5 secrets that help veterans transition to civilian life

Life transitions are never easy, but by far one of the hardest, one filled with ups and downs and uncertainty, is the transition from active military service to civilian life.

If you’re a veteran struggling, you’re not alone: 61 percent of post-9/11 veterans reported difficulty adjusting to civilian life, according to the report “The State of the American Veteran: The Orange County Veterans Study” by the University of Southern California School of Social Work.

One of the biggest roadblocks to a smooth transition is that, in most cases, there’s no clear road at all, says Stephanie J. Wong, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist in San Mateo, California. “No one tells you, ‘Step one: Do X. Step two: Do Y. Step three: Do Z.’”

But it’s easier than you might think to chart your best course, no matter what stage of re-integration you’re in. These five strategies will help.

Don’t go it alone
You didn’t shoulder missions alone in the service and you needn’t start now. Be honest with yourself if you need help — and about what kind of support would benefit you. “There are so many organizations that want to help,” says Kathy Copeland, Ph.D., Vice President of Human Services for Goodwill of Orange County, which operates the Tierney Center for Veteran Services in Tustin. A good first step: Ask around and search the internet to get an idea of what exists.


Overwhelmed? One of the Tierney Center’s objectives is to help veterans navigate and connect with services to meet your unique needs. They’ve built partnerships with local organizations in all areas, including those that provide family-centric treatment and support (such as the Child Guidance Center), affordable or pro bono legal services (Veterans Legal Institute), mental health services (Strength in Support) and government agencies (U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs).

Seek out a trusted confidant
Apart from organizations, one-on-one support from a loved one or peer or counselor who will collaborate and assist you can be a powerful tool.

Choose someone you feel comfortable opening up to, whether it’s a sibling or parent, spouse or friend, former teacher or employer or fellow veteran. Dr. Copeland sees veterans regularly interacting at the Tierney Center and recommends veterans lean on each other to get advice and share experiences.

“Research shows peer support — folks who have been there, done that and are back on their feet — is really key,” she says.

If you’re a veteran who hasn’t needed the services of an organization or has successfully made the transition, consider offering yourself as a resource to others — you might be pleasantly surprised by the effects on your own life. “There’s a brotherhood and sisterhood that exists among veterans,” Dr. Copeland says. “We encourage all vets to get connected.”

Get control of your finances
According to the USC report, more than one in three post-9/11 veterans have an annual income below or near $23, 850, the U.S. national household poverty level for 2014.

Returning to the civilian world with no job and, in many cases, no stable living situation, can be a rude awakening for veterans. “You’re used to getting a regular paycheck and your three squares; it’s hard to plan for (what comes after),” Dr. Copeland says.

Many organizations, including the Tierney Center, offer financial wellness classes that help vets establish and learn the basics and provide other education, including classes on veteran benefits such as VA loans to buy a home.

Learn to apply military experience to civilian employment
Don’t feel married to whatever type of job you held in the military. A dedicated career counselor at a veteran services organization like the Tierney Center can talk you through your skills and experience — even if they don’t seem directly related to a civilian job — and help you figure out how to describe them on a resume and market them to potential employers.

“Our program looks at the whole vet,” Dr. Copeland says. And through long-term relationships with employers in Orange County and beyond, they have a high rate of job placement, she says.

Be patient with yourself
Routine, structure and discipline are built into military life, so many veterans find civilian life at first feels unsettlingly dynamic and even frenetic. With so many factors to juggle — reconnecting with loved ones, getting and keeping a job, obtaining housing and budgeting — be sure you take time for yourself, to adjust and check in with yourself.

But managing your mental health can be a challenge that’s hard to face, clinical psychologist Dr. Wong says. Keep in mind that even if you don’t have telltale signs of post-traumatic stress disorder, it’s normal for issues to creep up. If you start feeling depressed, anxious or just off, talk to your confidant or a mental health professional. “Asking for help is a strength — not a weakness,” she says.

That’s true no matter what type of support you need or organization you reach out to. “There are a lot of misunderstandings about veterans’ options and what they can do during this time,” Dr. Copeland says. “These services are not a handout; they’re a hand up.”

Paige Worthy for Goodwill of Orange County