The military promises all sorts of wonderful things if you sign on the dotted line and enlist: travel, camaraderie, help with school costs, and healthcare for life.
Unfortunately, while all technically true, these benefits sometimes take different forms or come accompanied by other, less fun-sounding “adventures”—i.e., you may get to travel, but to countries that rank low on the exotic destinations list. Or your trip to a warm place with lots of sand may also include long patrols in heavy gear.
Each service branch helps in the collective defense of the country and it’s a noble thing to put one’s life on the line for other citizens. But once one’s time of service is up and it’s time to return to civilian life, does the military follow through on the commitments it has made?
This question is faced by thousands of people as they begin the challenging transition of exchanging their orderly routines and well-pressed uniforms for the randomness and chaos of civilian life. According to The Military to Civilian Transition 2018, published by the Veterans Administration, about 200,000 military service members become civilians each year.
There are financial challenges involved, like finding or returning to a job and learning what professional and vocational military skills are transferable to the workforce.
There are emotional challenges, as well, such as reconnecting with a spouse, friends, or family members, in addition to connecting with other veterans. There also could be physical or mental challenges, especially if your service leaves you with injuries, disabilities, or health conditions that require further treatment.
Fortunately, there are a wide variety of resources to support veterans’ transition back to civilian life. Some are government-funded like the U.S. Veterans Affairs services around the country that help vets access and enroll in healthcare. Others come from private organizations and nonprofits at the local or national level, and offer assistance in easing into civilian life.
Just like in the military, it’s always easier if you seek help from your fellow brothers and sisters in arms who have been where you are compared to trying to figure out everything solo.
Continue reading for useful strategies and tools for returning veterans.
What does a returning veteran need to be able to cope and adjust well? Some kind of support structure is a good start.
According to a Pew Research Center study from 2011, veterans who have an easier time adapting to civilian life include those who served as officers (as opposed to enlisted), were generally religious (more so in post-9/11 enlistees), understood their missions, and were college graduates.
At the other end of the spectrum, a more difficult adjustment process—at least among the 1,853 subjects who were interviewed for the survey—was had by those who served in combat, were severely injured, were married while serving, and knew at least one person killed or injured.
Financial considerations are also important; the “Transitions” document said that, as of 2011, the unemployment rate for veterans was 12.1 percent, compared to 8.7 percent for non-veterans. This may be partly due to specialized skill sets: there may not be a lot of demand for certain professions in the civilian world, and some civilian jobs may have academic requirements that, even though a military member might possess skill-wise, must be documented on paper through specific training, certifications, or degrees.
Mental health support is vital: veterans consisted of 14.3 percent of all adult suicides in 2015 and the rate of suicide among vets continues to rise even after more attention has been directed toward prevention. More than 6,100 veterans died by suicide in 2017, up 2 percent from 2016 and 6 percent from previous years.
So part of support efforts must include programs that focus on several of these basic holistic areas:
Some vets may have had formal training or education prior to enlisting (or during their military training) to obtain certain skills.
But post-military life can be an opportunity to either take more classes for fun, to complete a degree that had to be put on hold, or to become better qualified for certain career options.
Military service can provide a certain amount of funding for college classes, depending upon whether a vet was (or is) on duty or in the reserves. These benefits generally must be used within 14 to 15 years after military service ends.
Another option that some veterans might want to consider is AmeriCorps, which waives specific educational costs in exchange for volunteering for a certain number of years. AmeriCorps can be thought of as the domestic version of the Peace Corps, where participants can provide valuable service in their own communities or another community in the United States where help is needed. The role can include teaching or working at community or senior centers. Veterans are especially welcome in this role since they generally have leadership abilities and skills adapting to new settings.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs can be a starting place for vets needing assistance with physical or mental health issues. Some communities require veterans to come to the nearest VA hospital or clinic for any health needs, while others may allow vets to see an authorized provider or a telehealth service if there’s a significant distance to a VA center.
In addition to doctor and therapy visits, VA centers can also offer other services, including counseling, support groups, and online training programs. Much of this can be managed from home through a program called My HealtheVet. Here, vets can keep track of appointments, medications, and health records. A health library can also be accessed as well as tips on general wellness.
The VA is also promoting early use of a new app called GRIT, which provides a mental wellness “field test” for individuals transitioning from the military to civilian life. It measures feelings, thoughts, anxieties and other factors in order to assess a person’s mental state, which can then be shared with mental health providers.
Additionally, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) encourages veterans to be aware of possible mental health conditions they could face, including post traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, and depression. The site provides information on what signs vets and their family members should look for to detect these conditions, and whom to contact with questions if help is needed.
NAMI also encourages former military officers to reach out to counselors in their local communities as well as other veterans for support since they will be more familiar with what they have been through, including challenges in transitioning to civilian life. There’s also a 24-hour toll-free Veterans Crisis Line, which veterans (or anyone who knows them) can call for confidential help. It offers voice calling, texting, and online chatting.
Unless a veteran has something lined up before they enlisted or began to make inquiries during their military service, they may have to compete with non-military personnel in the workforce for available jobs. There is a variety of services that provide assistance to vets regarding job placement, employment assistance, and even incentives to employers to consider hiring veterans.
Many of these veteran support organizations operate on the same principles as the military: paperwork is king. So whether seeking benefits or employment, be ready to not only describe yourself and your employment and service background but produce information documenting this.
This documentation may include
Like any other job search, a resume or related employment materials like letters of recommendation/reference can also be useful. To qualify for certain benefits and services, tax returns or documentation of income may also be necessary.
Though official veteran benefits may be activated years after discharge, there may be some initial discharge paperwork that must be taken care of quickly.