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Throughout thirty-five interviews with veterans of Afghanistan, I realized there are many issues facing veterans beyond PTSD. Veterans struggle to reintegrate into civilian life, resulting in transitional stress.
So what is transitional stress?
Six themes emerge from the interview data on transitional stress: missing the military; feeling lost and apathetic in civilian life; feeling cut off from an elite family; difficulty connecting with civilians; the loss of structure; and the loss of a sense of service.
Let’s take a closer look at each of these themes.
Missing the Military
Missing combat stood out as one of the most common sentiments. Although this is probably no surprise to military personnel and veterans, it is something that is completely counter-intuitive in the civilian world. In civilian-life, safety, security, and comfort are valued above all else. So how can an experience characterized by danger, uncertainty, and discomfort be missed? It’s the sense of purpose that comes with the role. One Canadian veteran states:
“I don’t necessarily miss being blown up and shot at, but you miss the purpose that comes with the combat.”
“It’s the idea that for six months or whatever, you’re really in the shit, you’re in the thick of it, you are really doing something; you’re doing something that people are talking about, you’re doing something that’s cool, you’re doing something with your friends, it’s hard, it’s crazy, and it feels like you’re really alive for the first time in your life, and when you come back and your don’t have that anymore, it’s hard. It’s hard to think to yourself, ‘I’m never going to do that again, I’m never going to be that cool again, I’m never going to be able to go back to that.’”
And another who served with the British Army states:
“I wondered whether my life would be better if I were dead than alive… I wondered whether my best days were behind me.”
The thought suicide after returning to the comforts of civilian life is a reminder of Émile Durkheim’s sociological insight in Suicide when he states:
“…those who suffer most are not those who kill themselves most. Rather it is too great comfort which turns a man against himself. Life is most readily renounced at the time and among the classes where it is least harsh.”
Rather than blaming the harsh conditions of Afghanistan for veteran suicides, we need to look at how the culture of civilian life may actually be a major culprit.
In his memoir, Through Our Eyes, Jessie Odom states: “the most devastating perpetual trauma I had to overcome was civilian transition.” Bryan Wood mirrors this sentiment in Unspoken Abandonment:
“Going from war to everyday life turned out to be much more complicated than it was for me to go from everyday life to war.”
Difficulty Connecting with Civilians
After witnessing the profound tragedy of war, Bryan’s sense of what mattered in life was uprooted. Referring to the conversations of co-workers he states:
“I couldn’t believe the kind of silly bullshit these people thought mattered in life… I couldn’t believe I once thought these same things were important.”
Upon sharing some of my earlier writing on this topic on r/veterans, exgiexpcv responded:
“…you’re used to doing things that mattered, and suddenly your life is simply digesting bullshit and consuming instead…”
The hardships of combat are often not as traumatizing as the cultural shock when returning to civilian life because the individual in combat is protected by a highly integrated and regulated group. Tight-knit, mission-oriented, and getting regular doses of adrenaline, the combat unit produces a high degree of psychological resilience in its members. As one veteran states:
“If you’re around army guys, every civvy is a dirty, long haired, bone-idle, slack, dope smoking civvy, every one of them… he can grow his hair, he can be fuckin’ bone idle, smoke dope… perfect example of freedom, that`s for sure… he’s idle, fuck is he idle, and he’ll never be as badass as me, but shit is he free.”
This mentality is reinforced among those who transitioned into organizations that were perceived as frustrating due to their inefficiency:
“People are going from working in a high performance team to working in a B team or a C team.”
Even an individual who went into civilian policing after their deployment felt this frustration:
“Coming back to the civilian world, there was no sense of urgency here; people are slack and they are bone-idle… they are unmotivated, and they don’t know how good they’ve got it.”
He states that he was losing his mind in terms of the utter inefficiency and lack of focus in the civilian work world:
“It was absolutely horrible… I would walk out of meetings going, ‘that was two hours of god-damn time wasted.”
Several participants also described their frustrations dealing with civilians who complain about “first world problems.”
Experiencing a great deal of adversity on deployment resulted in a radical change in perspective after witnessing the contrast between the conditions in Afghanistan and the high quality of life in Canada. As a participant states:
“There are no common experiences… 99% of civilians aren’t going to see anything like what I’ve seen when overseas… part of my reason for joining the forces was so that people I cared about wouldn’t have to see those things… but seeing those things creates a barrier between me and civvies.”
This barrier was experienced by another participant who states:
“I couldn’t interact with civilians; there was no common ground…” and “Everything’s amazing here and people are still miserable… now try making friends with those people.”
“…civvy life is the easiest thing ever; my biggest problem is that when I’m on the expressway, somebody’s slow in the fuckin’ fast lane.”
The experience of adversity overseas also leads many participants to express disdain for civilians who act selfishly and entitled or unnecessarily put others in danger. One participant, in particular, described his aggressive reaction to civilians as a heightened sense of justice, distinct from his diagnosis of PTSD.
He described his reaction to drivers who put others in danger, stating that he would force them to pull over, throw them out of the car, and “teach them a life lesson.” He clarifies:
“It’s not aggression like I just want to fight or anything like that; it’s aggression towards people who are putting other people in danger.”
Being overseas and witnessing the fragility of life has contributed to this perspective. After seeing how good we have it here in Canada relative to the abject poverty and dangerous conditions in Afghanistan, individuals in Canada who unnecessarily put others at risk appeared to be ungrateful and self-centered. This unnecessary risky self-centered behavior takes our safety for granted, contrasting with the fragility of life on deployment.
Feeling Lost and Apathetic in Civilian Life
In sociological terms, the risk of suicide due to transition is called ‘anomie’. The social source of suicide risk for veterans in transition can be illuminated by Elwin Humphreys Powell’s concept of ‘anomie’ in his book, The Design of Discord. Anomie occurs when an individual is unable to derive a sense of meaning or purpose from one’s social environment. According to Powell, a central area of life where actors find purposive action is one’s work:
“Man derives his identity from his action. Action is more than motion, a mere doing things; it implies purpose, the pursuit of a goal. Without some aim beyond the moment, life becomes intolerable, meaningless”.
Keeping each other alive on deployment provides a sense of urgency and purpose that allows individuals to function effectively, despite a mission’s extremely harsh conditions. As Victor Frankl states in Man’s Search for Meaning, “Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’.”
Civilian life often fails to provide combat veterans with a ‘why’. After witnessing the profound tragedy of life in Afghanistan and experiencing a high degree of purpose-driven action, our way of life in the West can seem frivolous and dull. This is why we not only need programs for psychological traumas such as PTSD, but for reintegration traumas as well. Sebastian Junger illustrates this issue in War, stating:
“They miss being in a world where human relations are entirely governed by whether you can trust the other person with your life. It’s such a pure, clean standard that men can completely remake themselves in war.”
This “remaking” leads to issues with identity upon transition to civilian life.
My research indicates that feeling lost and apathetic in civilian life is directly tied to the identity disruption during the transition to civilian life. As a participant states:
“You don’t have an answer for who you are, you’re just kind of a lost soul….”
Another describes the experience as the following:
“My transition has been nothing short of brutal. I’m trying to find my place now; who am I? Where am I going to go? What am I going to do now? I have been seriously struggling with transition.”
This same participant went on to describe the military’s moral milieu in terms of providing a “psychological paycheck”:
“You get two paychecks in the military: you get your pay monetarily, but you also get paid psychologically in the military… a sense of purpose, focus, comradery, mission, and all those kinds of things… but when you leave the military often times they take away both of those paychecks, or at least one of them; they take the psychological pay.”
Besides the loss of “psychological pay” provided by the moral solidarity of the combat unit, the high level of responsibility provided by the role also contributes to feeling lost due to an inability to find meaning in civilian life. As a participant states: “I feel like that was the pinnacle of my life, for good and bad, and now you’re supposed to find something else and find new meaning?”
Feeling Cut Off From An Elite Family
In an article called What Vets Miss Most Is What Most Civilians Fear: A Regimented, Cohesive Network That Always Checks On You, the author states:
“The truth is that I had never been in such a supportive social environment in my life.… when Veterans leave military service, many of them, like me, are leaving the most cohesive and helpful social network they’ve ever experienced. And that hurts. Most recent Veterans aren’t suffering because they remember what was bad. They’re suffering because they miss what was good.”
A comment below the article expands on this sentiment in terms of the concept of ‘trust’: “Veterans mostly miss bonds built on trust, demonstrated through actions not just words.” The experience of this demonstration beyond words can be witnessed in the following lines from the book, Memoirs of an Outlaw: Life in the Sandbox:
“We had relied on one another to have our backs and would have given our lives to protect the others. We had built a relationship that was stronger than just rank: we were a family, a brotherhood, sewn together by trust, respect, blood, tears, and sweat. Everything we had built together was slowly being torn apart.”
Training instills this commitment to the group, evidence of this commitment solidifies it, and the transition to civilian life can tear it apart. Units train together, deploy together, and should come home together.
Coming back to one’s civilian family means leaving one’s military family, causing potential problems due to this loss. Individuals I interviewed who had particularly difficult experiences coming to terms with the loss of their military family were those who were injured and forced to leave their unit.
One individual describes the military in terms of an elite family characterized by a sense of invincibility. Getting injured, “you get cut off from the family,” this individual states. He felt shunned because he felt his injuries reminded others of their lack of invincibility.
This individual was not nearly as distressed by the pain of his physical injury as he was by the loss of the military family – a by-product of the physical injury. This individual experienced suicidal ideation after this traumatic loss and feeling shunned by his military family.
The elite mentality in the military of “being better than everyone else” – as one participant characterized it – creates a heightened sense of loss when one is injured and forced to leave. Another participant corroborates this sentiment in the statement:
“…when you’re in the military, you really believe you’re part of the high end of society… you feel like you’re somehow better.”
This sentiment is prevalent and it is based on the fact that the military is a high performing organization and its members are in peak athletic condition. This participant went on to state:
“I would compare the structure of the military to an F-1 [race car] in comparison to the company I am at now.”
The Loss of Structure
The regimented military structure encourages a strong sense of collective responsibility and accountability among service members, as discussed in the section on military communal altruism. Coming into civilian life, individuals are forced to quickly adjust to individualized responsibility and accountability:
“Now I just have to be accountable to myself, and that’s a problem.”
Intensive indoctrination into the military and experiences on deployment resocialized serving members to internalize the collective accountability of the military making the shift to individualized responsibility and purpose difficult:
You don’t have that military conscience on your shoulder anymore telling you what you should and shouldn’t do… the military is like your parents, you’re taught a certain way how to behave, how to look, how to react to things, and you’re basically a lamb thrown to the lions when you’re on your own.
The high degree of structured behavior in combat is necessitated by the risk of death. Military members on deployment exist in a constant state of anxious anticipation, are very reliant on their compatriots, and behave according to strict codes of conduct. When in civilian life, Veterans need to adjust to the relative lack of urgency, individualized responsibility, and loosely structured organizational behavior. A participant states:
“Everything is so black and white and clearly defined when you’re in the military that there’s really no room for misinterpretations… when you do something wrong, you get jacked up hard, you may even get charged… in the civilian world things are subject to interpretation and you can do things your own way, so long as you get it done…Sometimes it seems like there’s no accountability… like “oh, something got missed; oh well, we’ll get it next time,” and to me that’s like ‘what? Get it next time? Coming from an environment where sometimes there is no next time, you don’t get a second chance, you do this right or that’s it, somebody fucking dies.
Transitioning into a banking position, another participant states:
“When you pass the ball, you expect somebody to be there… there’s no real accountability, no real responsibility.”
The relative lack of clearly structured accountability and responsibility in civilian life contributes to the anomic conditions of the transition.
The military’s organizational need for its members to quickly build strong bonds of trust and intimacy is a key distinction between military and civilian organizations. A participant states:
“The bond is very strong between service-people and there’s a lot of importance placed on relationships… as soon as you join a team everybody will intuitively connect as much and as fast as they can with people around them, and that would actually freak out my civilian counterparts.”
For another participant, this was the major distinction between his experience at the Royal Military College and his experience in law school:
[At the] Royal Military College you were accountable for everything you did, you were part of the team… then you go to law school, you’re not really part of anything, you’re just a number. On one hand the freedom was good, on the other, the freedom was overwhelming as well.
The overwhelming nature of this relative freedom in the individualistic context of civilian life is the individual manifestation of anomie. This individual goes on to describe the experience of law school as “being alone” despite being in a large group, whereas in the military, “you can bet someone is always looking out for you… you’re always accountable to one another – which is a great thing – but when you take that away it can be isolating.
The structure provided by the military gave individuals a sense of security and resilience unparalleled in civilian life. One participant actually states:
“I found it safer there than I do sometimes here.”
In the military, there is a contingency plan for everything, but in civilian life, there is no such collective plan regulating one’s sense of security:
“We don’t have a contingency plan for bar fights… over there you just knew what to do… there was a feeling of invincibility with certain people around.”
Leaving a context where collective regulations organize every aspect of life results in a disorienting lack of structure. This same individual went on to say:
“I found it easier to think on my feet for eight guys than it is to organize my day-to-day here.”
When coming back onto the base after deployment, he maintained the sense of collectivity with many of the people he served with, but moving back to his home-city across the country posed a great deal of difficulty:
“despite the fact that I had a close family, I did not have my brothers in arms, the guys I served with, the guys who knew me, and we all knew each other so well.”
After moving he states:
“not having that balance of people I could lean on here, things got worse; my drug-use escalated.”
Suicidal ideation became an issue during this period of transition back to his home-city. This participant was able to gain respite from suicidal ideation during contracts where he was hired to assist fellow Veterans during the transition by sharing his personal experience.
This experience of working for the military during these contracts provided structure to his life and allowed him to regain a sense of purpose through serving his fellow transitioning service-members.
The Loss of a Sense of Service
One of my interview participants states, “I miss being in the forces every day, it’s who I was.” Leaving a specialized role that provided a high degree of individual significance and direction through a communal purpose, “you go from a hero to a zero…” as another veteran said. In his memoir, Through Our Eyes, Jessie Odom states:
“the most devastating perpetual trauma I had to overcome was civilian transition… I know the changes I see in myself are not a result of the war in Iraq. Even though those memories are still there and are traumatic, it goes much deeper than that. The changes are the result of a man who wishes he was at war.”
This same sentiment is again illustrated by Sebastian Junger :
“Collective defense can be so compelling — so addictive, in fact — that eventually it becomes the rationale for why the group exists in the first place. I think almost every man at Restrepo [the combat outpost] secretly hoped the enemy would make a serious try at overrunning the place before the deployment came to an end. It was everyone’s worst nightmare but also the thing they hoped for most, some ultimate demonstration of the bond and fighting ability of the men. For sure there were guys who re-upped because something like that hadn’t happened yet. After the men got back to Vicenza, I asked Bobby Wilson if he missed Restrepo at all. “I’d take a helicopter there tomorrow,” he said. Then, leaning in, a little softer: “Most of us would.”
He goes on to say:
…throughout history, men… [at war] have come home to find themselves desperately missing what should have been the worst experience of their lives… they miss being in a world where everything is important and nothing is taken for granted. They miss being in a world where human relations are entirely governed by whether you can trust the other person with your life. It’s such a pure, clean standard that men can completely remake themselves in war.
O’Byrne, a marine at Restrepo, states:
“It’s as if I’m self-destructive, trying to find the hardest thing possible to make me feel accomplished…”
For these men, combat provides a heightened sense of meaning in common action, or perhaps what Durkheim calls ‘collective effervescence’.
Karl Marlantes, In his memoir titled What it is Like to Go to War, states that self-destructive behaviors, including suicides, are the result of a veterans’ inability to make sense of their chaotic experience upon return to civilian life. He states that simply expecting veterans to ‘adjust’ to civilian life is not enough. He writes, “adjustment is akin to asking Saint John of the cross to be happy flipping burgers at McDonald’s after he’s left the monastery.” Marlantes argues that the spiritual component of combat must be recognized in order to prevent meaningless suffering in veterans.
Rather than treating individual psychological ailments as individual problems, we need to look at how social and cultural forces produce suicidal thoughts or behavior in this veteran population. Sociologically speaking, we need to consider the profound effects of ‘anomie’ in transitioning veteran populations.
Used by Émile Durkheim to describe a society lacking moral regulation, anomic society lacks the moral signposts that guide individuals throughout their life-course, leaving them without direction to pursue collective goals.
Throughout the late 19th and early 20th century, Durkheim observed the diminishing role of public morality in Western capitalist societies. Individual aspirations were no longer tightly regulated by traditional beliefs, and they were set free in the limitless pursuit of wealth.
Throughout the 20th-century market capitalism grew to a point where consumer culture added the imperative to consume. This cycle of limitless production and consumption reminds me of the Metric lyric: “Buy this car to drive to work, drive to work to pay for this car.”
With all of our basic survival needs more than accounted for in the West, the pursuit of wealth became the central guiding sign-post in our lives. This was problematic for Durkheim since it left many lives in moral upheaval, driving new urbanites to commit suicide.
Although anomie is sufficiently normalized in Western society today and no longer harmful to the average individual, military veterans often experience this same sense of moral culture shock in their transition to civilian life.
In his book, Suicide, Durkheim says anomie is a problem because it leaves individuals in a perpetual state of emptiness. Free from the yolk of tradition, our desires are limitless, producing a perpetual state of unhappiness:
“Inextinguishable thirst is constantly renewed torture… since this race for an unattainable goal can give no other pleasure but that of the race itself, it is one, once it is interrupted the participants are left empty-handed.”
Interrupted by existential shock in the reality of war, veterans often come back unable to find pleasure in the civilian rat-race. Having experienced life or death decision-making and the necessity of clear focused attention, civilian life appears loose and actions appear inconsequential. In War, Sebastion Junger writes:
In the civilian world almost nothing has lasting consequences, so you can blunder through life in a kind of daze. You never have to take inventory of the things in your possession and you never have to calculate the ways in which mundane circumstances can play out — can, in fact, kill you. As a result, you lose a sense of the importance of things, the gravity of things.
A sense of service is another major factor contributing to moral purpose amongst service-members. A sense of serving in the military provides a high degree of moral purpose, leaving individuals vulnerable to the feeling of apathy and lacking direction in civilian life. As a veteran states:
“We want to serve, that’s our mantra… a lot of guys will join the paramedics, police, or fire-department, because they want to be in that position of service to other people… that’s who we are.”
By adding, “that’s who we are,” this individual points to the importance of maintaining a social identity based on service. Veterans gained a great deal of their social identity and moral purpose from serving in the military and therefore require the opportunity to continue serving once they return to civilian life. Coming out of the military, as one participant states:
You lose the sense that you are serving your country. Serving your country tends to be an undervalued activity, but it is one that Veterans have embraced. Unlike any other profession, they put their life on the line. What they are looking for is something like what they just left, and that doesn’t exist anymore, so that’s why so many people don’t actually leave the military; they go to the reserves or they go into organizations that deliver projects to the military or they go on as trainers.
This individual states that his stepson, who also served in the Canadian Forces, valued service. He said that although his stepson embraced the consumerist and self-serving values of his generation – making a lot of money in the banking industry – his heart was in public service and he spent a great deal of his spare time serving his military reserve unit. Another subject who struggled to regain a sense of moral purpose through service in civilian life states:
I wait every day for a car accident… I think ‘can somebody please flip your car so I can save your life…’ I’m looking for a rush, I’m looking for a reason to help people, I want near-deadly experiences, I want an apocalypse of this world, I want everything to go bad, I want you all to fucking need me to fucking save your life.
This is the extreme end of frustration caused by missing the sense of purpose that comes through service.
Service also builds a sense of moral purpose through contribution. Coming home and losing the moral community one served creates the need to regain a sense of contribution. As one Veteran states:
“…no one tells us, ‘hey, you’re still worthy of making a contribution.’”
Facilitating social environments that give Veterans the opportunity to apply their skills in civilian professions allows them to potentially regain a sense of service. Another participant has a positive work experience regaining a sense of serving a team at a tech start-up, stating:
“I work really long hours… but that’s our commitment, that’s our dedication, and I find meaning out of that… working with a bunch of people that are motivated, driven, and ambitious, that’s what I had in Afghanistan.”
He goes on to say:
“Now, if I make the wrong decision, the whole company fails, and that sort of level of responsibility is awesome… my decisions, my actions have a bigger impact than they would at a larger organization.”
This individual was able to regain a sense of service in the private sector, regaining purpose by applying his leadership skills to serve the team.
The relative lack of moral regulation in civilian life can leave veterans disoriented. The fact that anomie has been normalized in the West creates a general environment of decadence, where the pursuit of wealth/ the consumption of goods seems like the only game in town.
Having faced one’s mortality surrounded by a tight-knit mission-oriented group, the production/ consumption game loses its luster, appearing meaningless. In order to prevent suicidal ideation in individuals whose lives have lost meaning during the transition to the civilian world, veteran programs need to consider the important existential component to civilian transition.
Solutions may include veterans groups focused on the pursuit of a common purpose such as Team Rubicon, Squadbay, expeditions with Canada’s True Patriot Love Organization, or peer-support groups provided by Canada’s Veterans Transition Network, and Operational Stress Injury Social Support Program. Missing combat is a symptom of anomie.
For most veterans it is manageable and they are able to move on, finding meaning in civilian occupations. For others, it is the most difficult thing they may face. Recognizing this reality is the first step to understanding the types of interventions we need to consider in order to combat the problem of life after combat.
Although it is beneficial to treat individuals who suffer psychological traumas on an individual basis, we need to consider social traumas not currently being addressed by this popular form of treatment. As Jessie Odom states in, Through Our Eyes:
“the story does not end on the battlefield. For most, the story has just begun.”
Having experienced the intense training, sense of mission, and communal bond offered by the military, many of the veterans I spoke with during my research had some profound insights on life.
Veterans can teach us a great deal about the meaning of purpose, leadership, work ethic, community, and meaning.
Throughout my research, their insights transformed the way I look at the world, so I thought it might be helpful to pass along their messages here.
Lessons on Purpose
We need to stop sleepwalking through life and build a strong sense of purpose.
In the military, members experience a high level of communal purpose. This sense of communal purpose and belonging offered in the military is unparalleled in civilian life. As one veteran states:
“We are all in the same spot, eating the same shitty ration pack food, getting the occasional phone call home, but not minding it because we were all in the same boat, we know that it could be any of us at any time and suddenly everything is everyone’s, and for that moment in your life it’s true communal living, the closest you can ever get to pure altruism.”
Sociologically, altruism means a high level of social integration. This is common in communal contexts where each person depends on the group, taking on group identity. As another veteran states:
It’s not a job, we’re always military…. I miss being in the forces every day, it’s who I was…. My team kept me going.”
This sense of group identity is not simply symbolic. Members are not bound by flags, uniforms, or titles alone. It’s what these things represent that matters: how you contribute to the larger group.
Military group identity is about your role within a larger system where everyone depends upon on one another. As written in Memoirs of an Outlaw: Life in the Sandbox:
“We had relied on one another to have our backs and would have given our lives to protect the others. We had built a relationship that was stronger than just rank: we were a family, a brotherhood, sewn together by trust, respect, blood, tears, and sweat. Everything we had built together was slowly being torn apart.”
During the transition, veterans become individuals again. By this, I mean the need to rebuild a sense of individual purpose; an identity outside the group.
The difficulty here is that humans are not wired to simply rebuild an identity in isolation. We can have a sense of our own unique abilities, values, and interests, but without a way to connect these things with a larger group, we feel isolated and lost.
Veterans may have a sense of their unique individual skills, but struggle with how to apply them in a civilian context. As a veteran states:
What do I do now? everybody’s kinda sleepwalking through life here, there’s no purpose, nobody stands for anything, life seems very shallow after that.
Having experienced life in a highly altruistic military context, veterans see the world through a different lens. This lens can help us critically reflect on our social world and what it means to have a sense of purpose.
If you’re lacking a sense of purpose, feeling like you’re sleepwalking through life, consider the quality of your social environment.
Are you working in a toxic individualistic culture marked by little regard for the larger group? As Simon Sinek states:
“We are drawn to leaders and organizations that are good at communicating what they believe. Their ability to make us feel like we belong, to make us feel special, safe and not alone is part of what gives them the ability to inspire us.”
We are the best version of ourselves when we connect our individual skills, values, and interests with something larger than ourselves. A sense of purpose is forged in the interaction between the individual and society. This sense of reciprocal contribution matters, but is often lacking. Rather than simply looking inward, we need to look both inward and outward.
How are your social environments facilitating or blocking a sense of communal purpose?
How can you operate within your social environments more effectively to contribute to a healthy culture of trust and common purpose?
If you find yourself in a highly toxic social environment, how might you draw personal boundaries, remove yourself, or perhaps find a better social environment?
Lessons on Leadership
Forget the outdated stereotype of the docile soldier who only follows orders. Contemporary military strategy requires leadership capacity throughout the chain of command.
The concept of the “Strategic Corporal” has been developed to describe the increased level of responsibility given to individuals on these lower levels of the chain of command in recent military operations.
In their early 20s, a serving member may be given far more responsibility than the average civilian will gain in a lifetime. They are at the forefront of implementing Canada’s foreign policy, making decisions under strict legal regulations and global scrutiny.
They must act, despite the risk and high-pressure conditions. Shirking responsibility can have fatal consequences. Civilian employers can learn a great deal from a service member’s version of leadership.
All too often I encounter the idea that the military promotes blindly following orders, rigid conformity, and a dictatorship style of leading.
This is understandable since most people nowadays don’t have any contact with the military world and likely don’t have close relationships with those who have served.
Before listening to the experiences of several Canadian Veterans throughout my research, I had similar prejudices.
Here I will dispel these myths about military leadership and highlight what we can learn from it. But this does not mean it is perfect. Since the military functions in high-pressure political contexts, it brings out the worst and the best in individuals.
When leadership fails, it fails hard; but when it succeeds, it far surpasses any Fortune 500 company in terms of its functional efficacy and capacity to create a meaningful work environment. This is particularly the case regarding life on deployment.
Besides a few horror stories I heard regarding career-obsessed officers and bureaucratic ineffectiveness, here are some of the valuable lessons I’ve learned from ground-level service-members who participated in operations in Afghanistan.
“Hiring a veteran” is not an act of charity. Organizations that claim they “hire veterans” in the same way they make vague PR statements about “going green” are missing the point.
The Real Meaning of a Mission Statement
We’re all familiar with the stuffy and stale company mission statements: vague, jargon-laden, and neglected.
Barnes and Noble is another typical example with their vague aspiration: “to operate the best specialty retail business in America, regardless of the product we sell.” Mission statements need to be actionable missions, not PR statements.
Veterans know the true value of a mission. When asked about their motivation in combat, the most common answer I received was to get the mission done and to do it while keeping themselves and those around them alive.
Missions in combat are not statements of vague idealistic philosophical aspirations, they are practical, specific, are held in high regard due to the operational importance of group integration.
Mission statements should be specific, able to guide everyday practice, and function as an integrating force that a great leader draws upon an exemplifies to rally a team toward a common cause.
Rather than robotically following a mere series of orders, good missions provide an overarching sense of collective purpose that makes the smaller tasks meaningful.
Several Veterans I spoke with served in small remotely posted units, as part of the light infantry. Distinct from the old chessboard “clash of nations,” the contemporary battlefield is highly ambiguous. Fatal attacks are a constantly looming threat of landmines, IEDs and an enemy who blends in with the general population are a few examples.
In addition, Veterans have had to adapt to the extreme conditions of a military deployment. One Veteran I spoke with said that working in the baking industry afterward seemed far more rigid and uniform than his dynamic experience leading a combat unit.
The need for strategic adaptability in a constantly changing battlefield produces dynamic leaders throughout the ranks. Battled conditions and market conditions are mirroring each other to a degree. Distinct from the stereotype of perpetually punitive drill-instructor, military operations develop adaptive skills and the ability to motivate a team amidst the constant uncertainty of life on deployment.
The Value of Service
The common theme amongst the Veterans I spoke with regarding their experience with/ as great leaders is that great leaders have this pastoral quality.
Soldiers in combat don’t take bullets for one another because they were instructed to do so by senior management; they do it because of their passionate commitment to their unit. The ideal leader is someone who demonstrates passionate commitment, care, and service by example.
Veterans know about leadership at a deep level because it is so fundamentally essential in the life or death conditions of military operations. This deep understanding makes them highly valuable to civilian organizations.
Veterans are like “military alumni” who have graduated with, an MBA in enduring adversity and a PhD in resourcefulness, as Steven Pressfield states. Veterans know the meaning of a mission, the function of “strategic adaptability,” and the value of “service.” In other words, they deeply understand the attributes of a great leader.
Lessons on Civilian Life
Many of us may believe that life in the military would feel like an iron cage, constraining our freedom to live the lives we want, but throughout my research, I have found that Veterans often see civilian life in this way.
Although the military provides a much higher level of social regulation, it’s the high level of unregulated consumerism in civilian life that feels like the iron cage, preventing individuals from living more meaningful lives.
Sociologists have been critiquing this modern phenomenon since the 19th century in Weber’s description of the spirit of capitalism, Marx’s critique of economic capital, and Durkheim’s theory of anomic suicide from unregulated consumption.
The main critiques are that there is too much emphasis on trivial issues, a sense that the West is cut off from the deep suffering from injustices experienced throughout the world, and that modern capitalist societies have a lack of social solidarity based in a sense of loyalty and interdependence. Speaking to the first two issues, one Veteran states:
“It’s hard to care about things you should care about in civilian life.”
“There was just an overwhelming sense that nothing mattered”
Bryan Wood mirrors this sentiment in his memoir, Unspoken Abandonment. After witnessing the profound tragedy of war, his sense of what mattered in life was uprooted. Referring to the conversations of co-workers he states:
“I couldn’t believe the kind of silly bullshit these people thought mattered in life. I couldn’t believe I once thought these same things were important.”
“Everything’s amazing here and people are still miserable; now try making friends with those people.”
In addition to the sense of triviality and disconnect, Veterans also offer strong critiques of consumer individualism. As an individual I spoke with states:
“Once we are done our tour, once we leave, we are thrown back into our Canadian society where we are back to dog-eat-dog competition, individualism and materialism, and even if suffering from PTSD or difficulty with adjusting to life back in Canada, we would rather redeploy on a dime and get back to that balance that being in combat brings, that leveler of us all.”
“The bond is very strong between service-people and there’s a lot of importance placed on relationships as soon you join a team everybody will intuitively connect as much and as fast as they can with people around them, and that would actually freak out my civilian counterparts.”
Veterans often return to civilian life unable to find meaning in the modern rat-race and miss the strong interpersonal bonds of loyalty and interdependence found within their unit.
Although the military may look like an iron cage, we need to consider how civilian life’s invisible constraints keep us from living more meaningful lives.
When the things we own begin to own us, we lose sight of what really matters.
Lessons on Self-Actualization
Abraham Maslow said self-actualization is “to become everything that one is capable of becoming,” which sounds very similar to the old U.S army recruitment slogan, “Be All (That) You Can Be.”
My interviews with Canadian Veterans of Afghanistan support the idea that the military can facilitate self-actualization; the problem is that this can often contribute to issues among individuals leaving the military who are unable to maintain this high level of self-actualization due to the relative lack of self-actualizing institutional supports in civilian life.
The concept of self-actualization has been overly individualized and we need to recognize that it can only be achieved by engaging with the world rather simply thinking and reading self-help books.
Do an image search of “self-actualization” and you will see a common theme of solitary individuals, usually on mountain peaks. Distinct from the image of liberated mountain meditators, the military is a prime example of an institution that can facilitate self-actualization, particularly among those who were able to put their training into practice.
The regimented communal structure of the military contributed to an elite mentality that tested personal limits, pushing individuals to expand their skills as they took on high levels of responsibility. A former service-member told me:
“There were rules to the army, there was a reason for people to do better and to be better.”
Another characterized this elite mentality in the following statement:
“I was just another loser. I went from being the guy who the governor of Kandahar calls when he needs to talk to people who are important on our side to being another schmuck who likes to throw his socks next to the hamper, puts his feet up on the table, and kind of wants to sleep and just do nothing while he’s on leave.”
The military not only motivated individuals to do better and to be better, but it also provided a mission and a sense of purpose often lacking in civilian life.
Self-actualization requires more than solitary introspection. Self-actualization happens by doing.
Lessons on Adversity
The phrase, “don’t sweat the small stuff” really takes on a new meaning to someone who can say, “at least I’m not being shot at,” when they’re having an off-day.
Enduring the constant risk of mortar attacks and IED strikes, witnessing extreme poverty, and having to perform at peak levels for long hours in 140°F heat are some of the adversities serving members face.
In the civilian world, “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff” is a book people keep in their drawer to remind themselves that the world is not going to end when the copier gets jammed.
Despite the daily reminders, it is difficult to truly internalize this maxim unless you’ve seen adversity. Serving members coming back from Afghanistan have witnessed more adversity than most individuals in comfortable developed Western nations can ever imagine.
Civilian employers can learn from the impact of adversity on the veteran’s ability to focus on what matters. As Steve Pressfield states
“The returning warrior may not realize it, but he has acquired an MBA in enduring adversity and a Ph.D. in resourcefulness, tenacity and the capacity for hard work.”
How does a veteran successfully reintegrate into civilian life? One answer to this question may lie in the warrior ethos.
The warrior ethos is an existential outlook that embraces the warrior virtues of selfless commitment and perseverance in the face of adversity. The U.S. Army embodies these virtues in its Warrior Ethos creed:
I will always place the mission first.
I will never accept defeat.
I will never quit.
I will never leave a fallen comrade.
In The Warrior Ethos, Steven Pressfield defines the ethos as a sense of honor gained through the virtue of selflessness, toughness, and the desire to excel. Selflessness, he says, is the absolute core of the warrior ethos. He illustrates the virtue of selflessness in the following story:
Plutarch asked, “Why do the Spartans punish with a fine the warrior who loses his helmet or spear but punish with death the warrior who loses his shield.” Because helmet and spear are carried for the protection of the individual alone, but the shield protects every man in the line.
Along with the virtue of selflessness, the willingness to embrace adversity is also a central virtue for the warrior ethos.
In The Unforgiving Minute, Crag Mullaney illustrates this virtue in a chant he recalls from his training at West Point:
“If it ain’t raining, we ain’t training’; you gotta love being cold wet and miserable. Love the suck men, love the suck.”
Civilians often don’t understand why anyone would want to plunge themselves into such harsh conditions, especially since military service is completely optional.
The civilian world—far from a warrior culture—values luxury and comfort, the pursuit of individual goals, and success is measured by one’s monetary achievement.
Although monetary achievement is a key marker of civilian success, the warrior’s salary is not strictly monetary. Steven Pressfield states:
There’s a well-known gunnery sergeant in the Marine Corps who explains to his young Marines, when they complain about pay, that they get two kinds of salary; financial salary and a psychological salary. The financial salary is indeed meager. But the psychological salary? Pride, honor, integrity, the chance to be part of a corps with a history of service, valor, glory; to have friends who would sacrifice their lives for you, as you would for them, and to know that you remain a part of this brotherhood as long as you live. How much is that worth?
The military cultivates the warrior ethos in its individual members through elaborate training methods and ritualized behavior.
Once an individual leaves the military institution, the external constraints of a warrior culture no longer direct their behavior.
So how can one regain a sense of purpose and belonging in civilian life? The warrior ethos must be internalized and applied to new endeavors. Pressfield writes:
“As soldiers, we have been taught discipline. Now we teach ourselves self-discipline.”
When one’s war is over, the new battle of civilian transition begins. The virtues of the warrior ethos make veterans highly valuable employees or entrepreneurs.
Although these lessons are learned in the military, they give veterans insight into virtues that are often neglected in civilian life.
Are you sleepwalking through life? Or do you have a vigorous sense of purpose?
Are you trying to “self-actualize” by overthinking it? Or are you getting out into the world and trying things?
And next time you’re going through a bit of adversity, perhaps you can take solace in the fact that at least you’re not being shot at.
These are some of the lessons that stuck with me during my conversations with Canadian veterans.
Many people think PTSD is the root of all mental health problems among veterans. This oversimplification is often reinforced by behaviors considered abnormal.
One veteran I spoke with claimed to have stopped a dangerous driver, thrown him out of the car, and “gave him a life lesson.” Most people would accuse the veteran of needing anger management classes or therapy to control his PTSD, but if you’re a veteran, you might be able to empathize with his reaction.
Many veterans experience anger, cynicism, or a heightened concern for justice during or after their service. These are not necessarily reactions to trauma or the result of PTSD, rather, they are the result of characteristics instilled in the military, but are no-longer adaptive in a civilian context.
A fellow Canadian colleague, Dr. John Whelan, has recently explored this particular issue in his book, Ghost in the Ranks: Forgotten Voices & Military Mental Health. Both a veteran and a clinical psychologist, he is a rare blend of both worlds. His work challenges the dominant psychological paradigm concerning PTSD among service-members and first-responders. The following sections highlight the major insights in his book.
Transition issues are a cultural problem
Rather than focusing on ‘fixing the brains’ of individual veterans, we need to recognize the social/relational causes of distress experienced during the transition to civilian life. This requires understanding the military-civilian cultural gap. A highly collective military culture instills a strong sense of social identity among its members. Dr. Whelan writes:
I understand the legacy of military identity—all we had was each other, and once the identity change from civilian to military member is complete, it is often the only place where we can truly ever fit again. It can be a profound and fundamental shift in character and outlook that few people can ever understand unless they have experienced it.
Dr. Whelan describes coming out of this environment in the following way:
The experience is like thawing out after experiencing frostbite. Sure, coming inside to the warmth feels great, but it is also incredibly painful as blood circulation returns to the damaged area.
Another distinct aspect of military culture that makes it difficult to transition includes black-and-white thinking and the need to compartmentalize ones emotions in order to maintain operational effectiveness. These characteristics are learned in the military, but are easily seen as mental health issues in civilian life. Dr. Whelan gives the following example:
…take the issue of depression, a longstanding concern for the military. This so-called disease is characterized by behaviours like black-and-white thinking, perfectionistic standards and mental rigidity, an over-developed sense of responsibility and self-blame, a generally negative focus, emotional avoidance, and intolerance for ambiguity. What is notable about this is that it describes routine life within military culture almost perfectly. Therefore, it is probably not by accident that the rates of depression within the military are estimated to be twice the rates for civilians.
Traits that keep service-members alive in combat are not functional in civilian life, potentially causing veterans to emotionally disengage from family and loved ones. Dr. Whelan draws a connection between this learned trait and alcohol/substance use:
…we learn to switch off emotionally. This emotional vacuum may also explain the value of alcohol and other substances among military personnel—it quiets the vigilant thinking brain, allowing people to move to a more emotional version of themselves, at least temporarily.
Veterans are highly trained upon entry into the military, but are let go with minimal retraining upon entering back into civilian life. As a result, veterans may experience a profound culture shock upon entering back into an individualistic civilian context, in addition to being left with highly developed compartmentalization skills, causing them to feel detached from civilians, emotionally isolated from loved ones, and perhaps frustrated by a diagnosis that does not fully explain their experience.
Injured veterans may feel betrayed by the military
The military is an institutional contradiction. Embodying characteristics of both a traditional family and a modern bureaucracy, it idealizes loyalty and brotherhood while also functioning within an impersonal system of operationally effective rules and regulations. Dr. Whelan describes the experience of injured veterans in the following words:
Many of these men and women have come to see themselves as a consumable resource… if they recover, they can be accepted back into the family. If they do not recover, however, they are replaced and, more often than not, they are forgotten by the larger family, which has to move on… Within the notions of brotherhood and family, injured people expect to be drawn closer, but within a bureaucratic system they are often distanced and processed.
From my own research, many veterans emphasized this point. Often times, the injury itself was not as difficult as the experience of separation from ones communal unit and subsequently dealing with an impersonal bureaucracy. As Dr. Whelan states:
A mental health diagnosis turns soldiers into individuals once again, and in the military there is no room for individuals.
Veterans feel betrayed and isolated upon witnessing corruption
Having invested so much in the group, service-members experience a heightened sense of betrayal upon witnessing an act of corruption. This ‘institutional betrayal’ is one aspect of moral injury, a concept I highlighted in the past three articles. Dr. Whelan describes this phenomenon in the following words:
From basic training onward, soldiers are steeped in high-minded codes of conduct, discipline, ethical imperatives, and a view of the military as an organization larger than life. The reality is often very different, however, for many people. The same organization can be coldly logical and arbitrary. Rules can be bent to benefit people who are liked, and these same rules can be used strategically to root out suspected problems.
He describes the story of a woman who was sexually harassed by a senior officer. Upon reporting the incident to her Regimental Sargent Major, she was told, “Are you out of your mind bringing this to me? Don’t you get it? Hell, I could rape you right here in my office right now and nobody would do a god-dammed thing about it.” She was considered a ‘problem’ for the officers involved, and when eventually going to the Chief of Defense Staff, she was considered a ‘problem’ for the image of the institution. She was offered a secret deal to drop her grievance and there was no talk of consequences for those involved.
Corruption or organizational image-management can lead to a profound sense of institutional betrayal. Dr. Whelan emphasizes this point:
The real threat to the health of the institution is cynicism—when members stop believing. Cynicism tells members that it is a charade, that nobody really cares, and that they are essentially on their own. It fuels reactions of betrayal and perceptions of neglect. Its tentacles reach across the institution; it is in the ranks, and it festers quietly like an unseen cancer.
Upon being injured or upon witnessing corruption, service-members may experience a profound sense of betrayal, leaving them isolated. This sense of isolation is then amplified upon transition to a civilian context where their highly developed compartmentalization skills further isolate them from loved ones and other civilians. This is the dangerous compounded effect of military betrayal and civilian isolation.
We need to rethink treatment and prevention
Dr. Whelan emphasizes the need to think beyond preexisting diagnostic categories:
…a PTSD diagnosis can miss the particular struggle for veterans—some people believe they have lost parts of themselves that they want to have back while others have taken on things from the military that they need to unload.
Drawing on therapeutic experience, he describes recovery in the following words:
An example of what veterans tell me: “I am trapped behind the mask, but I am something entirely different inside. I am alone, cut-off, and just tired of having to be ready for anything.” When men and women can find a place, often with their peers—the people who matter—they can learn to trust again and to lower their guards, and the real miracle I often get to witness is that they start to come back to life.
As many veterans have told him, “they have to learn how to regain some of their humanity.”
When veterans are no-longer able to serve due to injury or institutional betrayal, we can not simply expect them to adjust to civilian life by undergoing civilian treatments based on civilian diagnoses. We need to look at military culture and its impact on social/relational issues that may lead to a sense of isolation and despair. Dr. Whelan concludes with the following insight:
Military veterans and other first responders who struggle with mental health concerns could be telling us about a fundamental emptiness of an everyday life they no longer want to be a part of.
If you are interested in reading the full book, you can find it here.
If you would like to get in touch with Dr. Whelan, his contact info is here.
Some Veterans experience traumas beyond the battlefield. One of these can be called, “sanctuary trauma”.
Developed by Dr. Steven Silver, sanctuary trauma “occurs when an individual who suffered a severe stressor next encounters what was expected to be a supportive and protective environment’ and discovers only more trauma.”
Some veterans who face mental or physical injuries from service are finding themselves in a second battle with the bureaucracy upon return.
In Canada, there has been a great deal of politics around sanctuary trauma. Many veteran advocate groups have claimed that the government has not held up their end of the bargain.
The much-anticipated Report of the Auditor General of Canada reviewed mental health services for veterans and determined that although there are several mental health supports put in place, there is still a significant delay in access to disability benefits and clinical care.
These delays may contribute to a secondary traumatization in individuals whose mental health conditions are only exacerbated by stacks of paperwork, a seemingly endless wait, and perhaps even a wrongful denial on initial applications.
Instead of restating these are fairly obvious points, my purpose here is to specifically describe how this can produce “sanctuary trauma,” and how this is deeply rooted in a veteran’s sense of a ‘sacred obligation’.
The concept of ‘sacred obligation’ has gained frequent use in the media among Canadian Veterans Advocates. The Liberal Party also released a video on their commitment to a “sacred obligation” the same day the Auditor General report was released – keep in mind both parties are to blame for problems in the New Veterans Charter.
Politics aside, what is this concept actually referring to? And why is it important to injured veterans who feel uncared for?
Covenants, Not Contracts
A government’s sacred obligation to Veterans goes beyond a legal contract; it is a covenant made by a society to care for those who served in an unlimited capacity.
The major difference between a covenant and a contract is this level of liability. Contracts only hold parties liable to a degree limited by the terms and conditions of the contract, whereas covenants hold parties liable to an unlimited degree.
Christopher Coker, in The Warrior Ethos, describes the covenant as distinguished from the contract in three ways:
“First, they are not limited to specific conditions and circumstances; secondly, they tend to be open-ended and long-lasting; and, thirdly, they rarely involve individual advantage.”
What he is describing is the warrior’s covenant.
In the Canadian Armed Forces, the warrior’s covenant is characterized by “unlimited liability” – as described in Duty With Honour. This means:
“…members accept and understand that they are subject to being lawfully ordered into harm’s way under conditions that could lead to the loss of their lives.”
Accepting unlimited liability, serving members enter into a sacred covenant based in an altruistic commitment to self-sacrifice if required by the mission.
The etymology of the word ‘sacrifice’ is linked to the word ‘sacred’ because the two are anthropologically connected to forms of moral solidarity in traditional societies before the modern legal contract replaced these heartfelt bonds based in blood with rationalized bureaucratic state management.
The issue with state management of Veterans care services goes deeper than wait times. At its root, the issue is that the sizable minority of Veterans who experience a difficult transition to civilian life (25%) are coming from a period of their life where they lived the sacred obligation through the warrior ethos of mission before self.
Having held up their covenant to accept unlimited liability, they confront a system that is not able to hold up its end of the covenant. Individuals who suffer traumas in service expect to be taken care of upon return, but some instead find themselves engaged in a battle with bureaucracy.
Sanctuary trauma compounds the issues of war traumas, exacerbating feelings of isolation and hopelessness. For many embittered veterans, this is a feeling of institutional betrayal.
Sanctuary trauma is unique because it is caused by institutions that are initially expected to provide care. Although Veteran Affairs provides a great deal of care and now has increased funding for OSI clinics, Veterans who fall through the cracks may experience this form of trauma resulting from a society that falls short of the sacred standard of unlimited liability.
Legitimately injured Veterans don’t want a handout. They want a sense of security knowing the society they served is committed to serving them as well.