What makes leaving the armed forces different?

Given my own difficult transition arose out of my exit from a military career, and that those challenges inspired the research that led to my doctoral thesis and this website, this post looks to flag up some of the issues that those leaving the military might encounter, and why (extracted from my thesis).


The military is often described as a ‘self-contained social world‘. It often 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’, it is often described as more of a life than a job.

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.

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 and hand their ID card in. The clock’s strike at midnight separates their military world from their future civilian life, and this can be bewildering for many.

What makes the difference?

The primary purpose of an armed force is to field personnel who are trained, equipped and prepared to ‘fight and to kill and to die’; and this implies potential injury and lethal, risk.

It is this 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 member of the military is in no doubt about. It is certainly a burden that implies almost total commitment to the institution.

While this is the primary characteristic that differentiates military work from the routine civilian career environment, combat-related activity is not the only type of activity that can expose military personnel to risk of harm.

A range of other hazardous duties can also expose military personnel to ‘severely traumatic and sometimes unique, life-threatening situations’, as can the training required to prepare for these possibilities.

One of the principal measures adopted by a military organisation to reduce the risk of harm as much as possible, is to ensure there is as much order as possible surrounding the potential chaos of armed conflict. This sense of order, security, safety and community is reinforced in the UK (and a majority of allied military environments) by the provision of a built-in social life, accommodation, schooling, medical care, shopping and other facilities and amenities, both for the individual members of the military and, frequently, their families. Hence, military establishments, in many cases, can take the form and size of towns, whether they be physically found on land or in the form of floating towns on naval vessels.

Additionally – given the need to ensure these military establishments are secure, as well as supply the required space for training areas and aircraft runways for example – they can be both isolated in terms of their locations behind protective fencing and other barriers, but additionally in isolated locations (naval vessels as well are frequently extremely isolated, particularly when at sea). Consequently, based on this secluded and immersive setting, these environments can become a totalising military world, within which inhabitants develop a sense of coherence, meaning and kinship that they perceive does not exist elsewhere.

Creating the Civil-Military Gap

Correspondingly, this military context makes for a complex set of circumstances that are unlike most, if not all other vocational contexts. This begins with basic training, when recruits are stripped of personal identity markers and possessions such as civilian clothes and issued with uniform. This is not only a practical measure but acts as an initial and then enduring means of reinforcing military identity.

This, in turn, creates a veneration of the uniforms, badges and symbols recruits are eventually allowed to wear – but only once they earn that right.

British Army uniform features

British and Royal Netherlands Army uniform features (2004 vintage)

Recruits are additionally routinely submitted to a boarding school regime, with limited spare time to themselves, in part designed to reduce family bonds to home while replacing that with a new ‘military family’.

This provides an opportunity for ‘rapid acclimatization to an institutionalized lifestyle’ and indoctrination with military standards, behaviours, ethics and values designed to transform these former civilians into military personnel who are ready and able to fight and potentially kill and die, both for each other and for their countries and allies.

Central to this is the creation of a military identity that requires the ‘deconstruction’ of previous civilian identity, as joining the armed forces means ‘above all, not to be a civilian. By virtue of this, military organisations operate under a ‘culture that revolves around interdependence, conformity [and] cooperation’ to a much greater extent than exists in non-military organisations.

This previous life has been one ‘governed by a separate set of laws, norms, traditions and values’. 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‘ between what they experienced in the military, and what they see in the civilian context. These are interpersonal bonds which are often regarded to ‘transcend all others‘.

This, in the minds of military personnel, can foster a sense of a seemingly unbridgeable civil-military identity gap between them and the civilian world they came from and will return to – and this sense can persist long into their return to that civilian world.

Loss in the Civil-Military Gap

Given such experiences of intense enculturation, those leaving the military can experience a form of reverse culture shock when returning to the civilian context.

This conceivably presents a dilemma for policy makers, for, on the one hand, the creation of that gap is designed to allow a nation, state or other entity to field an effective fighting force by training, enculturating and qualifying a section of that society as its military component as effectively as possible. This takes time and resources.

However, on the other hand, once individuals approach the end of their military careers, it is argued that the time and resources dedicated to preparing them to return to civilian society, particularly in terms of a shift from military to civilian identity, are not nearly as substantial. 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’.

Consequently, veterans can find themselves lost in the civil-military identity gap as they are no longer officially members of the full-time military, nor do they see themselves as civilians.

This sense of loss can be worsened by one or a number of other losses, which can include those triggered by the death or injury of colleagues, or injury caused to the individual in question. This, in itself, can induce a sense of bereavement and guilt – and potentially be further complicated by a sense of shame, remorse and regret arising from a conflicted sense of personally held morality from failing to prevent, witnessing or hearing of combat-related incidents of death and injury (defined as moral injury).

Moreover, any or all of this can be incurred not only as a result of direct engagement in military operations, but while, for example, partaking in training and other military activities designed to replicate the rigours of combat. Additionally, non-operational and non-training military stresses (possibly prompted or exacerbated by pre-existing physical and psychological issues) can similarly induce a sense of military-related loss, which can exacerbate an apparent inability to comfortably return to civilian life.

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’.

Notwithstanding these relatively limited tragic extremes, research does show that many military leavers and veterans ‘can experience adjustment problems upon reentry into larger [civilian] society’.

The ensuing reverse culture shock can bring with it a sense of ‘disorientation, change of status, and search for identity and meaning’, which can endure for months or years after leaving the military due to the ‘deeply engrained’ military traits and experiences. Recent US research shows that up to 72% of veterans there ‘experience high levels of stress during the transition to civilian life‘.

Challenging transition

Military to civilian transition can therefore lead to disorientation caused by an acute change in professional, as well as personal and social routine and focus. As well as the loss of professional status, structure, purpose and excitement, profound family and social changes can occur also. Any or all of these elements can be sorely missed, yearned for and mourned once an individual leaves that environment. Additionally, altered family dynamics (in terms of a previously ‘busy’ military member’s newly increased presence in the domestic environment) can additionally be stressful and problematic for all concerned.

Furthermore, when military provision such as medical, accommodation and educational support are withdrawn at the end of a military career, those leaving can find setting up replacements in civilian environment a significant challenge.

Graham Cable outlines his own military-to-civilian transition issues (during a Canadian webinar – 2 mins)

The British Army has produced an information guide which tries to articulate these potential challenges to its members (click on the image below to access the full information sheet):

Questions of change

In countries such as the UK and its military allies, effort is invested in supporting military leavers and veterans through this unique process of transition. While it is recognised that by no means everyone leaving the military will experience significant challenges, it is clear that some – and perhaps many – do. Therefore, in these countries also, there appears to be significant governmental, non-governmental and related academic interest in improving military to civilian transition support provision beyond its current levels.

In the UK for example, it is recognised that military veterans can, and do, bring a wealth of valuable professional and personal skills and experience to civilian employers and other professional and personal contexts (see a report by Deloitte). It is also recognised that the sacrifices military personnel make while serving, as outlined above, mean that it is morally, socially and financially imperative to ensure veterans are not disadvantaged by their former service.

It is therefore a question of not ‘pathologising’ and therefore potentially impinging on the professional and personal progress of all veterans, while also ensuring that those who do need support, get it. While this might seem to positively discriminate in favour of some veterans – perhaps to the detriment of other sectors of UK society needing support – the financial impact of ‘poor’ transition is calculated to be £110M in 2020, covering only those measurable health, welfare and other quantifiable costs associated with the 2 million-strong veteran population in the UK.

While these financial and moral obligations alone might justify appropriate military to civilian transition support, there is also, arguably, additional political motivation to improve provision, based on fear of public perception that a government might be failing those who have served in the armed forces. Some of the current political class in the UK have also served themselves, consequently seemingly inspiring them to act.

As well as governmental agencies, there are many charities and private individuals — many of them veterans like me — that seeks to help other veterans transition effectively.

For my part, my experiences and studies have led me to conclude that the ‘storying’ our past, present and future identity before, during and after our military experience is a key part of that process.

© 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. What a fantastically written article. It describes a lot of my feeling on leaving and still to this day almost perfectly. Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. 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.


  6. Thank you for this insightful account Graham. I read the overall experience as one of loss: loss of a life, culture, family, identity, adventure(?), sense of purpose and belonging.

    Liked by 1 person

    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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