Transitioning from military service and adapting to civilian life is more of a challenge to some more than others. First off, there are many individuals that come into the military as anti-social, non-conformists to begin with. Second, the military does a great job at transitioning civilians into soldiers, but a horrible job transitioning soldiers back into civilians.
There is a very drastic change, both physiologically and psychologically, with individuals who work in jobs that include extreme stress and trauma on a regular basis. The military isn’t the only exclusive community to experience this transition. The human body was never designed to operate in a constant state of stress, indoors and with little sleep while being fueled artificial foods. Running into gunfire on a regular basis (chronic stress) overrides the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS), your fight or flight response system that keeps you alive. Sympathetic override is what is known as stress inoculation. After a certain period, individuals get stuck in the “on position”, meaning they are wired for war and are now always on the alert, this is known as “hyper-vigilance.” This is the body’s amazing ability to self-preserve or as we call it, adaptation. This condition is not a disease and it isn’t abnormal, it is the appropriate response to throwing yourself into life-threatening situations repeatedly, for some over well over 20 years of it. When you go past the breaking point you hit the Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) realm of dysfunction, which is unmanageable, uncontrollable, helpless, hopeless trauma/stress, you become maladapted to stress and become vulnerable and over-reactive.
Stress adaptation is great for survival situations but when you transition out of a wartime “ENVIRONMENT” it can be burdensome, especially if you are trying to operate in the “parasympathetic” side of life, also known as the feed, breed, rest and digest mode. When your body becomes conditioned for extreme stress, it becomes catabolic, also known as “breaking down” and this is what the world sees as diseases and chronic illnesses. When your body is constantly breaking down, your immune system doesn’t function properly, and you don’t repair. Chronic stress means chronic breakdown. Chronic breakdown means chronic illnesses. It is literally that simple, your body cannot defend against normal environmental threats and you become sick more easily and you become ill and injured more frequently.
When you become adapted to extreme conditions, you will have a very difficult time trying to fit into a normal garrison/civilian “environment.” Civilians are not to blame for your changes or for living “normal” lives, it is the lack of understanding between the two cultures that leads to animosity. The place you adapted to in the military is an incredibly hostile and “CHAOTIC ENVIRONMENT.”, meaning the only time you feel “NORMAL” is when everything around you is going 100 MPH. If you find yourself unable to “RELAX” or to simplify things, it is probably because you are used to being on the go, all the time and you are okay with being task saturated. This chaos you have adapted to became “your new normal”, for you and those that you work with, not your civilian friends or your family members. Nobody will ever understand your chaotic world unless they lived it. That is where the lifelong bonds are forged and the reason why veterans separate themselves from civilians.
Most people who have adapted to high-stress environments don’t even remember what relaxing or “normal” feels like anymore. You don’t deep sleep, you don’t feel rested after sleep, your sex life is horrible and your interpersonal skills are suffering as well. After a while, your metabolism will eventually shut down leaving you with high cholesterol, high blood pressure, obesity (a spare tire around the waist), high blood sugar and erectile dysfunction. This is known as “metabolic syndrome.” The bottom line is you are not supposed to be relaxed, aroused or do any type of repair when you are in fight or flight mode (stressed). You are stuck in work mode, chronic stress.
Another dimension of military service is when individuals adapt to a pack or team environment/ lifestyle, they feel vulnerable going anywhere without their teammates. Spouses and significant others will often complain that they never get to spend “alone time” with their loved ones. Alone time translates into work for an individual who is in public with a loved one or family. You can’t relax when you are constantly looking for threats to your family. This is not PTSD, this is the correct physiological response to the environment you adapted to survive in. After a while the high wears off and you go from living an exciting life to just existing, also known as survival mode. You lose pleasure in the things you used to love doing and feel exhausted when you are finally off work and have time to enjoy yourself. This is usually diagnosed as “mild depression” or PTSD by those that fail to understand basic human physiology.
How are people supposed to adapt to civilian life if they don’t even understand how they adapted to military life? Service members know more about their occupations and equipment than they do their own health. You can never improve your situation if you don’t know what is wrong with it, to begin with. You cannot recover from something you don’t fully understand. If you add prescription drugs, alcohol or recreational drugs to the situation, it only clouds the mind from rationalizing what is happening or how to resolve the underlying problem.
The personal qualities that make Special Operators special, is the ability to adapt to any situation or environment to complete any mission they are handed. Special Operators are problem solvers by nature and usually don’t settle for anything “normal.” When service members retire, they often lose their MISSION, PURPOSE, and FOCUS and they leave that team ENVIRONMENT and LIFESTYLE they adapted to. This leaves service members feeling like they are flapping and often leads to social isolation and self-medication.
The world owes us nothing, civilians owe veterans nothing. Seeking attention and preferential treatment from civilians only further alienates veterans and makes us all look like self-entitled fools. Learn to take care of yourself then learn how to help others, don’t ever be the victim. Advocate for yourself and others in your circle and bring something to the table. Every person’s experience is a learning tool. Learning from other people’s mistakes is wisdom. Help the next person struggling down their own path and guide them to success. Leaders create other leaders, not followers. That principle is what separates individuals from team players. Veterans are not the only ones struggling with stressful careers. Reach across the aisle to your civilian counterparts and work on a SOLUTION to help all people work together for a better community. Be part of the solution, not the problem.
Education is the key to a successful transition out of military service and service members deserve the same amount of attention with their transition into the civilian world as they did transition into the military. If you want to be successful in any endeavor, you must have the right mindset. If you are the person who has a negative outlook on everything in life, you will have negative outcomes with almost everything you do in life. Wellness begins with the willingness to be…well. You must will your way to health and success. A toxic mindset will have toxic effects. People who make excuses as to why they can’t do things often find themselves working for people who find ways to succeed.