What makes leaving the armed forces different?

The military is often described as a ‘self-contained social world’ (Brotz and Wilson, 1946, p. 371). It frequently implies a professional commitment far in excess of the traditional eight hours a day and five days a week, and usually involves toiling, sleeping and socialising with the same people—often in relative geographic isolation, during lengthy deployments, sometimes at short notice and habitually in extreme environments.

With its ‘different ways of communicating and relating to others, different living arrangements, […] and different standards of behaviour, dress, and bodily comportment’ (Cooper et al., 2016, p. 166), it is often described as more of a ‘life’ than a job.

For some, joining the armed forces has been all they wanted to do. For others it becomes the only life they want to lead. But whatever your views on the ‘profession of arms’, it is, I argue, incumbent on a society to consider what this entails for those that commit to serve. It is certainly a job that for most, ends well before a traditional working life is over. And this can present a problem.

If a Service person does not retire (and in the UK context that can occur well before state retirement age), it is because—to be blunt—they have died in service, possibly in traumatic circumstances. It is the latter commitment—that of potentially sacrificing one’s life—that is perhaps the starkest difference between military and most other occupations, and it is one that every Service person is in no doubt about. It is certainly a burden that implies almost total commitment to the institution—an institution that can mean life or death.

This ‘total’ nature of military life begins with basic training (‘boot camp’ in the now more universally common US context), in which recruits are stripped of personal identity markers (e.g. hairstyles) and possessions (e.g. clothes). Personal decision making is also limited by the tight daily scheduling (including physical training), while practically all communication with the outside world is cut off (Mobbs and Bonanno, 2018).

After initiation, this rite of passage into the military is marked with pageantry, parades, flags, bands, and (usually) proud families and friends.

In contrast, the exit is the opposite. It is often marked with the sort of encounter I describe in my scene-setting vignette, which can be a lonely experience. From one second to the next, the military person goes—literally—from ‘insider’ to ‘outsider’ as they leave the guarded confines of a military establishment. The clock’s strike at midnight separates their military world from their future civilian life, and this can be bewildering.

This is hard work, please

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This previous life has been one ‘governed by a separate set of laws, norms, traditions and values’ (Coll et al., 2011, p. 488). When this is combined with the tight personal bonding that necessarily occurs between members of the military (particularly that forged in adverse conditions, including combat), many veterans consider there to be a huge ‘civil-military cultural gap’ (Collins, 1998, p. 216) between what they experienced in the military, and what they see in the civilian context (Mobbs and Bonanno, 2018). Indeed, these bonds are often regarded to ‘transcend all others’ (Tick, 2005, p. 21), and the ‘civil-military cultural gap’ can be exacerbated by encountering a population that has little understanding of what that life entails (Collins, 1998).

Of course, the imposition of as much control as possible in the highly chaotic environment of armed conflict—as well as the tight team bonding and cohesion—is paramount. It provides inbuilt social support and fostering of a sense of purpose, value, self-esteem and self-worth. In short, it bestows upon its members and units a sense of collective and individual identity, an identity that is focused upon successful mission accomplishment above all else, even at the cost of personal sacrifice. For many, this sacrifice, even the ultimate sacrifice, is a powerful life force.

However, such a tightly organised and controlled environment can lead to an over identification with it, and sometimes a dependence on the support structure it provides. When this is withdrawn upon leaving the military, this can leave a veteran feeling rootless, lost, and lacking their previous sense of self-esteem and self-worth, particularly if they have relied on this profession to inculcate and reinforce this self-conception. This can, in extreme cases, lead to a ‘downward slide […] toward substance abuse, homelessness, and even suicide’ (Danish and Antonides, 2013, p. 552).

Reverse culture shock

few, if any, leavers can simply shrug off the institutionalising effects of their years of service. They have been, expensively, painstakingly conditioned by the military, for the military, and deconditioning doesn’t just ‘come’ as a matter of course.

(Jolly, 1996, p. 166)

Notwithstanding these tragic extremes mentioned above (which are mercifully relatively few, but still alarmingly significant in my view), research does show that many Service leavers and veterans ‘can experience adjustment problems upon reentry into larger [civilian] society’ (Coll et al, 2011, p. 487), and this can be described as a ‘reverse culture shock’ (Bergman et al., 2014). This is a shock that can be experienced not just by the Service leaver, but also their immediate family.

This reverse culture shock can bring with it a sense of ‘disorientation, change of status, and search for identity and meaning’ (p. 488; Fabian and Pebdani, 2013), which can endure for months or years after leaving the military due to the ‘deeply engrained’ (Rafferty et al., 2017, p. 10) military traits and experiences. Indeed, recent US research indicates that up to 72% of veterans there ‘experience high levels of stress during the transition to civilian life’ (Mobbs and Bonanno, 2018).

The UK government’s ‘Veterans’ Transition Review’ of 2014 quotes an ex-Service person describing this situation as one in which the military ‘knock you down, then build you into a soldier, but they don’t then switch you off and turn you back into a civilian’ (p. 125).  Indeed, former US president Barack Obama remarked in 2011 that ‘we spend months preparing our men and women for a life in the military, but we spend much less time preparing them for life after they get out’.

More recent research commissioned by UK armed forces-related charities—specifically looking at veterans’ mental health—reflected similar concerns on this lack of ‘deconditioning’ (Jolly, 1996, p. 4) among veterans:

The civilian world is not an easy world to live in. The Army is a bubble; your whole world is kept in there. But as soon as you leave, you’re on your own. To adjust to the civilian life was so daunting

(Carolan, 2016, p. 3)

A transition like no other

While there is understandable emphasis on avoiding an impression that all veterans are ‘mad, bad or sad’ (Lock, 2016, p. 4) (they aren’t), there is evidence that some do experience some form of transitionary challenge, given it is such ‘a major life event’ (Jolly, 1996, p. 138). While coping with one major life event might be hard enough, adding more—and all at the same time—can make it seem intolerable for some. The act of leaving the military is therefore potentially exacerbated if a service member:

  • experiences in-Service illness and/or injury (maybe, but not necessarily sustained in combat);
  • is experiencing guilt or ‘moral injury’ (Mobbs and Bonanno, 2018). This can be due to exposure to/involvement in death and injury of comrades, enemy combatants and civilians;
  • has been diagnosed with (or is experiencing) symptoms of PTSD or anxiety/depression. This might be associated with a sense of grief due to sustaining and/or witnessing illness/injury, and/or simply missing military life (Mobbs and Bonanno, 2018);
  • is possibly harbouring pre-existing (pre-military) mental health issues, potentially arising from an adverse/difficult childhood background (Iversen et al., 2007; Samele, 2013) (the military providing, for some, a means of escape and replacement family); and
  • is living with the heavy weight of personal and/or family expectation (which the military fosters, encourages and reinforces as a matter of survival)

This all makes for a potentially messy and complex military, as well as post-military life. Indeed, some of the above considerations can lead to an unplanned exit from the military, which, on top of this, can greatly reduce time available for preparing for this departure. In turn, this can significantly increase the stress and multiple issues to deal with all at once.  This can sometimes, and simply, be too much. Even for the toughest trooper out there.

However, open displays of grief are not the expected or encouraged in the military, for it is a job that undeniably requires resilience and stoicism. But this can breed an unhelpful reluctance to seek support when experiencing emotional challenges, and this engrained reluctance can endure well after life in the military.

To mitigate the potential for the stress involved in exiting the military to reach significant and chronic levels, it is, I argue, both incumbent on us all, and much less costly in human and financial terms, to deal with this at source, rather than when it is too late. It must therefore be recognised that:

[T]he transition into and then back out of military life is complex and multifaceted. Soldiers [indeed all Service-personnel] and veterans are undeniably resilient, both by selection and training. But they are not superhuman. The process of transitioning and reintegrating back into civilian life is often stressful and can generate lasting psychological difficulties.

(Mobbs and Bonanno, 2018, p. 142)


However, evidence suggests that transition is experienced as far less challenging if Service leavers and veterans formulate ‘tangible, detailed and realistic aims for the future’ (Jolly, 1996, p. 16). This does not apply simply to the very important, and often absolutely necessarily acquisition of a post-military job, but more broadly to how happy, fulfilled, valued and worthwhile veterans feel (or not) in their developing civilian lives. For the mere ‘achievement of employment, even settled employment, is not the same as the achievement of satisfying employment — and civilian work is only a part of civilian life‘ (1996, p. 105). Indeed, this is the focus of another article.

The good news is that research (and my own experience) shows that ‘developmental thrust’ (Adler, 1975, p. 14) can result from challenging life events, which Neimeyer (2006) defines as ‘posttraumatic growth’. And the latter is possibly of some comfort to those that have experienced a ‘traumatic’ departure from the military, although I acknowledge I cannot claim to speak for all others, particularly those who might have endured extreme physical and psychological trauma.

But working back from this possibly extreme notion of posttraumatic growth, and to link this to the notion that some veterans can experience ‘reverse culture shock’ to a greater or lesser extent, Adler (1975) further proposes that ‘[a]lthough culture shock is most often associated with negative consequences, it can be an important aspect of cultural learning, self-development, and personal growth’ (p. 14).

Indeed, Ruth Jolly (1996, pp. 92; 101) tells us that:

Transition is potentially a period of acceptance and healing, experimentation and planning […] Time to think, practice in self-awareness, practice in selfishness even, this is what the leaver desperately needs. [This can provide] the crucial ‘time out’ that anybody in a state of transition requires. A period of conscious rethinking is not, as some people fear, a slippery slope towards aimless drifting. On the contrary, it is essential to the clarification of a sense of direction, which in itself is essential to the re-establishment of life’s momentum.

It is this opportunity for learning, self-development and personal growth (arising from an ‘extreme’ experience or otherwise) that underpins what I take forward from my current doctoral research, and will be a feature of forthcoming posts here. Please take a look around, and come back again to see what’s new if this has been of interest.

I would also be very grateful if you could leave a comment below.

I refer predominantly in this article to a full-time engagement in the ‘Regular’ armed forces (‘Regular’ as defined in the British context).  I recognise that part-time (reservist) military personnel are not necessarily immune to the issues I explore here, but I also recognise there are significant differences. These differences are outside the scope of my current research, but worthy of investigation in my view. Perhaps one for the future…

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© Graham Cable

16 thoughts on “What makes leaving the armed forces different?

  1. Very interesting read. I can definitely relate to the content. Especially being medically discharged and the shorter expedition pricess compared to a regular leaver.
    It was tough and it put a lot of stress on me, I managed to cram a lot of training into a very short period of time. This also helped me cope with the slight ‘depression’ I was feeling from my injuries and lack of career progression. I had to maintain focus, in the end it worked out fine. I have managed to secure a good job in a growing industry.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks very much for reading and responding Jon. I think for those of use (like you and I) who experienced an unexpected end to our careers and were dealing with medical issues at the time, being ill/injured and losing your job (not to mention your identity, raison d’être etc) as a consequence might be considered quite a challenge. In dealing with all of that, research shows that ‘depression’ is a ‘normal’ reaction. That was one of the first things I discovered, and it was of some comfort. This is part of the reason I want to expose these experiences here, so that the ‘normal’ reaction bit is better understood against a backdrop of stigma in many cases. More of this in the next post. Thanks for your candid exposure in any case. Makes me feel that I am not talking to myself!


  2. A fantastic and very accurate account of leaving the military! 25 years service and now a civilian for two years and I still struggle to grasp a hold of life and to articulate this to others!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks very much for your feedback Simon. I must confess that it has taken me 7 years to be able to articulate it, but now I have begun to, what I aim to do is either speak up for others/and or help them articulate it in their own way. I have used others’ stories of their own experience to help me find the common ground (hence my interest in ‘narrative’ approaches’—see my next post). This comes as some comfort after thinking my experience was abnormal. I therefore want to share my story and research so that others can similarly benefit. Keep in touch if you want. You can find me on http://www.linkedin.com/in/grahamcable if you’re on there. All the best for this relatively new phase too!


  3. Very much enjoyed this article Graham, completely resonates with myself, who fiercely loyal whilst serving, struggled with the lack of morals, and behaviours when i got out. Although I never needed the green machine to operate or define me, I miss the behaviours and benefits you stated, and never realised how much they are a part of me. That empty feeling shall never leave, but I know that because of that life, I far exceed my own and other expectations in the civilian world. I must lastly add that the paragraph about boredom, and why it occurs is an answer i have been struggling to find for many years, and I thought it was just me and my personality, but looking deeper, your writing is so very true and I will explore that further. Thanks for publishing, very inspiring

    Liked by 1 person

    1. David, thank you very much for your insights, and also your support. It takes a while to put these posts together as I want to do them justice, but I will write again soon. I hope that the content will continue to resonate with you, as that is the aim. I’m not sure I can come up with any suggestions regarding the boredom issue at the moment, but at least you know you are not the first person to struggle with that. That in itself may comes as some comfort, and that is part of the reason I write. We’re connected now anyway, so we’ll speak soon. All best in the meantime.


  4. This article does capture the many difficulties of leaving and transitioning from service, there are many issues that are even to this day still very much in need of being resolved to provide an effective transition. Having the difficulties clearly articulated and in black and white, I hope that there will be many that listen and take note, I and ExFor+ are developing a long-term strategy for dealing with transitional issues. As ExFor+ CEO I have personal being medically discharged and understand the shock and grief of walking away from something that I and many others have worked so hard to achieve.


    1. Thank you for your supportive feedback Simon. On one hand it’s reassuring the above resonates, but of course the flip side is that it reflects the less than satisfactory experience of many, like you. I know you are working hard to effect change via the organisation you lead, so let’s hope that in raising these issues the process will be less challenging for others. Thanks again.


    1. Absolutely Stephen. That was my interpretation based on an analysis of my own transition as measured against the literature. I’m both glad and reassured that in writing this up, I have conveyed that. Thank you for this reassurance.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. My pleasure. Thank you for sharing this. You’ve humanised a subject that can become very clinical when written by people who haven’t had direct personal experience of this painful transition.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Great timing! I’ve just written elsewhere that ‘clinical’ research often fails to answer questions as to how military to civilian transition is experienced. This requires far ‘thicker’ (Geertz) inquiry into the ‘noise’ (Hodkinson and Hodkinson, 2001) behind that lived experience. That is what I am trying to convey.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Indeed. ‘Clinical’ research – by virtue of being done by people outside of the experience studied, and who are writing in order to publish in academic journals – invariably fail to convey what people actually go through. It highlights the huge gap between ‘lived experience’ and its reduction to ‘mechanisms’ or statistics and psychological models etc. People will better understand experiences when they hear them spoken about in human terms.

        Liked by 1 person

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