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The Role of Psychology in Helping Veterans Transition to Civilian Life

Many years ago when I was a deputy sheriff, I was patrolling a remote area where serious crimes were not uncommon. I observed a male slumped behind the wheel of his parked vehicle, and decided to investigate. As I approached the vehicle, I saw he was holding a large caliber revolver in his hand and appeared to be emotionally upset. I could also see what appeared to be photographs on his lap. After safely securing his weapon, I learned that this man was a Gulf War veteran. He had been a member of a tank crew that had been involved in heavy combat. The pictures he held were ones he had taken following combat, showing deceased enemy soldiers. After a short dialogue, he revealed that he had never recovered emotionally from his combat experiences, and that his plan that evening was to take his own life. Fortunately, he was unable to carry out his plan, and I was able to get him some psychological assistance. But I have always wondered why someone who had volunteered to serve in the military did not have access to mental health resources, or else chose not to utilize them. And I wondered what the military and the general community could do to improve the transition from military to civilian life, especially for those whose experiences may have been traumatic.

Image created by author
Source: Image created by author

This question is even more pertinent and pressing today. Over 2.5 million Americans have completed combat tours – often multiple ones – in Iraq and/or Afghanistan. Whether they serve just one “hitch” in the military or retire after 20 or more years of service, every Soldier, Sailor, Airman, or Marine will eventually make the transition back to civilian life. Serving in the military is often a transformational experience, for the better or for the worse, and psychologists have the knowledge and skills to help veterans integrate successfully back into civilian life.

There are other reasons for concern. Estimates of the percentage of combat veterans who experience posttramatic stress disorder range up to 15 percent. And that does not include those who may not meet clinical criteria for PTSD (or other combat-related disorders), but who nonetheless may experience significant impairments to their emotional and interpersonal (family and social) adjustment. Moreover, an estimated 115,000 to 400,000 military members are estimated to have received “mild” traumatic brain injury (mTBI), many of which are undiagnosed. Altogether, this portends significant challenges to delivering effective mental healthcare to the hundreds of thousands of veterans who currently, or who may in the future, need it.

The military invests large amounts of time and money to recruit, train, and develop its members. Psychologists are involved at every step of the process, from designing new methods to assess and assign recruits, to evaluating training effectiveness, to conducting research on how to more effectively develop leadership skills. Clinical and counseling psychologists are employed in large numbers by the military to offer services to members who suffer from the full spectrum of psychological disorders common in the military demographic, including depression, PTSD, and substance abuse problems.

Psychologists also play a critical role in developing and executing programs aimed at enhancing emotional and social skills among its members. The Army’s Comprehensive Soldier Fitness (CSF) program was the military’s first attempt to train large numbers of personnel in skills designed to make them less vulnerable to the potential adversity of combat. This program is revolutionary in terms of, for the first time, expanding the focus of military psychology from strictly a disease-model designed to treat disorders after they occur, to a wellness model designed to prevent them from developing in the first place. CSF greatly expanded the role of psychologists in the training of military personnel.

The psychological services described above are for active duty military. I am concerned that the military does not do enough to help its members transition successfully to civilian life. This is not to say that the military does nothing along these lines. The Department of Defense offers the Transition Assistance Program (TAP) designed to smooth the transition to civilian life, for both the military member and spouses. It is a useful program, but focuses on financial and vocational planning, rather than psychological skills that former military members may need to successfully readapt emotionally and socially to civilian life.

I believe the military can do more to help in this process. It takes several months to train a soldier for combat. They must learn military discipline, how to maintain and accurately fire a rifle, and to develop a mental framework that helps them cope with the potential of killing other people. Psychologists could help the military develop a more systematic “basic training for civilian life” program. In some ways such a program would be the mirror image of recruitment. Instead of testing and assessing for skills relevant to the military, psychologists could systematically test and advise those transitioning military members who request or require it on vocational skills relevant to the civilian sector. Psychologists could also assist in the social reintegration with civilian society, something many veterans report is challenging. For those with combat experience, psychologists could help them come to terms with their experiences.

Psychologists outside the military may also play a critical role in this process. A great many non-profit organizations exist that help bridge the gap between military and civilian life. A notable example is Team Red White and Blue, whose mission is to enrich the lives of veterans through physical and social activity. Psychologists can participate in this and many other non-profit organizations with similar missions by offering their expertise to help veterans flourish in their transition to civilian life. Graduate students may join or form a student chapter of the Society for Military Psychology, Division 19 of the American Psychological Association, and in doing so learn more about military personnel and their experiences.

It is important to emphasize that the majority of veterans may experience personal growth from their military experience. My own research shows that combat leaders report their experiences have reinforced basic strengths of character including teamwork, capacity to love, bravery, gratitude, and honesty. Anecdotally, veterans maintain that the adversity of combat imbued them with a greater sense of perspective, and appreciation for family and friends. And, the military experience is often associated with enhanced work skills, ranging from more self-discipline to better management and leadership abilities. Veterans make terrific employees, and psychologists can help them optimize their potential by helping them assess their strengths and capabilities, and match them to an appropriate civilian career.

I hope that the Gulf War I veteran who I encountered years ago survived his crisis and is living an engaged and meaningful life today. But I know there remain far too many like him who are not getting the help and support they need. It is clear that both the military itself and the civilian sector need to work together to help military members achieve a successful transition to civilian life.

Note: The views expressed herein are those of the author and do not reflect the position of the United States Military Academy, the Department of the Army, or the Department of Defense.