When I decided to leave the military in 2013, I had no plan. After my service I wanted nothing more than to be free of the regimented and authoritarian lifestyle the military provides.
I was certain life outside would be easy. Going to college, hanging out with girls and partying on the beach was my highest ideal.
As it turned out, life had other plans.
Only months after my discharge, I found myself on a path of destruction and waste. The very same reasons I left the military became my ruin. Freedom, the lack of structure and routine I craved, encouraged toxic patterns like late night drinking and sleeping away the day.
I spent two years working menial jobs, living on couches, and moving every few months. Risky activities like mountain biking, snowboarding, drinking, and drugs were the only source of joy I could find. My life spiraled out of control and I eventually decided I needed to change, or I’d end up dead. So, I made the decision to enroll in college.
Unfortunately, by the second week I convinced myself college was pointless.
Thoughts like, “Why should I listen to this guy? He’s spent his whole life in a classroom.“, and “What the fuck does this spoiled ass kid know about anything?” was the narrative that circulated around in my head.
I lasted one semester.
Feelings of isolation, depression, and disconnection filled my life. Finally, in the winter of 2017, almost five years after leaving the military, I walked into a VA mental health clinic to get help.
After listening to my story and discussing the issues I was struggling with, the VA referred me to the local Vet Center where I was assigned a readjustment counselor.
It’s been two and a half years since I walked into the VA and today my life looks a whole lot different.
I am currently eight credits shy of attaining my bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of Colorado Denver and plan to attend grad school to become a therapist.
Looking back at my experience there are clearly quite a few mistakes I made. And there are many things I would’ve done differently.
Now that you’ve heard my story, I’d like to share 3 things that will help you transition to civilian life.
1. Have a Plan
I know it feels like once you get that piece of paper, once that DD-214 is in your hand, you’ll be free and life will just fall into place, but the reality is it won’t.
Having a plan, whether it is to go to school or get a job will serve you tremendously. A major point of contention for a lot of soldiers making the transition to civilian life is losing a sense of purpose and meaning.
Simply making a commitment to something can help guide you towards finding a community, mission, and ultimately a reason to wake up day after day.
2. Accept Help
The military has a ton of resources that can help you make the transition to civilian life.
Unfortunately, I thought I had it all figured out. I completely neglected all the information and programs specifically designed to help veterans have a smooth transition.
Whether you need to write a resume, enroll in college, apply for the GI bill, find housing, or get a car there is a resource with a group of individuals willing to help you.
And most importantly, if you’re suffering from any physical or mental health issues don’t be hesitate to contact the VA and get help. Despite the common perception that those who seek assistance are weak, the truth is everyone needs a hand at times, and it takes courage and strength to confront your issues.
3. Find Community
This is something that can be difficult but is extremely important.
As a member of the military you are provided with a lot of things that make life meaningful. Everyone has a mission, a reason to show up, and there’s a mutual understanding that everyone is there for the same reason. This is the cornerstone of community and something civilian life can lack.
If you don’t consciously seek a community you can easily end up isolated and lonely like I did.
Fortunately, there are countless ways to connect with people online and in person. I recommend joining websites Facebook groups dedicated to something you enjoy doing or learning about. Whatever you decide just understand it can be difficult to find people that you connect with as well as you did in the military and that’s fine, but finding your new tribe is critical.
While making the jump from military to civilian life will be a challenge, if you make a plan, accept help, and are intentional about connecting with others you will be on your way to having a great transition.