Thursday, September 8, 2011

Welcome to the (civilian) life, soldier

[Recently I was asked to write a feature on assimilating back into civilian and college life.  The original will be published in the upcoming issue of Pitt Magazine.]

TPN: A veteran gives advice on assimilation

So there you are. You’ve had this feeling before, this feeling of...anxiety — only this time, it’s different.

This time it’s not about waking up on time, making sure your boots are shined, uniform pressed, and haircut squared away. For us combat veterans, it’s not worrying if your weapon is clean and will fire or if the security team cleared the route properly. This is not that feeling you get right before you leave the wire — that feeling of excitement churned with a dash of worry and a dab of doubt.

But it’s there — different, but there.

 There are thousands of us veterans making the transition from soldier to student every year. Thousands of confused, anxious, and excited former soldiers ready to take the leap…ready to, once again, enjoy civilian life.

Be excited; be confused. Enjoy these emotions as you prepare to take that next step in life — your next great adventure. Trust me, you’re prepared.

When I am asked to describe the biggest challenge in assimilating back into civilian life, I never really hesitate to say, “The people.” It just seemed like everyone was apathetic to what was going on in the world.

I’ve learned over the years that this isn’t necessarily true. But, at the same time, it sometimes is.

People still have their agendas, and they go about their business, but I never saw that sense of urgency we were trained to have in the military. I also noticed that kids my age — I was 23 when I left the service — seemed to be the worst offenders of this apathy.

I couldn’t wrap my mind around this.

I am sure by now you’ve caught yourself saying, “This never would have flown in the military. How do these soup-sandwiches make it through the day?”

But that question probably isn’t fair.

In the military, we had a different mission — one that required that sense of urgency I am sure you are feeling right now. The mission of protecting America and her values depends on this.

To be fair, we all signed the dotted line and had a fairly good idea of what we volunteered for.

This is a trait you should embrace, as it is a trait we veterans have ingrained in our skulls. I have found it far more beneficial to embrace this proficiency than to harbor resentment toward our newly acquired compatriots.

This tool, discipline, is perhaps one we took for granted while serving because most everyone had it. Now you find yourself surrounded by young adults who haven’t yet had the benefit of attaining such a skill.

Use this to your advantage.

You might also find that some don’t appreciate your service as much you would like: Key in the Westboro Baptist Church.

Again, I have to bring up that word “volunteer.”

You see, some people will never get it. They will never understand what you had to endure; they will never have to see or do what you have seen and done; they will never have the honor of serving this country.

Perhaps they are too scared; perhaps they feel like they are too good; perhaps they are even jealous because you were able to accomplish something they could never dream of doing — or perhaps they don’t possess that feeling of obligation we felt to protect this great nation. One might never know the military dissenter’s motivation for feeling the way they do.

One thing we know for sure:

They can never take away that honor or that sense of camaraderie we have all come to know and love. They can never take back what we have done, no matter how they feel. I’ve learned that getting a free steak once a year at Applebee’s really isn’t that bad when you have the life-long friends you gained in the greatest fraternity (and sorority) on Earth.

I am not saying it’s just you and your military buddies against the world, because that isn’t the case.

For the rest of your life you will run into people who will always feel indebted to you for the service you have performed. My advice: Surround yourself with these people and not the people that will never respect you no matter what you’ve done or have on your chest.

When you feel that anxiety of not knowing, know that you’ve been here before, and the threat of small-arms fire will always trump the threat of whether your financial aid comes in on time. So pick up your ruck and keep moving.

Know that you will always have people around you to help.

Take advantage of the many programs Veterans Affairs has available. I guarantee some of the anxiety will be quelled after you know how much assistance the office can provide for a number of problems you might encounter — you just have to take the time to learn about them.

If you are struggling with issues from past deployments or assignments, get help at the VA hospital. There are caring people who are waiting to help you.

Take advantage of the GI Bill!

You paid for it, and it’s a terrific program — especially since its transition from the Montgomery GI Bill to the Post 9/11 GI Bill. This program alone should more than help usher in a smoother transition to becoming a college student.

Most importantly, know that you aren’t alone.

There will always be somebody there to help you. If all else fails, you know you can always call on your military pals and that they will be there for you no matter what — whether it’s to help you move, be your best man, or rescue your drunk ass from the bar at 3 a.m.

You know you can always count on them.

If you take advantage of these programs and the tools you have acquired — and if you concentrate on what you have and not on what you don’t — your training will kick in and do the rest.

At ease, soldier. We aren’t in Fallujah anymore.


  1. Nobody beats Army buddies!

  2. Thanks for this. Veterans don't get nearly the respect they deserve and i am not a vet.