I thought it would be easy and seamless to transition from the military into civilian life. I couldn’t be more wrong! Every career warrior that I know (and I know thousands of them) has struggled with developing their identity outside of the military.
To demonstrate how powerful and universal this issue is in military communities, listen to my Unbeatable episode 59 interview with Candyss Bryant. As a civilian working alongside the US military for more than 20 years, she also described this as one of her most significant challenges.
This phenomenon isn’t exclusive to the warriors. I’ve met people from many walks of life going through these same struggles. However, it can be more acute for the military due to the extreme nature of military culture.
Most countries’ militaries must create an all-encompassing lifestyle to meet the demands of an all-consuming mission. A natural byproduct of this culture is the powerful, all-embracing unity that this lifestyle creates. For most career warriors, the military starts being a family rather than just a job. This family dynamic is powerful and very hard to leave behind.
Some struggle a little; some struggle a lot. But all of them struggle.
I struggled right along with the rest of them. I was caught off guard by how much of a challenge this would be for me personally when I retired from the US Army, and I didn’t expect to struggle this much with this issue. On top of that, it took me a while to figure out why this was so hard for me after taking off my uniform.
In this article, I aim to tell you why warriors struggle with this issue- not how to find the solution. (Maybe I’ll write that one another day.)
I’m devoting this article to why this is such a challenge, because I’ve found that understanding this problem makes it easier to find a solution. There are many reasons why career warriors struggle with leaving the military, but after countless hours counseling these guys and gals, here are the top 3 that keep coming up in these conversations.
Finding a new family
I’ve heard more than one warrior say, “I found more than a career in the military. I found a family.” Many people find a sense of community and relationship in the military. This goes beyond superficial work relationships; it starts to become a bond. I have a closeness to my brothers-in-arms that is closer than my blood relatives to this day.
It’s not supposed to be easy to lose this kind of family.
However, I’ve learned that warriors don’t have to lose the deepest relationships. I’ve found that guys and gals from the military can remain close even decades after leaving the military. If you’re struggling with transitioning out of the military because you’ve just lost your family… don’t give up those close and hard-fought relationships.
Fighting a new mission
Many of my Ranger friends have made this statement when transitioning out of the military: “The only thing I’m good at is killing. What am I supposed to do next?”
There was a point in my military career when I felt this sentiment, also. When your entire adult life has been devoted to fighting and winning the nation’s wars, it’s going to be hard to find a new career path that can hold a candle to this kind of dedication and intensity.
The obvious but not-so-easy solution to this challenge is to find meaning in your new place of work. If you want to transition to another career path successfully, you must develop a passion and intensity for the new career, just like serving in the military.
Perhaps, this is why Candyss struggled with transitioning from the military. Without meaning, a man or woman will struggle to find the energy to face the challenges of a new career.
Developing a new identity
Candyss was very blunt with her struggles in her interview. She perfectly described the other struggle I often hear from countless warriors separating from the military, “I’m going through my biggest challenge ever… finding my way back to me.” Ultimately, Candyss is describing an identity challenge. -rediscovering who she is and why she exists after separating from decades of supporting the military.
When counseling warriors about these challenges, I remind them that it’s absolutely natural to feel this struggle to define a new identity. After all, the military told you how to dress, how to march, when to sleep, and what you could eat. This kind of all-encompassing lifestyle can be tough to adjust to after leaving the military. It’s only natural to start to struggle to find a new identity.
This is a fight every individual warrior must win on their own.
No one can define your identity for you. Only you can determine who you are and your life’s mission. Therefore, do the hard work of redefining your identity after leaving the military. If not, you’re going to end up being one of those old guys or gals that continues to go overseas for the rest of their lives because they never found the strength and courage to separate the person from the profession.