Out of Uniform and On Your Own – What’s Next?

The straight and narrow path he taught me turned into a thousand winding roads.
— Joe Diffie

Sooner or later all of us who put on the uniform take it off. Whether three years or 33, the transition back to civilian life presents some obstacles for most. Whether it’s going back to home and family or beginning the search for a job in an unfamiliar world where most of the time no one wears uniforms, the change can be a source of stress, emotional swings and personal turmoil. It’s not completely different than other times in life, with one exception.

In high school you started at the bottom – a freshman, often the butt of jokes, harassment and ridicule by those older than you and farther up the ladder. Then those who attended college began at the bottom once again – a freshman looked down upon by upperclassmen. Follow on to the Army, Navy, Air Force or Marines, and as either an E-1 or O-1 you were at the bottom of the food chain looking up yet again. But the most important thing here is, the path upward was not a secret. Learn your job, do it well, work within the team and advancement comes right on schedule.

Not so when you leave the military and re-enter civilian life. For one thing, starting at the bottom is not so attractive, considering what you’ve done and what you’ve experienced while in service to the society you are coming back into. You believe that you deserve better, and you’re right. Surmounting the obstacles though, takes patience and perseverance.

Thomas Wolfe’s novel You Can’t Go Home Again touches on the dilemma many of us face. Military service is often viewed as a way to better one’s lot, to either learn a trade, get a degree or at least fund college for later. Once that has been accomplished and the veteran returns home to familiar surroundings, he or she finds that the jobs are not sitting there waiting for them. Some are filled by former peers who stayed at home; others have either gone away or been filled by those moving into the area. And many times the very reasons for leaving home and entering the military are reflected in the employment opportunities. The reason is simple – you have changed, added skills and education, but the job situation has not matured as you have, and what is available is not a match for you. The options are reduced to accepting a job that isn’t on a career path, or relocating to a new area where your learned skills are a closer match to the jobs available. Neither option is welcome, and can lead to depression, anxiety and stress.

Finding the right path is at least as difficult as following it once you’ve decided upon a trade, a profession or a vocation that is likely to reward you in terms of job satisfaction, salary and the opportunity for advancement. From a life wherein the path forward was known and the success in the execution was expressed in terms of duty, honor and personal commitment, the way forward in civilian occupations is not nearly as well-defined. For most veterans the absence of a plan or standard procedure can be unsettling. The contrast from performing to a set of duties, within a structured environment and working for a for-profit business is in itself a stress-inducing series of events. It is difficult to bridge the gap from structure to opportunism.

The lifestyle changes aren’t all in the work place, either. From uniformed medical and dental treatment to having to choose for one’s self, from free care to group insurance, from uniforms to a variety of work clothes, the path takes many twists and turns. In extreme cases the strain is so bad that waking at 2AM and thinking of all the things that have gone or can go wrong, and the ones that have that potential to do so can make the hours until dawn seem an eternity away. Uncertainty is a killer. At those times, the thousand winding roads do not portray limitless opportunity, they are individual paths into uncharted, possibly demoralizing and unfulfilling territory. Sadly, some veterans don’t make it until dawn. They instead become statistics that pull at all of us.

Think about this: Ours is a grateful nation. Many organizations exist to serve those who have served all of us by wearing the uniform. Our thanks have come slowly for some, most notably the ones who served in Viet Nam, but finally even those comrades in arms are receiving the love and respect they earned two generations ago. If you have troubles, somewhere there is an organization that can help. If you need help, it is available. Think of it as nothing more than reaching back for reinforcements, or just for more equipment. The team is still formed all around you. It’s just that now they wear different clothes, don’t salute and seldom go by titles of rank.

We’re all on the same road, no matter the path.