Becoming a Veteran – Life After the Military

Throughout my travels, I felt different from most people. This inspired me to “people watch” and really observe and analyze how people interact with each other. It didn't take long for me to be able to pick out who in the crowd likely had prior military experience. Having attended different colleges with vastly different veterans programs, I saw the difference in support levels, and how they directly impacted the individual veterans was incredibly humbling.

At Virginia Wesleyan University, I noticed how isolated other veterans felt, confirming that several others shared my thoughts. I wasn't alone. I began daydreaming about how nice it would be for us to have our own space, whether it’s in a corner of a lounge or a memorial outside…

I thought having our own space was paramount to formulating camaraderie within the campus veteran community to have a place where we could go, whether it was to talk or sit silently with the comfort knowing the man or woman to our left or right knew – they understand what we are going through, because they are or were going through “it” too. Describing what “it” is to someone who hasn't experienced transitioning from military service to civilian life is very difficult, but I will try to explain. 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.

The best way I can describe transitioning from active duty membership to civilian life are as follows:

  • Exited for my freedom!
  • The “oh no” I’m no longer “in” moment –  we are separated at the end of obligated service, retired, or medically or administratively separated… every veteran celebrates his/her perceived freedom.
    • When we realize we have no solid, “set-in-stone” plan of what is next –
    • We realize civilian life isn't structured like military life is.
      • We try to structure life similar to it was in the military, complete with OCD diagrams and charts; we quickly learn that the plan will always need revision. We learn the hard way to embrace change, remain adaptable to our environments and sometimes learn new ways to measure success.
  •  Re-learning common language, social norms, and enduring another culture shock (a boot camp reversal), often resulting in different degrees of confusion, frustration or anger.
  • Grieving –
    • We learn that our military identity has changed and will never be the same.
    • We all wonder if the right decision was made.
    • We wonder about all the possible associated “ifs:”
      • “what if-“
      • “but if-“
      • “coulda”
      • “woulda”
      • “shoulda”
      • “but why’s…”
      • etc…
    • This is especially the case for disabled veterans who are angry about not looking/feeling/thinking like everyone else and the associated rejections or frustrated about receiving too much compassion/sympathy for the injuries. They feel anger about not being able to leave the service on their own terms. They want to be accepted and sometimes maybe having a hand up when falling, but then lose comfort with the frequent sobbing of “I’m sorry” that pours from people who mean well, but don’t understand the associated internal struggles.
  • Wanting back in
    • At some point, everyone misses what he or she had, whether it was the job, a duty station, friends met, friends lost, a certain mission, or maybe the “luxury” of not having to pick out which outfits to wear every day.
    • Something is missed. Maybe it's feeling left behind while watching active-duty friends continue to rise through the ranks without them.
    • And the daydreams, contemplating and/or even attempting to return to military service. We never expect this day to come, but when it does, it is most bittersweet and surreal.
  • Re-defining who we are.
    • Sailor. Soldier. Airman. Marine. Infantry. POG. Grunt. Mechanic. Petty Officer. Sergeant. Chief. Corporal. “Guns.” Spook. Doc. We all had labels that defined us. Now what? Who am I? Why is hearing my first name such a novelty?
    • While altering our ears to once again recognize our first names in the professional landscape, its easy to be overwhelmed by the fact that the civilian world has so many different identities floating around, yet few even loosely resemble those experienced in the military.
    • We all redefine who we are and label ourselves accordingly.

The worst part about these phases is that most veterans go through it alone, which I highly attribute to our nation’s current outrageously high daily veteran suicide statistics. I have learned through my disability that it is important to have a solid network of others who know what you are going through to be around or available, even if it is just a silent nod, a timid smile, or knowing that someone sitting next you understands even without making eye contact or acknowledging they are there. Just the fact that person is sitting there means the world to your aching heart and flooding mind.

The “mentorship program” was by far my favorite aspect of serving on Active Duty. I loved seeing Sailors helping Sailors. Seeing that mentality embraced among veterans in the civilian community really warmed my heart. I absolutely love seeing veterans help other veterans… whether its understanding and sharing educational benefits, or understanding different ways to cope with the change, or understanding and communicating that no matter what you've been through, “you are safe now.”

The one thing that we all hold in common is the desire to serve. To remain fulfilled, we need to be involved in something bigger than ourselves. We need to be involved in some sort of service or activity that benefits others, and in return, carrying out that service fulfills our needs to see measurable results in something positive that we put effort into.

For me, this task started through initiating a change in the veterans’ relations at Virginia Wesleyan, and from there my mission has morphed into serving those seeking my help to learn natural health remedies and achieve a healthier lifestyle.

I've embodied the phrase:

“When you do nothing, you feel overwhelmed and powerless. But when you get involved, you feel the sense of hope and accomplishment that comes from knowing that you are working to make things better.”

And I challenge you to do the same.

Some Resources for Veterans:

This post encompasses the Veteran's Day speech I performed at Virginia Wesleyan College in November 2013, where I talked to a crowd of over 300 veterans and students about the journey we took from serving on active duty to becoming an US veteran. We laughed together, cried together, and indulged in a few stories of our time serving before becoming students. It is also a direct “part two” from my previous post “My Military Transition.”


Author: Nicole Graber

Title: Writer, Editor, Wellness Consultant, Business Strategist

Expertise: Natural Wellness, Healthy Lifestyle, Home Business Strategy, Motherhood


Nicole is a writer, healthy lifestyle consultant, and faith-based business strategist at Gracefully Abundant, with bylines on MSN and the AP newswire. As a survivor of homelessness and chronic health issues, she discovered a purpose in guiding people toward a healthier lifestyle and increased income.

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