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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.
Table of Contents
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.”