beliefs that real strength means never crying and dealing with one’s problems alone—beliefs that can keep people from reaching out for emotional support and/or seeking professional treatment for mental health struggles.
  • Stereotypes of veterans as “unhinged” or unstable.

The normal stresses common to the civilian transition are distinct from PTSD. Post-traumatic stress disorder is a mental health disorder that typically follows being the victim of, or witnessing, a traumatic/life-threatening event such as a bad car accident, an assault, a natural disaster, or military combat.4

While it is normal to experience certain symptoms, such as sleeplessness or jumpiness, after a traumatic event, they should begin to resolve over a period of weeks or months. If these symptoms persist for longer, a person may have PTSD.4

Other symptoms of PTSD veterans may experience include:4

  • Mentally reliving the traumatic event over and over.
  • Feeling edgy all the time.
  • Avoiding situations that are reminders of the trauma.
  • Feeling negative more than normal or feeling “numb.”
  • Holding onto guilt over being unable to prevent or stop the traumatic event.

PTSD can be very distressing, but it does respond well to treatment. 4 Reaching out and getting the help you need can change your life for the better.

Substance Use During Reintegration

Man using pills

The stress of the civilian transition can lead some veterans to initiate or escalate their substance use. Studies following veterans’ substance abuse following military discharge indicated that the use of marijuana and hard drugs increased significantly in the first 6 months after leaving active duty military service.5

Substance abuse may worsen when other mental health struggles are present. For example, PTSD and alcohol abuse commonly occur together. Men are twice as likely to have drinking problems when they have PTSD. For women, the risk is even higher, as women who have PTSD are 2.5 times as likely to abuse alcohol. Among Vietnam veterans, 60% to 80% of those who sought treatment for PTSD engaged in problem drinking.6

Transition Resources to Help Veterans

TAP, or the Transition Assistance Program, is a program through the VA designed to assist veterans in their transition to civilian life. The TAP program offers information on everything from money management to signing up for VA benefits.7

In addition, there are numerous resources related to the challenges of transition, including mental health services. 7

There are service-specific TAP resources, so whether you’re part of the Marines, Army, Coast Guard, Air Force, or Navy, there is a transition program for you.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Treatment

If you need treatment, there are many options available to you. There are VA inpatient substance abuse treatment programs at many local VA rehab centers. The VA substance use disorder locator can also help guide you as you seek out a VA rehab facility to treat you or your family members. VA alcohol treatment and other VA rehab programs for all types of substance abuse and mental health issues are available and able to provide quality treatment for veterans.

Reaching out and getting the help you need can change your life for the better.

However, there may not be a VA rehab center close to you, or your local VA may not provide the specialized treatment you need. In those cases, you may be able to access treatment at a community care provider, such as Desert Hope. Desert Hope offers specialized treatment for veterans.

Desert Hope has numerous veterans on staff who understand the unique issues and challenges of veterans struggling with substance use and other mental health struggles. If you have qualify for community care, you may be eligible to enter Desert Hope’s veterans program at the same rate you’d pay with for treatment with the VA.

References:

  1. Pew Research Center. (2011). The Difficult Transition from Military to Civilian Life.
  2. U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs. Community Provider Toolkit: Common Challenges During Re-Adjustment.
  3. Mobbs, M. C., & Bonanno, G. A. (2018). Beyond war and PTSD: The crucial role of transition stress in the lives of military veteransClinical psychology review59, 137-144.
  4. National Center for PTSD. (2019). Understanding PTSD and PTSD treatment.
  5. Derefinko, K. J., Hallsell, T. A., Isaacs, M. B., Salgado Garcia, F. I., Colvin, L. W., Bursac, Z., … & Klesges, R. C. (2018). Substance Use and Psychological Distress Before and After the Military to Civilian Transition. Military Medicine183(5-6), 258-265.
  6. U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs. (2019). National Center for PTSD.
  7. Department of Defense. (n.d.). Transition Assistance Program.
About The Contributor
Amanda Lautieri
Senior Web Content Editor, American Addiction Centers
Amanda Lautieri is a Senior Web Content Editor at American Addiction Centers and an addiction content expert for Desert Hope Treatment Center. She holds a bachelor's degree and has reviewed thousands of medical articles on substance abuse and... Read More