Transitioning from Active Duty to Civilian Life
Transitioning from active-duty military to civilian life can be challenging and present a number of difficulties for members of the armed forces.
According to a Pew Research Center survey of 1,853 veterans, 27% reported having trouble with readjustment to civilian life.1
This article will:
- Help you understand the difficulties that may arise when transitioning from active duty to civilian life.
- Explain transition stress.
- Help you learn about the transition resources available to veterans to help make your readjustment easier.
- Address any issues you or your loved one may face upon your return.
Why is it Difficult to Transition from the Military to Civilian Life?
Transitioning from military to civilian life can be difficult for a number of reasons. Leaving a regimented life for an unknown or unstructured civilian life can make you feel like you’ve lost your footing; you may not be sure how to proceed with returning to work or obtaining further education.
Sometimes, returning service members may have an unrealistic view of what their daily life will look like, which can bring disillusionment and frustration.
In terms of employment, one survey found that they might be waiting for the “right” job and may be unwilling to accept what is currently available to them. The same survey reported that more than half of the respondents said the military left them unprepared to enter the civilian workforce.2
It’s not only the stress of finding a job that can cause problems: Some military veterans who want to continue their education also experience difficulties transitioning to college or universities.
Feelings of chronic stress or PTSD can contribute to feelings of alienation from other students on campus, and they may have a hard time integrating into academic life.1
One of the difficulties that returning military service members may not have anticipated is difficulty becoming a part of their families or communities after returning from war.3 Their families may have created new routines while they were away and may not know how to provide the right type of support.
The military provides a structured community, and it can be difficult to return to a local community that doesn’t automatically reach out or provide this type of environment. Veterans used to the military providing opportunities for social interaction may need to take a more proactive approach when it comes to socializing with community members or coworkers.4
Even making choices for oneself can be an important and challenging issue during the readjustment period. Military life provides little personal choice, and it can be stressful and overwhelming to suddenly be expected to make countless decisions as part of civilian life.4
Furthermore, trauma and struggles with PTSD and other mental health disorders, such as depression and substance abuse can compound re-entry issues. A Pew Research Center study explains that veterans who have experienced a psychological trauma have a 56% probability of an easy re-entry to civilian life, as opposed to 86% who did not experience the same trauma.1
What is Transition Stress?
Columbia psychology professor George A. Bonanno and Meaghan Mobbs, a PhD student and former Army officer, proposed in a 2017 review that only a minority of veterans actually develop PTSD.
They noted that most returning service members experience transition stress, as opposed to PTSD. PTSD has received more attention and research, so this could mean that while many veterans are experiencing transition stress, they are instead misdiagnosed and mistreated for PTSD.5
Transition stress is used to describe the high stress levels caused by alienation and feelings of displacement when veterans reintegrate into civilian life. This stress can: 6
- Lead to depression, anxiety, and other behavioral issues such as substance abuse.
- Make it difficult to obtain employment.
- Lead to decreased sense of identity and purpose.
- Cause relationship difficulties.
- Result in a range of additional problems.
Transition stress can also cause increased substance abuse and alcoholism.7 The study found that, while levels of alcohol use, cigarette use, and prescription drug misuse remained relatively constant during active duty and post-separation, levels of marijuana and hard drug use showed a significant increase after members left active duty.
This means that more attention and resources may need to be devoted to addressing substance use and psychological interventions before service members leave the military, particularly to ensure their best chances of effective and healthy functioning upon their return to day-to-day life.7
What Transition Resources are Available for Veterans?
Transition Assistance Programs, or TAPs, assist veterans when they return from active duty. They provide information and assistance (such as help with finding a job, starting a business, or returning to school) to returning military vets so they can successfully return to their everyday lives.
To learn more about these programs, please see the following links:
- DoD TAP. Administered by the Department of Defense, this program helps veterans achieve their post-military goals and is based on a curriculum that offers resources, tools, services, and skill-building training needed to meet Career Readiness Standards (CRS).8
- Veterans Affairs TAP. This comprehensive program is a joint effort of the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs. It offers a wide range of resources, such as career and education guidance, for veterans and their families. You can learn more through the interactive guide and videos on their website.9
- Transition assistance offices. These offices are available on most military bases; many branches of the military have their own TAPs. For more information on specific programs, visit the following links:10
For returning military veterans who experience transition stress and have pre-existing substance use, entering professional substance abuse treatment is a beneficial way to address both conditions. You can find a substance abuse treatment center through the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration’s online treatment locator or the Department of Veterans Affairs Substance Use Disorder page to find a VA program in your state.
There are also private facilities outside of the VA that can help your addiction recovery. American Addiction Centers (AAC) has two facilities that are community care providers, meaning the VA may cover some of the cost of treatment there.
Desert Hope in Nevada and Recovery First in Florida both offer AAC’s Salute to Recovery program, formulated specifically to treat addiction and co-occurring disorders among veterans. Many of the staff members who administer the program are also veterans and can relate to the dangerous situations and struggles veterans face.
Veterans are more than capable of making the transition to civilian life—sometimes, you or your loved one just may need a little extra help. There are many resources out there to guide you on your way, you just have to know where to look.
- Morin, R. (2011). The difficult transition from military to civilian life.
- Turner, D. (2020). Vets facing difficult transition to civilian jobs.
- Military One Source. (2020). Transition assistance programs and resources.
- U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Common challenges during readjustment.
- Mobbs, M. & Bonannon, G. (2017). Beyond war and PTSD: The crucial role of transition stress in the lives of military veterans. Clinical Psychology Review, 59, 137-144.
- Clark, J. (2018). For Most Vets, PTSD Isn’t The Problem, ‘Transition Stress’ Is. Here’s What That Means.
- Derefinko, K., Hallsell, T., Isaacs, M., Salgado Garcia, F., Colvin, L…Klesges, R. (2018). Substance Use and Psychological Distress Before and After the Military to Civilian Transition. Military Medicine, 183(5-6), e258-e265.
- About DoDTAP.
- U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (2019). VA Transition Assistance Program (TAP).
- Military One Source. Separation & Transition: Resources