Transitioning out of the military can be an exciting moment. It can also be insanely terrifying. Going from a stable job and income, to the land of uncertainty is no small leap. Especially when you’ve received a disruptive disability as a parting gift.
This is my story. This is my life. I’ve discussed my military veteran transition story a bit in the past, including in multiple public speeches. In light of Veterans Day this week, I thought I would share it with you too.
I enlisted in the Navy in 2002 and quickly developed a passion for my job during my first duty station in Colorado (I know… join the Navy to work in the mountains… I laughed at the irony). I had grand plans of moving up the ranks, leading others, and eventually retire. I loved the mentorship program, and took advantage of the opportunity to talk with seasoned Sailors to develop a career plan and prepare for rank advancements.
While stationed overseas, my passions took a turn. I developed a complex seizure and autoimmune disorder, which provided me with new adventures back in the States, in Maryland.
A few years later, in 2008, I was “put to pasture” and thrusted into learning a whole new way of life.
Moving Home, After the Military
After separating from the Navy, I traveled cross-country to Arizona with the help of my dad. I moved home with my parents while obsessively trying to find a job, only to find “home” that wasn’t what I remembered it being. I didn’t fit in anywhere and was entirely unprepared, despite going through the transition assistance program, twice. I even felt left behind and out of place with my friends still on Active Duty, especially my peers who were promoted without me.
I remembered home being a paradise of warm, sunny days and bright blue skies. Home was palm trees, mountains, and friendly smiles. Home was hiking and horse riding in the desert. Home was full of supportive friends and family. Home was a figment of my imagination. Home is where I craved to be, but couldn’t find. Home changed… or maybe that was just me.
Home was now full of judgment and pity. Home was hearing criticism and snide comments from the next room. Home was a place where I would hide on my bed, hoping no one would know my pain. Home was no longer a paradise out west, but a prison cell where I could attempt to suffer in silence. I envied everything while desperately grasping for any ounce of independence I could possibly muster.
No one understood. I felt isolated, consumed by my physical pain and numbness. I couldn’t stand still without fainting. I couldn’t even stand while moving long enough to walk to the other end of the house. I struggled to walk. My muscles randomly gave out while I walked or carried anything.
I struggled to stand. I struggled to speak. I struggled to live.
Embracing Independence as a Disabled Veteran
Less than a year after returning home, I moved to California, with a personal mission to begin finding myself. I started school at Palomar College, studying American Sign Language, and met three Veterans there who quickly became my closest friends. It was my first experience of actually feeling socially accepted since leaving Active Duty. They helped me come to terms with being “different.” They helped me understand that my random seizures and physical weakness wasn’t something to resent or fear, but something to embrace. They shared with me the inspiration they saw as I continued to thrive and smile, while I felt incredibly lost in failure while again struggling to pick myself up off the ground.
We joked about my fainting and seizures, saying, “don’t flatter yourself boys, this happens all the time.” They helped me stop focusing on any potentially negative idea and gave me the most inspirational thought I had encountered: “A Veteran among Veterans is home.”
I finally found my home, a place where I could just be. From there I fought through tears and learned how to talk publicly about my story… both the good and the bad, not just the highlight reel. Through encouragement from a few fellow students and my speech class, I started believing that maybe my story could actually be one worth telling.
I finally concluded that my personal circumstances might slow me down but would only hold me back when I stopped trying. Sometimes, that means my methods may be a bit unconventional, but with a little creativity and determination, I can still set and exceed my own standards and goals.
Moving Forward After Life in the Military
In the summer of 2010, through multiple unsuccessful medical trials and tribulations, I found myself once again moving across the country to Virginia, where I attended Virginia Wesleyan College to study business. After arriving, I ran into some emotions similar to those I had prior to my California adventures. I felt increasingly isolated and anxious all over again. What would all these new people do or say when they see me physically struggling to walk or have another seizure? Just thinking about it left me overwhelmingly exhausted. I noticed if I used my crutches, I was stared at and avoided… in my wheelchair, people often jumped to help open doors. When I used my cane, I was invisible. Although watching the different reactions on different days could be amusing, it was an emotional roller-coaster.
There comes a time in every person’s life where enough is enough and changes are needed.
So, with humility in my heart, I began networking and talking to selected people about what I see and how they feel. With some encouragement from one of my professors, I was able to connect with several students and faculty who also shared my feelings of isolation and showed me I wasn’t alone. We developed enough interest in improving veteran relations on campus and constructed Ideas for a veteran support group. Supporting these veterans and their personal transitions became my personal therapy.
Although the individual circumstances behind how and why we feel the way we do vastly differ, the fact remains that we are all experiencing those confusing and conflicting emotions and thoughts. We all, at some point, feel isolated. We feel no one understands us. This often brings out social awkwardness, anxiety, depression…. etc. At some point, we either wake up or become so frustrated that we step up and make something happen. This something could be applying for a Fellowship Program with The Mission Continues, working for a veterans service office at a local college, finding a local nonprofit to volunteer or work with, or finding some other way to serve. Find a passion and use it to help others. For me, I initially found my peace helping others in spite of what I dealt with. It started with helping veterans at my college transition out of the military. Since then, I’ve moved forward, serving more than just our veterans. Now, I help anyone and everyone who I am able to help develop healthier lifestyles by coaching them, and some I even help coach through building their own business. It’s my way of giving back.
There is much to be said about a veteran’s transition from the military to civilian life. It takes a lot of patience, especially among those trying to break into a new job category in the civilian sector.
If there is a veteran you’re close to going through the process, please be patient and encouraging.
Thank You for Reading About My Personal Military Transition!
***** If you’re looking for help transitioning through a rough season in your life, please feel welcome to connect with me. I’d love to listen to what you’re going through and offer advice on navigating it if you need it. You’re not alone.