I first entered the military in July of 1997 as a midshipman at the United States Naval Academy. From the moment my classmates and I were sworn in and took our oath of office, it was clear our lives would be much different than our peers in the civilian world. In many ways, joining the military means, you become a new person. As an old Marine Corps recruiting slogan goes, "The change is forever."
By design, indoctrination into the military begins with breaking the individual down and rebuilding them as a member of a unit. Many of the characteristics that make each of us unique, from the way we dress to the way we talk, are removed, and replaced with the "military way" of doing things.
Turning a civilian into a member of the armed forces is handled differently in each military branch, but the basic idea is the same. If you look at videos on YouTube for boot camp or basic training, you'll get the idea. Lots of yelling with recruits learning the way they have done everything in the past is wrong.
After several weeks, the recruit learns the "right way" of doing everything from eating to folding their clothes. Mix in some military-specific skills such as weapons training and close order drill, and the recipe is complete. While some people may disagree as to whether or not this method of conditioning is healthy in the long term, it is a time tested and effective method for making Airmen, Marines, Sailors, or Soldiers.
Midshipmen at The United States Naval Academy
Photo Courtesy of Brian D. Bell
No environment tests the mettle of a service member more than combat. At some level, everything the military does is geared towards going to war and winning the engagement. Training can be intense and push you to the limit of your physical and mental abilities. After numerous tours of war, I can personally attest to the effectiveness of the training. It is true that nothing thoroughly prepares you for the first time enemy fire starts coming in your direction. Still, the military machine gets you as close as possible to being prepared for war.
The design of the system has a significant flaw that is both short-sighted and irresponsible. For all the effort put into turning a civilian into a highly trained military member, nowhere near the same amount of time is put into transitioning a service member back into the civilian world.
To be clear, I am not saying the military is at fault. Each branch of the military must operate within a budget they are provided by the government. In most cases, funds are specifically allocated for an intended use. This is a problem that we need to address as a society and through our elected officials.
Photo Courtesy of The National Archives
Recruits at USMC Recruit Depot at Parris Island, South Carolina
Many veterans leaving the military have difficulty finding jobs, adjusting to a world with less defined roles and responsibilities, and finding a good support network. Statistics for suicide rates, depression, addiction, and homelessness are higher for veterans.
My personal belief is that this is due, in part, to the lack of a well-developed transition process. For example, it takes several months to take a high school graduate at 18 years of age and turn them into a Marine. On average, most of these young Marines will serve four years in the Marine Corps.
During this time, they will live their lives by rules and standards far different from those experienced by their civilian counterparts. Depending on world events, their four years may even include time in a warzone.
Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia
When their service commitment is near its end, they begin the process of transition. This process includes classes and briefs designed to cover everything from accessing their VA benefits to writing a resume and searching for a job. It's a good start, but I can't see how the current transition process is anywhere near enough to address years of conditioning in the military system.
I believe that many of the challenges I faced such as PTSD, homelessness, addiction, depression, and thoughts/actions of suicide were, in part, due to a lack of preparation for life as a civilian. It stands to reason that if it takes many months to break down a civilian and make them into a service member, it should take just as much time to better prepare them for their return to the civilian world. I think it is time, as a nation, we take a closer look at this process.
There needs to be a greater effort placed on helping veterans gain employment and deal with the many challenges they will face outside the military. Please consider contacting your local representatives and ask for their help in making the transition process more robust and better aligned for the difficulties veterans will face.