Friendly advice for those leaving the ADF and feeling unsure about what’s next

Andrew McDougall


A friend recently announced on social media that he was being medically discharged. After 30 years, that was the end of his service.

Copyright Mark Schroffel 2022

While he was evidently crushed by the decision, there was certainly also an element of relief; he had pushed on for as long as he could.


The response to his announcement was, without doubt, supportive. However, what struck me was the lack of real tangible advice. The best on offer was “get yourself a good DVA advocate.”


Really?


We couldn’t offer anything about creating a new identity, how to ride out the lows, or finding a new career path?


What about advice that would help him deal with the inevitable struggles which were to come – struggles that are going to occur, whether he received compensation or not?


Ignoring the ‘why’ of it all – although I suspect the answer is rooted in our conditioning to be carbon copies of each other – I would like to take the opportunity to offer some insight for those who have separated and are trying to make sense of the frustration and turmoil they may feel within.


If you are considering discharging, or are on the verge of being medically discharged yourself, please take note as these will apply to you soon enough.


Of course, these are by no means gospel, being just what I’ve managed to work out – so feel free to add your own suggestions in the comments section if you believe it may be of value as we look to create a list of advice we all can use in times of need.


The very first piece of advice I would offer is to be gentle with yourself.


Forget where you think you “should” be, or how you “should” behave. You have been stripped of the only identity you have. You will have little idea of what you want since you’ve been programmed to do the organisation’s bidding. And your employment prospects may appear bleak since you have left with few transferable skills.


In short, you are a product of your environment. You are not broken – you simply need to find a way to reprogram yourself. However, you can’t improve your life while hating yourself, so be gentle and refrain from using harsh or disempowering language towards yourself.


Secondly, explore yourself.


By this I mean, find what you are actually interested in. And don’t stress if it takes a while, we have all suppressed our own needs and wants in favour of “service needs first.”


Take your time – there is danger in rushing to find “your purpose,” trying to fill the void left by the loss of identity.


Finding your true purpose will take longer simply because it rests on a thorough knowledge of yourself and what you want. So, until you feel absolutely free of your service identity, any “purpose” you settle on will likely be tainted by the old you.


Thirdly, do what you need to do in order to settle yourself.


We will likely never experience something so disruptive and emotionally difficult to process in our lives as this separation. So do what you need to do to adjust to the massive change, whether that is taking an easy job or moving somewhere you have the required support or anything which allows the process of rebuilding to begin. It is important to be aware that your ego could be your biggest barrier here.

The emotional turmoil caused by separation will no doubt put a strain on your closest relationships. Remember the phrase “I’m sorry, I’m not doing great today. Please be patient.” This is a great way to let your partner know you are struggling, especially at a time when you will find it extremely difficult to articulate the anger and frustration swirling around inside. I also suggest journaling, it is a great way to begin labelling these emotions.


Finally, see your life as chapters.


This chapter has closed; what does the next one look like? Here the “what” is less important, the key instead in these first months or years is creating “the new you.”


In my opinion, little will hold you back more than wrapping yourself in the “veteran” cloak. Yes, it will always be a part of who you are. But if you want to create a better life, you need to grow as an individual. As a human. You will only stunt your own growth if you cap it with the veteran label.


These are just a few suggestions that I hope will help you deal with the post-transition turmoil so many of us face.


An email RSL Victoria sent me recently included a link that stated, “we should take our identity from three sources.”


Three they say, but in truth, we only have one source of identity up until the day we take off our uniform for the last time.


As such, it should not be any surprise these times are some of the most difficult we will ever face – the least we can do is begin by providing tangible advice to those going through it. But remember, it is your life, and it is up to you to find out what works for you, and what doesn’t.




Andrew McDougall initially served for 15 years in RAAF before commissioning into the Australian Regular Army as a pilot where he served a further 9 years. He continued his service after discharge by joining the RAAF as a reservist. Andrew believes that we can, and must do better in supporting those leaving service.