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Transitional challenges in moving from military to civilian territory

By Barry Zworestine

Training as a soldier and being involved in combat can be traumatic and can have far-reaching effects on one’s living situation, relationships, mental state and wellbeing. It is possible, however, that seeing war and one’s time in the military solely as an experience that has resulted in PTSD may be to ignore other aspects of this experience that could be used to facilitate healing and the ability to live a healthy, productive life.

What about the intensity of being on operations or that sense of being in a Tribe? What about living on the edge in the presence of others and the intimate reliance on others? That feeling of being intensely alive. A level of meaning and experience that can leave one yearning for a lifetime afterwards in what veterans often experience as the humdrum routine of civilian life and the daily routine and predictable pattern of work.

Many veterans yearn for the time when they truly felt like soldiers, when the deeply close and intimate connectedness with their fellow soldiers could almost transcend the intimacy of marital relationships.

In a deep way, it’s not just about trauma and stress but also about loss and grief and the difficulty of finding meaning in a different, less intense world. To heal is to also respectfully acknowledge this loss and grief at many levels.

It’s about the acceptance of these feelings without guilt. It’s about recreating new and constructive challenges in civilian life. These can be challenges such as maintaining personal fitness and wellbeing, taking up a sport or setting goals that can extend one and bring one back into the presence of others – running a marathon, walking for charity, swimming, and the like. The “edge”, the feeling of being authentically alive, of being challenged and of being with others is not the sole right of those in the military.

Part of military training is about being taught how to kill. It’s about being rewired for life in a way that is counter to being human in an institution that sanctions the need for aggression and the ability to take life.

Veterans need to make their peace with this rewiring, with the deep and often shameful awareness that years later, as a husband and father or wife and mother, there is still the sense that part of oneself is capable of the unspeakable.

Healing is not about burying or forgetting this. It’s about allowing veterans to acknowledge, own and respect this part of themselves. Veterans can use many of the lessons of war and combat to move forward in their civilian lives. Healing is about helping veterans to draw on their strengths and the constructive lessons of soldiering.

Life and relationships are very much like a patrol. You need to think about where you are going and what you will need in the days ahead. You need to plan and ensure that you will work as a team. You need to be able to listen, and when you are lost or uncertain, look at a map. You need to pace yourself and, at times when under significant levels of stress, draw on your reserves and tap into supplies of resilience. You need to trust and care for those around you. You need to exercise judgement. The qualities of planning, listening, preparation, consultation, care, respect, resilience, effort and trust are the foundations of being human.

Healing is about embracing the Soldier and refinding your Veteran in the present and drawing on the positive aspects from the past: who you were and who you still are. It’s about remembering that as a veteran you can still stand tall. It’s about acknowledging grief, guilt, loss, and shame and not letting this define or restrict you.

Transitioning from the Military to Civilian territory has a number of challenges that require attention:

  • Loss of Tribe and change in identity.

  • Integrating the Warrior and the Civilian.

  • Mapping out and understanding the military/operational brain – those parts that support you forward and those that can constrict and restrict.

  • Mapping out your Civilian territory and recalibrating and reorientating your internal compass to facilitate effective navigation and resolution around adjustment challenges.

Successful transitions rest not just on the ability to adjust your strengths to present challenges. These can face you with a difference in fit between where you were and where you currently are. To hold on to the past too tightly will restrict your capacity to open to your present. Every step of the journey will require adaptation and flexibility.

Change can be challenging. Your power lies in how you receive and perceive what is facing you. Becoming fully who you are is also about being willing to let go of parts of who you were.


Barry Zworestine has an MA in clinical psychology and is a registered psychologist. He has been a contract psychologist with Open Arms since 2002, providing support to Australian veterans and their families impacted by military service. He volunteers his services to international veteran organisations and freely supports veterans around the world who have no access to appropriate help. He is the author of two books on the challenges of transitioning from military to civilian life. Barry Zworestine is a combat veteran.

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