Coming Home: Adjusting to Civilian Life
By Tony Yeary
I remember the world of excitement and confusion that I stepped into when I first entered the Air Force in September of 2001. In fact, the first two years flew by faster than any other chapter of my life. In that brief span I saw basic training, tech. school, recruiter assistance, my first duty station, the invasion of Iraq, and a hurricane evacuation of Langley Air Force base. This state of chaos very quickly became normal and a typical part of my job. As an 18 year old stepping into this scene, how was I to know to expect all of that? Leaving the military was a similar experience, only slower in pace (If that makes any sense at all to you).
When I left, I immediately started a civilian job doing what I did on the inside and I even did it on an Air Force base that I was familiar with. It took me three years to go back to school and another three before I started working more “normal” jobs. It was as if I was weaning myself off the military culture and lifestyle one step at a time. Some would say that I was lucky because many ex-military have challenges identifying themselves as civilians. I’ve seen more than a handful of my friends face difficulty on the outside. Three of the most difficult things I’ve seen prior service men and women having to cope with on the outside are: starting a new career, keeping in touch with old friends, and maintaining a sense of connection to the military –while at the same time- moving on.
That and a couple dollars…
A lot of us bank on our prior service and veteran status to give us an edge in the job hunt, but it doesn’t always work that way. I was able to find an excellent paying job when I got out because of my work experience and my security clearance; it may sound strange, but it had little to with my military service. My employers had many former military on the payroll, so I really wasn’t that special in the scope of things. On top of that, we had to learn to deal with a level of prejudice. A select few of my civilian co-workers even snubbed me and my peers for no other reason than they simply didn’t like our kind.
It’s been my observation that employers on the outside want specialized experience and that’s something we may not have when we get out. The military (whether we notice it or not) breeds us to be very versatile people of many disciplines. More often than not, making that a positive point can be a tough sell. For example: “I’ve managed troops on and off the field in many different types of situations. Of course, I can manage the floor of your sporting goods store! Also factor that the Iraq War went on for a long time and there are a lot more vets out there now, you will have to distinguish yourself. Sadly, the old adage of “Prior-military? That and a couple of dollars will get you a cup of coffee” can hold true again.
It’s been fun- see you around…
Leaving the military is like graduating high school. Once you leave, you all go your separate ways. There is one difference though, because you have created a very special type of bond, you will feel the need to keep connected. This is good because the best thing I’ve found to ease the transition is to keep in touch with your military friends. The easiest way is to keep in touch through e-mail, Facebook, Instagram, and even LinkedIn. Keep phone numbers up to date also and actually make the effort to call each of them on a regular basis. Never try to let your new life get so hectic that you can’t take one hour out of your Sunday night to call someone.
When you leave the military, you discover how small the world really is. Not only will you bump into people you knew in the most unlikely of places (I somehow attended two college classes with my recruiter’s supervisor- weird), but you will discover that you hold a special bond with all who served. Even though you will be perfect strangers, you will still feel a strong sense of respect and comradery because you have shared similar and unique experiences. No matter where you go, you will never actually be alone and there is a great comfort to take in that.
I try to get out- and they pull me back in…
When I got out, I wanted to sever my ties and start over clean; quickly enough I found that this was impossible. It wasn’t long before I found that I was not only ok with that, but that I actually missed aspects of my old life. I think we all feel that way at some point and try to reestablish a new connection. Although you can never go back again, it doesn’t mean that you’re unplugged permanently. Organizations like the American Legion or the Veterans of Foreign Wars (V.F.W.) are ideal to maintain a social military connection. If you are returning to school, many colleges have veteran organizations that you can join. Volunteer work at your Veteran’s Hospital or through the Veteran’s Administration may be appealing to you and remember that your region’s volunteer militia is composed of a great deal of veterans as well.
These are just three transitional problems that I and others have dealt with when returning to civilian life. They all share the common thread of identifying yourself all over again- your career, your friends and social life, and moving on with the new life, while holding on to past accomplishments. The point that some miss is that life moves on and the things we did in our past are what makes us who we are today. We must all have our old memories tempered with young hopes.