How the stress of military transition leads to regrettable career and relationship decisions
By: Shauna Springer, Ph.D., and Jason Roncoroni November 15
Let’s start with this general psychological principle: Anxiety exists in proportion to what we don’t know. A known threat is generally less anxiety producing than a vague threat “on the other side of the door.” Our brains are geared towards survival. So, by default they tend to fill in the gaps of what we don’t know with the worst case scenario, ostensibly to prepare us for anything that may come at us.
Transition from the military is like passing through solid iron gates with no idea about what is going to come at us on the other side. Although the primary focus of military transition programs has been on the post-service career, leaving the military is about so much more than just finding a new job. We indoctrinate young men and women into the norms of military culture, but we currently lack a commensurate program to help them reconnect with their deeper identity when they leave. Service members who have transitioned from the military over the past several decades have not had an integrative road map to address the psychological, cultural and relational challenges that transition from the military brings.
As such, transition from the military creates intense anxiety. When we feel anxiety, we go into self-protective mode. We choose the easiest, most recognizable opportunities we are offered. In my work (Dr. Springer) with hundreds of veterans in transition, I have repeatedly witnessed how a kind of tunnel vision takes over, and veterans grab the first job or relationship that presents itself. These opportunities may feel like a “safe bet” in the short term, but this is often a mirage. A structured job in an established company may be a terrible fit for a particular person, and the wrong relationship partner can create endless chaos in one’s life.
Instead of investing across multiple relationships, what we call “social diversification,” unattached service members often structure their lives around one romantic relationship, with the first available partner who presents him or herself. In a similar way, they often accept the first “good” job offer they receive, without first considering whether that opportunity is the right fit for their deeper values. They may feel immense relief to have found a job, or initial euphoria during the “cocaine rush phase” of a new romantic relationship, but when the “honeymoon” phase is over, they often feel trapped in jobs and relationships that undermine their emotional well-being.
Instead of stepping up to assume a greater leadership role on a wider stage across our society, many of our best military leaders experience an identity crisis during military transition. Too many veterans settle in life beyond the military. Our society loses out on the potential of these leaders to continue serving as uniquely well-prepared civic assets. Our transition programs should clear the path to purpose, fulfillment, and happiness. Our service members and their families have earned that.
Effective reintegration back into society after the military requires that service members repurpose their full capabilities and potential in civilian roles. In order to do that, service members need to recognize the core elements of their personal identity — values, purpose, intrinsic strengths, intentions, belief structure, and common factors for success — across an integrative program of transition that addresses the wellness, socialization, cultural, and relational aspects of reintegration. This is the underlying purpose behind the book, “Beyond the Military: A Leader’s Handbook to Warrior Reintegration,” available on Nov. 11, 2019, through Amazon.
The premise of this book is simple: With a strong foundation in their own identity outside the uniform, military leaders can discover the best opportunity to do what so many of them are inclined to do — continue serving our society. People want to be inspired. They want to make this world a better place. Our society is starving for leadership. The greatest gift we can give our veterans is the confidence to step into a greater leadership role beyond the military. Now, with this book, we can transform our military heroes into ordinary heroes for the good of our nation.
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Editor’s note: This is an Op-Ed and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond, or have an editorial of your own you would like to submit, please contact Military Times managing editor Howard Altman, email@example.com.