For several years, I was a soldier-medic in the U.S. Army. I saw countless military and family members. Now I am a veteran looking back.
The Reality of Life After the Army (That Nobody Tells You About)
One day a person is a soldier, and then the next day, he isn't. For me, my first day as a veteran was the greatest day of my life. Then, after the euphoria subsided, the reality was jarring.
It isn't easy to transition into being a veteran after being an active military member. However, there are plenty of resources available for new veterans. I'll include them at the end of this article. However, this article isn't about those resources—this is about the small stuff. This is about the stuff nobody cares to tell you; this is about the stuff everyone expects you know.
This is for people who are thinking of joining the military or those who are currently serving. This article focuses on the army because that's the branch I served in, but my advice should apply to all branches of the military.
Also, I'll refer to the service member as "he" to keep things simple. Thanks for understanding.
7. You Still Sweat the Small Stuff
The military has rules and regulations for just about everything. Why? Simply put, it's all about control. The more rules there are, the fewer moving parts there are. The fewer moving parts there are, the more predictable the results will be. This is very important when managing time and risk on the battlefield.
Regulation is all around the soldier, all the time. If we break the rules, anyone can call us on it, regardless of rank. The tactful ones will do so quietly, but sometimes it gets loud. We are glad they do, especially when it prevents disaster. We acknowledge our mistake, clean it up, learn something, and drive on.
Then, one day, it's all over. In the civilian world, anyone can do just about anything as long as it's legal. So, for the most part, everything around you suddenly looks half-assed and sloppy. It's not your business, but it's now the world you live in. The control is gone, and that's not easy to handle, especially over the small stuff.
As for myself, I don't care about Army regulation anymore. Actually, that's not true. There's one thing that keeps getting under my skin. It's good old AR 670-1. AR 670-1 is pretty long, but part of it says that mixing military attire with civilian attire is a no-go. When someone—military or civilian—breaks this rule, it still irks me.
For example, when I see someone wearing jeans with an ASU coat, I cringe. It's a ghastly sight to behold, but there's nothing I can do about it. I guess that one will follow me to my grave.
6. You're Suddenly Older (and It Hurts)
Do your knees hurt? Is your hearing a bit off? Your recruiter probably told you to expect this by now. No? Let me, then. One day, you're a young teenage civilian; the next, you're a weathered veteran with aches and pains. What happened? The Army happened.
I talked about pain in another article. Compared to a lot of other occupations, the military spends a lot of time outside. It can be simple PT (Physical Training), deployment to the other side of the world, or FTX (Field Training Exercise). Field Training Exercise is a battle simulation to train military personnel. It includes plenty of time carrying heavy stuff and sweating under the sun.
While still in the Army, it's easy to work through it all to accomplish the mission. However, after discharge, there is no mission. Whether you are discharged in your 20s or 50s, you're going from civilian (non-military) to veteran (ex-military).
Whatever you are doing in life, time will wear you down. There is no escape; time happens to everyone. Military service just makes the grind tougher and the reality clearer.
5. Life After the Army Is Boring
While I was a medic, a specialist (we'll call him SPC) who recently came back from combat told me that he was “bored.” He acknowledged that he hated his time in combat, but since he had returned stateside, all he wanted to do was go back. The daily grind of our current duty station was pointless to him.
As someone who has never seen any action, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. SPC should be glad he was still in one piece. Every day, our clinic was treating service members who had returned from combat but were not as lucky as him. We couldn't find anything wrong with SPC, physically. Sometimes life sucks, and there is no medical solution for that.
Yes, everyone is bored to a certain extent, but SPC's boredom was different from all that. I later learned that what he was feeling was common for many service members who had seen combat. Stateside duty was even tougher to face knowing that the war was still going on without them.
For us veterans who have never seen combat, boredom creeps up after our contract is over. Yes, civilian life moves at a hurried pace, but it moves with a different purpose. Generally speaking, the civilian is motivated by self-preservation and self-improvement—anything else is window-dressing.
For someone who served his country, risked his life, and looked out for his team, civilian motivation can seem petty and immature. Once the veteran gets settled in his civilian routine, life gets boring.
4. Everything Is a Public Relations Exercise
This might get political, so here it is in two sentences: Everyone in America uses veterans to make themselves look better. Everyone means politicians, political parties, corporations, and so on. Now feel free to move on to the next part.
Everyone seems to think that surrounding themselves with veterans (especially old-timers) will get them more attention. It always works. Think about it: Would you be reading this if I weren't a disabled veteran? Would it carry more weight if I'd faced combat in Iraq or Afghanistan? It might with some readers.
So, after his time in the military is up, a newly minted veteran will see everyone milking him for his "glory." He'll see flags and statues and memorials and so on—one parade after another. At the same time, he'll see his fellow veterans rotting in the streets, homeless and starving.
To be fair, this "use-and-toss" attitude is standard operating procedure all over the world. It has been for thousands of years. In fact, I'm proud to say that the US leads the way in how veterans should be treated. It isn't perfect, but it could be a lot worse.
How long this lasts, however, remains to be seen.
3. Hero Worship Gets Old Fast
Hero worship is tricky. Please bear with me.
Some veterans acknowledge that hero-worship is part of life. But it makes other veterans cringe. No matter how we feel, hero-worship can get suffocating, and there's no escape from it. As soon as civilians find out you're a veteran, especially a post-9/11 veteran, they just pour it on.
"Wow! You were in the [whatever]? Cool! Thanks for your service, man! Hey, let me buy you a drink! Hey, everybody! This guy was in the [whatever]! Dude, tell me everything! Did you kill anybody, bro? I always wanted to join but [blah blah blah]."
Hero-worship: I’ve found that most service members are jaded by it by the time their military career is over. But then, as a veteran, it's still strong.
I'm still not sure how to handle it. I don't see myself as a hero; I never have. When people thank me for my service, I respond with a tight nod and mumble something. Some civilians get loud about it or get political. It's easier for me to just keep my veteran status to myself.
I've found that the best way to deal with hero-worship is to run away from it. I live in Japan now, so it's easy. Is this all in my head? What do you think of your country's hero-worship? Let us know in the comment section.
Oh, and take a look at the video below. It will tell you what NOT to do.
2. The Army Didn't Solve Your Problems
Believe it or not, not everyone joins the Army only out of patriotism. A lot of people are running from something. Parents, boyfriend/girlfriend, poverty, boredom—you name it. Joining the Army seems to be like joining the circus. It might make sense to a civilian looking for a quick solution. Why not?
First, Basic Combat Training cuts the trainee off from the civilian world for a few months. Then there's Advanced Individual Training. Advanced Individual Training has more freedom, but there's still plenty of space between you and anything messy back home. A few Permanent Changes of Station (PCSs) after that are always welcome. Then, sprinkle all this with a couple of deployments, too.
The Army forces the soldier to compartmentalize any civilian issues from the mission. Then the Army keeps the soldier busy enough to put almost anything on the back burner. Oh, and everyone back home is so proud of their soldier. Everything else fades in the light of the flag. It's beautiful.
Suddenly, the contract is up, and the running stops. And yes, some problems have been solved, but they might be replaced by different ones. In other cases, the problems might still be there, but the people involved have changed. Or, worse, the problems are still there, but they've changed in size.
I believe that the military makes everyone a better person, a person better able to adapt and overcome anything in life. However, the military isn't a magic wand; if problems aren't addressed, then they won't go away.
1. You'll Wish You Didn't Join (but You'll Be Glad You Did)
When I was growing up, my father—a veteran—told me not to join the Army. In fact, he told me many times. He said that the Army wasn't for me, and I wasn't for the Army. I wasn't sure what he meant by that; I'm still not sure. Maybe I'll ask him someday.
Today, when people ask me if they should join the Army, I say, “Why bother?” There's no reason to. Life is just as fulfilling without the Army, and the Army will drive on without them. That said, neither of us regrets our own time in service, not for a second.
This contradiction only makes sense to a veteran. Veterans see the experience they lived through next to anything else that might have happened if they had stayed a civilian. The military is an amazing adventure that gives a person a life-changing experience in a short amount of time. However, this happens during the best years of his life.
These scenarios rarely pop up, but they never completely go away. But, in the end, given another chance, not a single veteran would have stayed civilian.
Are you a veteran?
More Information About Transition Stress
- For Most Vets, PTSD Isn’t The Problem, ‘Transition Stress’ Is. Here’s What That Means | Military.com
While post-traumatic stress disorder has become a much-discussed affliction, a seemingly more prevalent problem is going largely overlooked: transition stress.
Going from military to veteran? Want to hit the ground running career-wise? Take a look here!
- Veteran Benefits Info, News & Resources | Military.com
Military veteran benefits are a cornerstone of military service. Find benefit information including military pay, medical coverage and GI Bill. Learn more.
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.