The Military to Civilian Transition - A story of what to do, and not do.

Transitioning from military to civilian can be especially tough, especially for our returning combat veterans. More often than not when it comes to getting discharged,  we focus more on our soon to be freedom than what we need to do to prepare ourselves for a new life of uncertainty, way too many options, and no longer having those around you that share those relatable “combat” experiences. While everyone else was going to college, partying, and living in relative peace and comfort, you were out patrolling the streets of some foreign country trying not to get yourself killed and make sure you got home in one piece.

Iraq - Early 2004 before heading out on a mission. My mom
didn't like this picture much. She said I had a different look in
my eye now. She was probably right - as mothers usually are. 
I was in the Army for 15 years and completed 5 deployments during my time in service. I also got out of the Army briefly after my first taste of combat, and because I didn't prepare myself well enough for the culture shock that civilian life brings, I chose to go back in. When I got out for good in 2012, I decided that I wasn't going to let that happen again. Here’s my story:

In early 2005 (immediately following my first combat tour), I got out of the Army as quickly as could doing the minimum amount of “check-the-block” transitioning steps that the Army required of me at the time. I had over 2 months of transitional leave saved up, so I was in no hurry to find employment - especially since I just got back from nearly a year in Iraq and was now going through a divorce. When I did finally find that job, I got my first gig as a car salesman- talk about a culture shock!  I had just spent the previous 7 years of my live immersed in an organization that revolved around the “team” environment. Every Soldier was part of some cohesive unit. We helped and looked out for each other knowing that the weakest link in our team could mean the difference between failure and success. Doing sales was nothing like that. After about two weeks of dealing with getting the rug pulled out from under me on potential sales and dealing with cutthroat associates of mine, I walked off the job and never looked back - time to find something a little less hostile.

            I contacted an ACAP counselor on Fort Lewis for help finding a new job. ACAP is the Army Career and Alumni Program and is an organization within the Army that helps transitioning Soldiers and Veterans find employment. It is also one of those “check-the-block” places I talked about and went through on my way out. In hindsight it would have done me a ton of good to have participated in the workshops and classes that they offered. Anyways, the counselor got me hooked up with a diesel mechanic gig at a nearby quarry for about $15 an hour. Not bad, right? It sure did seem that way. I didn't realize it at the time, but that $15 per hour equated to about 1/3 of what I had been making in the Army as a Sergeant (E-5) with dependents, and I didn't even get medical benefits. I ended up living in a really crappy apartment that I could barely afford, in a rundown neighborhood, driving a 40 year old Buick that wasn't much of looker, but boy did I love that car. The job itself wasn’t all that bad; I learned a hell of a lot and worked my tail off.

One of the bonuses to the new job was that I worked with a couple of veterans, one of which used to be my squad leader when I was a young private. So at least now I had someone I could go to for questions. These veterans were all from the Cold War era and missed any combat opportunities that may have passed by in their 20 something year long careers. It didn't make much difference to me at the time until there was an accident in the shop. I was backing one of the cement trucks out of the bay when the sidewall of one of the tires grazed some scrap metal sitting on the ground and blew the tire out with a thunderous boom and I had an instant panic attack. Not because I made a mistake, but because I had flashback of my time in Iraq and those damn roadside IED’s (improvised explosive device) that had taken so many lives and so much innocence.

I was visibly shaken at this point and my co-workers laughed at me. That’s right, they laughed. They didn't know what I had been through or understand why I was behaving the way I was, but it was funny to them. I don’t fault them for their ignorance, but damn. I felt really embarrassed. The worst part was, these types of things would happen every so often after my return from Iraq. If a car was backfiring, someone slamming a door (or dropping something), and hell even trash in the road got my blood pumping... Every. Single. Damn. Time. I was starting to feel like an outsider, like I didn't fit in; alone in world where I was still surrounded by friends and family. I was emotionally numb, amped up and on guard constantly, longing for my M16 and another mission outside the wire. I wanted to be back somewhere, where my conditioned paranoia was normal and expected.

Well this new job didn't last long, maybe a couple months at the most. The first chance I got, I popped smoke and jumped on the first opportunity for a different job in a different location. My girlfriend of a few months and I loaded up the U-Haul, disposed of my precious Buick and was moved in with her folks in Vancouver, just outside of Portland OR.

The new job was interesting. It was a trailer repair facility in Portland that was looking to expand their capabilities and wanted to get into vehicle maintenance, so they hired me. I got $17.50 an hour now which sounded awesome until I realized the Oregon had a state income tax. ::FACEPALM:: So it appears I just moved 4 hours away from most everyone I knew, for a job that paid essentially the same thing...great... now I’m going to be even more alone.

I felt like even more of an outcast in this job. No one was a veteran, my skills were hardly relatable to what they mostly did in the shop (with the exception of cutting and welding), country music was always playing on the radio starting at 5 am (which is not my cup of tea), and every day I had the pleasure of sitting in rush hour traffic for HOURS. That was pure joy, let me tell you. After a few weeks I knew this job wouldn't last either and I had to find something different otherwise I’d go crazy.

I constantly thought about my time in the Army. Every day memories of the horrible things that happened in Iraq would come sweeping in and I’d sit with that thousand yard stare (you know the one), just wishing I would have done some things differently. That was one of the worst parts about surviving; the guilt - knowing that maybe if you had been a little more vigilant on that hours long convoy through the middle of nowhere Iraq, maybe, just maybe, your buddies wouldn't have gotten hurt or killed. It ate me up thinking about it. It crossed my mind to go seek out a therapist for help, but that would mean I would first have to swallow my pride and admit that I had a problem that I wasn't able to handle. I mean, I wasn't some ground pounding infantrymen that went and kicked in doors. I was a damn mechanic that did convoy support missions. I started thinking that maybe I should go back to the only way of life I knew and understood-I sure as hell couldn't go talk to a shrink. Not yet. I couldn't even talk to my new wife. 

I ended up calling a buddy of mine on recruiting duty and I went back in the Army. Unfortunately after 6 long years of deployments that included sitting on my ass in Iraq and walking the mountains of Afghanistan, and not to mention a failed attempt at Special Forces Selection, I found myself facing a medical discharge for my now bad back. I would also soon be facing another divorce-turning me into a single parent with 3 kids to look after while going through the process. Even with the mounds of uncertainty and the cards stacked against me, I was bound and determined to succeed in my transition this time. 

There were a thousand things that needed to be done and only a certain amount of time to do them. I went and finally address my PTSD issues with a doc at the behavioral health clinic. That was eye opening. There was also this desire within me to connect with and help others going through this process so I started volunteering a couple hours a week at the Soldier Family Assistance Center. When I was there I helped form a Men's support group and got involved in a School of Rock program that was designed to help returning Soldiers deal with their struggles through making music - no experience required. I went and saw another counselor regularly for alcohol dependence and eventually figured out that it wasn't me that had problem, but was overly susceptible to peer pressure from my spouse. When I tried to quit drinking she would still try pressure me by making me drinks when I didn't ask for it. Hence, the divorce (that's a story for another time). Anyhow, I also went back to ACAP  taking as many classes as I possibly could, talking to recruiters and counselors regularly, and in the months before my discharge I found employment in the aerospace industry. Through that whole process I met a lot of new people and learned a lot about myself, which in turn would make the final transition that much easier; I was ready.

I made it back to my home state of Washington and started reestablishing myself. My ex took the kids initially while I tried to get reestablished since I gave her most everything in the divorce. Unfortunately it was a bit of a rocky start when I was involved in a motorcycle accident a few months later. Broke my femur and suffered from a few other complications that took me out of work for a month or two. I met my current wife a couple weeks before the accident which turned out to be more of a godsend then I knew at the time. I lived alone and nearly an hour away from anyone I knew. She would stop by everyday after work, check on me, and help me out with stuff around the house. Within months I started healing up well enough and I moved in with her. Later that summer my kids would come back to live with us and we were soon talking about marriage. It was good to feel like I was living in a home again.

In the coming year I would do a number of things to help further my transition and continued assimilation back into society. 

I joined the local VFW post which was one the BEST things I could have done for myself. Our post was small with only a handful of active members; most from the Vietnam and Korean War era's. As a veteran of the more recent conflicts I felt a little out of place at first, but as we all became friends I realized something. We all had the same stories and the same experiences; just separated by generations. It was still all of the same shenanigans and boredom followed by those moments of sheer terror. Later that spring I would get voted in as the Junior Vice Commander. I finally got off my butt and signed up for some college classes to. That was more than I bargained for, but was successful regardless. I even started frequenting meetings with local elected officials regarding crime in our area. Before I knew it I was asked by the mayor to revitalize the city's dilapidated block watch program (which is highly successful now) and was assigned to a community task force to address problems in the community. The crime issue also motivated me start my own business (Stone Security Services LLC). A writer for the local paper in the next town over even wrote an article about it which also helped me get my first customer. It was quite an exciting time.  I was now in a position to help and make a difference in the lives of those around me. This was something I missed dearly from my time as an NCO in the Army. I'm setting an example for kids and I couldn't be happier with the way things are turning out. 

In summary, in order for a servicemember to be successful on the outside they MUST take control of the transition. Not assuming that things will just work out; relying on job promises and help on the outside that might not be there when they get home. They should swallow their pride if they must and take advantage of every opportunity to prepare for life as a civilian; addressing all of their issues before hand and do the training. Just like they would before any big mission or operation. After all, once discharged there's only one chance to get it right (okay two, sometimes). 

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