Transitioning from active duty to civilian life can be a long and difficult journey. One minute you are focused on searching for a job, the next you are worrying about finding your new home. Sometimes you feel like everything is going great and sometimes you feel like you’ve been put inside a blender and poured out into a frosty mug. And to top it all off, there is the realization that you are transitioning from a world where people understand what you are going through to a world where very few will understand your struggle.
Where Everybody Knows Your Name
Sometimes you want to be where everybody knows your name. It’s tough not to think of the TV show Cheers when I say that, but the song rings true. Most people enjoy being in places where they feel accepted, a place where they feel like they belong. After 12 years on active duty, I felt like I belonged. My problems were not much different than anyone else’s and most people have been through whatever you’re going through. This became obvious to me when I would talk to friends who had been through the transition process. They’d ask me how things were going and what I was up to these days. I’d say, “Working my way through transition,” and immediately they understand what that means. They understand the turmoil that you are probably going through. They understand the difficulty. And they understand how mentally challenging it can be just to fit into your new life.
I can remember speaking with a civilian one day and I mentioned that I recently transitioned from active duty. I can recall the deer in the headlights look as they struggled to understand why that bit of information mattered to them. “Oh … congratulations,” he replied quietly. For the first time in over 12 years, I felt like I was in a place where NO ONE knew my name.
Blending in Means Adjusting
There’s no doubt that life is different outside of the military. For me, blending into my new civilian life meant adjusting to the differences and learning how I would fit into this new life. Learning to speak civilian was important because terms like PCS, PMCS, PT, and COB don’t normally translate to how people speak outside of the military. Another thing that I needed to pay attention to was how I dressed. While I was on active duty, my selection of civilian clothing was somewhat limited. After all, I wore the same outfit Monday through Friday and generally wore things to relax in on the weekends. Now I find myself staring into my closet trying to figure out what to wear. I’ve gone from choosing two or three outfits a week to trying to fill seven whole days with a different outfit.
Another area that I realized I would need to blend in to is the workplace. This is one of the toughest areas because it seems like everything I do sticks out like a sore thumb. In my new career, I actually have to take a lunch and remember that work ends at a specific time, not when the mission is complete. I am outside of all of the inside jokes and few of my stories relate to normal workplace conversations. Taking the time to think about the ways that I feel like I am not quite fitting in can be overwhelming, so I definitely need to find a way to blend into this new life.
Blending in Means Finding the Balance
Adjusting to civilian life and blending in means that we must find a balance between who we were in the military and who we want to be outside of the military. One thing that I realized is that I am very different from many people in the civilian world, but that isn’t a bad thing. Less than 1 percent of Americans choose to take the path that veterans take, so naturally veterans will have different stories, different experiences and therefore may blend in differently. Transitioning from active duty to civilian life requires finding balance as you navigate the difficulties of blending into this new life. One of the best qualities that many of us have learned from being in the military is being able to adapt to new environments. I realized that I didn’t need to be a different person, I just needed to adapt to a new situation. Besides, there are always enough veterans around who are always glad you came.
Jamaal Wheaton is an Army Veteran with over 12 years of active duty service who recently transitioned. He is the founder and owner of The Wheaton Group, a public relations firm that specializes in being a voice for veteran and military-related issues. Jamaal shares his personal experience of transition with the hopes of helping others navigate the through their own transition.
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