The challenges of becoming a civilian

Making the transition

For a soldier making the transition from military life to civilian is far different in the era of an all volunteer military. It can be an unbelievable challenge for those who have returned from duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, because unlike previous wars where combat duty entailed a single deployment to the war zone, many of those serving today have been deployed 2, 3, or more times in a period as short as four years, with little R&R in between.

Unlike those of us who have been in the military for a lay person to understand the challenges they would first have to understand the reasons for enlisting in the first place. Many of those caught up in the Draft (conscription), knew that at the end of the enlistment period freedom was at hand and becoming “short” (counting down the days left) was a badge of honor. It’s different this time around.

As an all-volunteer military, there are probably as many reasons for joining as there are those who have chosen to enlist. Many entered at the age of eighteen because they were seeking adventure, looking to learn a skill, or simply tired of the day-to-day grind of school. Some had a “military career” as a goal and participated in various ROTC programs through all levels of education (high school through college) until the day they swore their allegiance to protect and defend the USA. Others simply joined because it was a pathway to the GI Bill and the education benefits a military career could provide. Whatever the reason, most could never imagine the horrors and images of war, or in some cases, the disciplined and structured regimen of military life. It just seemed like the right thing to do.

Whatever civilian life was like before joining the military, it’s a sure bet that enlistment, with or without combat exposure, would have a life-altering effect. Those who were not the most organized or disciplined, those who were not in the best physical shape, or those with an attitude problem, quickly found out the military is a whole new world compared to civilian life. To adjust and succeed in military life, it can be summed up best buy my Marine Corps Drill Instructor who constantly said, “get the silly civilian *&#* out of your head”. No more thoughts of fast cars, Saturday night at the drive-in theater, chasing women, going to the local topless joint. The military is all business and failure to totally absorb that which is presented could spell dire consequences in time of combat.

The transition back to the “real world”, as we are witnessing with today’s warriors, is not like the day of the Draft when 90% were anxious to get on with their lives. For many in today’s military the choice to join was to develop a career. For those who are reconsidering that choice it can be a tough decision. Psychological problems from serving in the war zone, dependency on rigid military protocol, new family responsibilities with children involved, and where disciplined conduct dictates, special counseling may be needed to reach the right decision. We’ll address what is being done in future articles.


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Following his service in the Marine Corps Ed Mattson built a diverse career in business in both sales/marketing and management. He is a medical research specialist and published author. His latest book is Down on Main Street: Searching for American Exceptionalism Ed is currently Development Director of the National Guard Bureau of International Affairs-State Partnership Program, Fundraising Coordinator for the Warrior2Citizen Project, and Managing Partner of Center-Point Consultants in North Carolina. Mr. Mattson is a noted speaker and has addressed more than 3000 audiences in 42 states and 5 foreign countries. He has been awarded the Order of the Sword by American Cancer Society, is a Rotarian Paul Harris Fellow and appeared on more than 15 radio and television talk-shows.