I spent my early 20s in the U.S. Marine Corps as enlisted aircrew aboard UH-1Y helicopters. The military was never meant to be a lifelong career for me. But it was a calling and experience that I knew I needed to fulfill in life after growing up in the shadow of 9/11. Like many others I came to know, I had an internal voice telling me to do my part to serve and protect my country, and eventually I had to listen. I knew there would be struggles on my path to becoming a Marine, but I rarely considered the one that would come after taking off my uniform for the last time.
Facing the In-Between
My squadron came back from Afghanistan shortly after Thanksgiving 2012, and I knew then that my purpose for enlisting had been achieved. College seemed to be the next logical step, though I didn’t put much thought into the specifics outside of this broad idea. All I knew was that the time had come to look toward the great unknown of the civilian world.
I had a very lax approach to the 10 months between my return from deployment and my actual leaving the military. And as most Veterans can attest to — and what the statistics confirm — this led to a transition full of stumbling blocks.
While all military members attend mandatory classes designed to help them with the transition, the reality is that these good intentions fall short of being actually useful. Classes are primarily designed to teach service-members how to create resumes, find career resources, and step into the civilian workplace. But the fire hose of information and the lack of perspective that many Veterans have at the time about their future lives often lead to an underutilization of these resources — and a haphazard plan at best.
When that joyful day finally arrives and the Veteran is holding a warm, freshly printed DD 214 in hand, all that’s often in place is an inadequate sketch for the next day or week — and I was no different.
Slow to Start
This lack of planning and purpose leaves many Veterans just like me unsure of how to create a new life, or even how to access basic military benefits like VA healthcare and the Post-9/11 GI Bill.
I came to discover that the GI Bill is perhaps the easiest benefit to understand because colleges have gotten so used to processing Veteran students. They always seem to have at least one person on staff who can walk you through the process if you just ask the administrative office for a point of contact. Moments after getting pointed toward my school’s Veteran Services Office, for example, I had all the information I needed to get my benefits process started. But what I didn’t realize during my first couple of years of school was how many scholarships and grants were available — many exclusively for Veterans.
So, while I was able to use my official military educational benefits easily, I missed out on some of the peripheral sources of help that existed. It wasn’t until the last semester of my junior year that I discovered my college had a list of scholarships online to browse through, as well as other scholarships that nonprofits offer to Veterans. Looking back, I should have asked the financial aid office sooner.
Dealing with the VA healthcare system was a much more intimidating prospect. Most Veterans maintain an aura of toughness on a day-to-day basis. They’re used to sucking up the pain of injuries throughout their enlistment and avoiding medical care if at all possible as a matter of pride and respect for those who are “actually sick.” (At least, that’s how it was for me.)
Because of this mindset, many Veterans I know don’t report their injuries for their medical records. They may also be resistant to asking for support altogether. Add to this reluctance the nightmare stories we’ve all read about at the VA or about the claims process, and it’s no surprise that many service-members shy away from even attempting to get the help they need.
Fortunately, the reality is that the process doesn’t have to be nearly as confusing or painful as the stories lead you to believe. There are numerous Veteran advocate organizations that would be glad to represent you throughout the process. (I personally turned to the VFW for help with my claim, and within a few months it was all straightened out.) While the process isn’t always particularly smooth or free of frustration, my experience is that if you remain patient, the job will get done.
Beneath the Surface
Unfortunately, these challenges just scratched the surface of all my problems. At the time I transitioned out, my personal life was a mess, and my mental health was in poor shape at best. Our squadron had dealt with the loss of several Marines, we had just returned from a very active combat deployment, and, like half of all married Marines today, I had recently gotten divorced.
While you’re in the military, you don’t have much time (or need or interest) to sit down and actually address your personal problems. Yet when you’re holding a pristine separation form in your hands, time is all you seem to have.
For me, having an uncertain future led to an unnecessarily long period of self-induced isolation, which just worsened the problems at hand. Isolation, in my opinion, is the most dangerous enemy a Veteran can face during the transition into civilian life.
Reaching out to military friends — both active duty and Veterans alike — can help fend off this imaginary foe. The various Veteran organizations out there can also help, as they exist for the expressed purpose of keeping you connected with the extended family you earned a spot in during your time in service. Only looking back do I realize that, had I turned outward for connection sooner, this period of darkness would have been much less intense and time-consuming than it was.
Setting a Vision
Getting out of the military doesn’t have to be as daunting or jarring as it was for me and others in my position. Preparing for civilian life before you leave active duty — in a thoughtful way — can help you navigate the pitfalls many Veterans face.
My advice is to start by deciding what a successful day at work or in your personal life looks like, and then plan out the steps you need to get there. Also, reach out for support to service organizations or to fellow Veterans who have been through their own transitions — and never underestimate the power of Google to help you find support.
As a Veteran, I believe we all have valuable experiences to offer, a strong work ethic, and a driven mindset when we leave the service. If you lean into these strengths, as well as the many resources at your disposal, then you will find that success is waiting for you in your new civilian life.