Eventually, no matter if they’ve served for just one tour of duty or several, two years, or twenty-plus, every single individual who has entered the U.S. Armed Forces as a soldier, sailor, airman, Marine, Coast Guard, or Space Force Guardian, has to leave their branch of service and exit the military—and to become a U.S. civilian once again. 

This is commonly referred to as a veteran’s “transition” time, but what is frequently misunderstood is that this is less of a linear moment with a clear beginning, middle, and end, and much more of a process, that frequently can take several years to play out. Nor, for reasons that I’ve previously indicated (in “Not All Veterans Are Created Equal” and the American Purpose op-ed “The Veteran”), do the exact same set of challenges or opportunities present themselves for every veteran during their transition time. Nevertheless, there are a few shared generalities that are helpful to keep in mind when designing policy solutions for the challenges—and opportunities—that exist along the post-military service journey.

“Returning to private life after serving in the military is a very complex undertaking,” former Deputy Under Secretary of Defense (Military Community and Family Policy) Leslye Arsht observed in response to recommendations from the 1996 Congressional Commission on Servicemembers and Veterans Transition Assistance—the first comprehensive review of veterans’ benefits since the 1956 Bradley Commission. There’s an individual transition that must take place in terms of the veteran’s own sense of identity and purpose. Additionally, there’s a social and an institutional transition that must take place that involves not just the veteran, but the network of external civilian communities that the veteran returns to: we might think of this in terms of an environmental transition, where the attitudes and opinions of the civilian members about veterans directly affect the setting into which the new veteran enters. And it is equally relevant whether the veteran joins the labor market and a business setting or pursues higher education at a college or university. 

Then there is a cultural transition that involves moving from a highly visible commonly shared military culture (however varied its strains) to a vast and diverse popular culture that has little awareness of anything military-related: perhaps this can be described as having to go from a “majority mindset” to a “minority mindset.” Overlapping and infusing each of these simultaneous transition journeys is the more specifically socio-political transition that the veteran has to travel, in going from the “honor society” of the military community to the rights-based, even transactional, mindset and organization of broader civilian society. 

Each of these simultaneous transitions deserves its own fleshing out in separate posts. Here, I’ll briefly tackle the identity transition, with a full acknowledgment that this is a breadcrumb presentation of the issue, and is hardly comprehensive. 

When it comes to a sense of identity, the age of the veteran is significant. Currently, active duty Armed Forces personnel tend to be young, with the majority under the age of 30 years old—the vast preponderance of whom are actually 25 years of age and under. (Keep in mind the majority of enlisted and officers do not make it a 20-year career.) Developmentally speaking, this is the “emerging adulthood” period—a period of rapid development involving key struggles surrounding personal identity. The military offers concrete answers to common existential questions, reinforcing them through experience, during this formative period. The positive self-regard cultivated during military service becomes a focal point of the psychological changes that often distinguish the period of transition out of the military. Research from Columbia University (and IWF’s own Meaghan Mobbs) reveals that veterans can experience grief-like symptoms at the loss of their previous military identity which in turn augments all the stressors of a life transition, when facing the initial stability of civilian life and lacking the order and purpose that characterized their service.

The media and the public overwhelmingly call this experience of veteran transition stress PTSD and erroneously believe that the majority of all post-9/11 veterans have a mental health disorder. Unfortunately, since funded research at the Veterans Health Administration and military treatment facilities prioritizes PTSD research, and since the preponderance of well-intentioned veteran legislation post-9/11 has emphasized mental health disorders, the public, potential employers, and veterans themselves are trapped in the inaccurate and harmful “broken veteran” narrative cycle

This narrative influences the beliefs and reflexive ideas many employers have about veterans, despite those employers’ honest desire to hire veterans. Edelman Insights, for instance, has uncovered that a full 53% of employers believe that most veterans do not have successful careers after leaving the military, and 60% believe that veterans may need additional training or education before they are qualified for public or private sector roles. But this is also a complex issue of its own, to be tackled in a future dedicated post.