There is something visceral about a veterans emotional and mental state. It’s an aura of character which radiates of a veteran. It does not matter if it they served four years or forty. You can literally smell it emanating from them. It’s an intoxicant. There’s something powerful there. Not all veterans have that kind of pull or attraction to them. Some you’d never know. But for those of us who have been told we have a strong distinctive character and we accept it, there are things we all eventually experience. For those who are a veteran trying to understand their feelings after their transition after the military I recommend picking up Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankel. It’s a short easy read by a former WWII concentration camp prisoner. He’s a psychologist and was able to put into word his and his fellow prisoners experiences. I think it will touch some of your souls and hearts. It might even give you a peace of mind or help you recognize what you are going through. The following will touch on a couple of points made in the book.
Let’s start with the initial experience of a military person. You are brought from your civilian life, many at a young age, into a new world. You are indoctrinated with the creed and beliefs of your service. You are told to follow the rules and obey orders. Your life is structured. You get used to being told what to do. In one sense you are a sheep. You follow. there is no real leadership executed. Rank is awarded not ability but to having prerequisite courses and boxes checked off. True leadership peeks through here and there. Think of the supervisor, sergeant, lieutenant, captain which took care of you. Think of the drill instructor which you wanted to emulate when you left boot camp or basic. It’s there, just not as wide spread as those who have not served believe. And it’s okay if you disagree with me. That’s how I’ve experienced, seen, listened, observed, analyzed, reevaluated and experienced the military. We get indoctrinated, we get institutionalized. We have a hard time leaving the relative “safety” of the military. There is housing, food, a paycheck and clothes provided for us. There are freedoms we give up for that “safety”. We have people tell us what to do, what to say, what to look like, what to think. Dostoevski said “Yes, a man can get used to anything, but do not ask us how.” We get used to compromising sometimes who we are for the benefits of the military.
Now let’s take separation. There is the initial anxiety of the big change in our life. There is uncertainty when there was none before. We lose the majority of those benefits we had before. When we make that leap there is a little bit of regression. We sometimes go from that motivated military person to a not so outgoing and reclusive person. Many people who were used to the identification of being a certain rank no longer have that recognition from their peers. Some are unable to cope with this loss of status. Some merely shrug and move on with their lives as if the military never happened. Most hold onto some sort of vestige of their military experience. It may a uniform collecting dust in the closet, a tattoo of service affiliation, or even a photo on the nightstand of themselves in uniform. Regardless of how the person deals with separation a change does take place. The person is removed from a society which was small and familiar. There were rules to count on and people knew what was going on (though not always a perception of most service members). When we came into the military there was a set process to being introduce to this new world. Now the struggle is reversing that course and getting used to the old one. Or is it an old world? Many of us joined right after high school. This trend is going down with older recruits signing up well after they graduated. Did the high school graduates even know what being a civilian meant before they joined? Most lived at home, didn’t pay for rent, their phone, car and other things in life. They may have had jobs and even kids. Then we join the military. It is almost just like being at home. Everything is provided for you. You even get trained in a job. You get paid for just showing up at work! All you really did was change who were your parents. Some may refute this but let us take the following points. Growing up if you did not do a chore did you lose the privilege of sleeping in your own room? Now how about the military, do they kick you out of the barracks if you don’t do your work for the day? What about your allowance growing up? Was it taken away when you misbehaved? How about in the military? If you did not get your allowance did you parents say you couldn’t eat until you earned it? Does the military take your food away if you don’t show up for work? What this shows is a unique set of societal values influencing our youth. It twists us until we can no longer think for ourselves or even decide what to wear for the day without society’s approval.
Now when the service member leaves the service, how are we supposed to know they have a plan for their future? How do we know they have confidence about where the fit in society? How are we supposed to know they can survive on their own? Frankly upon leaving the service, a veteran is now engaged on a new search for meaning in his or her life. They may struggle or succeed right away. There are no guarantees for them any more. There is no comfortable place for them to fit into.
This is not a post to give those souls answers or some type of relief. It’s a post for those who have not worn the uniform and don’t know the struggles we go through. This a post to all who have questions about that bearded guy next to them on the bus or the single mom with a motivational tattoo showing on her calf as she pushes her baby stroller. This what they contend with. They have the same fears and dreams as you. For some of them though, their fall into the reality of being a civilian is a little harsher than most. They are human and just like you they are still searching for the meaning in their life.