Homecomings are supposed to be happy times, but all too often things don’t turn out the way you might imagine. People can change when they’re apart living very different lives, and you can’t always go back to the way things were before.
That’s often the case when someone returns home after a deployment, especially from a combat zone. And leaving the military presents a whole added set of challenges — not only do you leave a job when you leave the service, but you say goodbye to a whole way of life, support structure, and identity. That transition can be tougher than you might realize.
From service members to their friends and family, “Everybody changes when somebody gets deployed,” says Stephanie Richmond, founder and CEO of Stand Beside Them, a nonprofit that offers career and life coaching for post-9/11 veterans. “Everybody has to readjust.” We spoke to veterans, health professionals, and other experts for their insight on how to make the transition back to civilian life as smooth as possible for returning service members and their loved ones.
Reuniting with family
Many of us think of the separation during deployment as the hardest part of military life, sweetened by a happy, hug- and kiss-filled reunion. But actually getting back to everyday life can be the harder challenge. “I don’t think people realize reintegration is as difficult as it is,” says Lydia Marek, an affiliated research scientist at the Virginia Tech Department of Human Development. Here are some ways to make it easier.
- Manage expectations. It can be a big readjustment, so don’t be surprised if it takes months, even years. Be patient, and don’t beat yourself up. Remember, it’s a process — for both sides. The at-home spouse might have taken on extra responsibilities, like managing finances or a new job. Meanwhile, the kids might have become more independent or responsible and resist being parented by someone who was away.
- Build a support network. Your military buddies will understand what you're going through. Stay in touch with them and try to get together regularly, either in person, on the phone, or online. For the at-home family, maintaining friendships and connecting with other families welcoming back a service member can help. Vets and families alike can search online for communities like Veterans United and resources like SpouseBuzz.
- Get to know each other again. Go on family walks or date nights. Sign up for the National Military Family Association’s Operation Purple Ribbon, which runs free family summer camps, or the DOD’s Yellow Ribbon Reintegration Program, which organizes weekend events for reserve members and their families. Hold ongoing family meetings to discuss and renegotiate roles, suggests Belle Landau, executive director of the Returning Veterans Project, which offers free health services to post-9/11 veterans, service members, and their families in Oregon and southwest Washington. Talk about how the deployment made you feel, and how being back is changing things.
Taking care of yourself
Life in a combat zone can take a psychological toll. It’s not uncommon to feel lonely or adrift. Nearly one in five service members returning from Afghanistan or Iraq has post-traumatic stress (PTS) or depression. The key is to try and head off these problems whenever you can, and get help when things are tough.
- Get out there. Returning service members might feel alienated from people in their home communities, whose experiences differ vastly from their own. Jasbir Sandhu, an Air Force veteran, suggests keeping an open mind and a sense of humor. “As weird as they might seem to us … we seem weird to them.” Plan out your day or week. “That will also motivate you to put the beer down, put the video games down, and make connections with other veterans or old friends,” Landau says.
- Find a new sense of purpose. For many who join the military, “it’s like a calling,” says Linda Herrera-Yee, founder of Military Spouse Behavioral Health Clinicians. “When they leave it, it leaves a big hole they need to fill,” which can worsen the feeling of isolation. Before service members return home, loved ones can ask, “What are you thinking of doing?” That can include career plans, but also sports, hobbies, or volunteering. Reach out to Team Rubicon, a network of veterans who offer disaster relief, or The Mission Continues, which dispatches vets on volunteer missions and offers fellowships at nonprofits.
- Ask for help. Look for signs of post-deployment stress: do you startle easily, feel irritable, or avoid crowds? Do you have bad dreams or trouble sleeping? Do you feel down a lot or lean on alcohol or drugs? Reach out and ask for help if anything seems wrong to you. Try your local Veterans Affairs facility, or the DOD’s Military One Source program, which offers up to 12 free counseling sessions to service members and their families. You owe it to yourself — and your family — to feel better again. “You did a great service for our country,” Landau says. “You deserve to get help.”
Looking ahead to what's next
For many vets, the job hunt after leaving the service will be the first time they’re out there looking for work. Here are some tips to navigate the process.
- Start early. Service members can begin participating in the Department of Defense’s Transition Assistance Program (TAP), which includes career preparation classes, up to six months before they leave the service, as often as they want. Since TAP covers so much ground, Kelly Hruska, government relations director of the National Military Family Association, suggests taking it more than once, focusing on a different part of the curriculum each time.
- Revamp your résumé – in civilian language. Figure out how you can apply your military skills and experience in a civilian setting, says career coach and military veteran Kevin Tucker. A task like loading a missile on an aircraft carrier might show an ability to follow directions or an eye for detail, for instance. Reflect on the leadership skills you’ve learned, and don’t be afraid to highlight them. Last, but not least: “Ditch the acronyms,” Tucker says. Most civilians won’t understand them. Demonstrate your communication skills by keeping your audience in mind.
- Use your network. The military community is rooting for your success, so reach out to your former comrades or other ex-military folks for advice or help. And don’t forget your friends outside the military — while you were serving, they may have climbed the ranks in other industries and could help you get in the door. Be flexible and creative in your search — you never know what might turn out to be a great fit.
Melissa Pandika is a freelance writer based in Oakland, California.