Counseling Services

Resources For Returning War Veterans

Challenges Transitioning to Civilian Life

The U.S. military spends enormous amounts of time and money preparing military personnel for war but correspondingly very little of these resources preparing them to return to civilian life. When service members finish their tour of duty and return home, the transitions that they must negotiate include:

  • Military personnel to civilian
  • Danger to safety
  • Discomfort to comfort
  • Camaraderie to solitude
  • Mistrust to trust
  • Chaos to order
  • Lawlessness to law

As much as service members eagerly anticipate this transformation, negotiating the change is not always easy. The sheer number of transitions from war to peace makes the hope of quickly reassuming a normal lifestyle somewhat unrealistic, and for many, a successful change in role takes considerable effort and time.

A particular challenge facing a returning war veteran is the need to put aside the 'survival mode' which was critical in the war zone and may have become a central feature of their identity. Among the perspectives, attitudes, and behaviors that are highly valued in combat are:

  • Heightened arousal.
  • Being on constant alert for danger.
  • Narrowed attention and focus.
  • A risk-oriented appraisal of events.
  • Not trusting people.
  • Making quick, unilateral decisions.
  • Expecting others to obey directives without question.
  • Sticking to a "mission" no matter what.
  • Reacting quickly and asking questions later.
  • Keeping emotions sealed off.

While having obvious survival value in combat, this 'battlemind' style is typically highly maladaptive and self-defeating when applied to civilian life. For example, aggressive, split-second decision-making and action are vital in a firefight, but similar actions back home can easily fall under the categories of disorderly conduct, assault, and domestic abuse. At the same time, war veterans have a hard time letting go of these habits that once served to keep them alive and unharmed.

Resource: James Madison University Counseling Center for Returning War Veterans