Transitioning to Civilian Life

Transitioning to Civilian Life                                                                          

The U.S. military spends enormous amounts of time and money preparing soldiers for war but correspondingly very little of these resources preparing them to return to civilian life. When military personnel finish their tour of duty and return home, among the transitions that they must negotiate include: 

  • Soldier to civilian
  • Danger to safety
  • Discomfort to comfort
  • Camaraderie to solitude
  • Mistrust to trust
  • Chaos to order

Lawlessness to law

As much as soldiers eagerly anticipate this transformation, negotiating the change is not always easy. The sheer number of transitions from war to peace makes the hope of quickly reassuming a normal lifestyle somewhat unrealistic, and for many, a successful change in role takes considerable effort and time.

A particular challenge facing a returning war veteran is the need to put aside the 'survival mode' which was critical in the war zone and may have become a central feature of the soldier's identity. Among the perspectives, attitudes, and behaviors that are highly valued in combat are: 

  • Heightened arousal.
  • Being on constant alert for danger.
  • Narrowed attention and focus.
  • A hostile appraisal of events.
  • Not trusting people.
  • Making quick, unilateral decisions.
  • Expecting others to obey directives without question.
  • Sticking to a "mission" no matter what.
  • Reacting quickly and asking questions later.
  • Keeping emotions sealed off.

While having obvious survival value in combat, this 'battlemind' style is typically highly maladaptive and self-defeating when applied to civilian life. For example, aggressive, split-second decision-making and action are vital in a firefight, but similar actions back home can easily fall under the categories of disorderly conduct, assault, and domestic abuse. At the same time, war veterans have a hard time letting go of these habits that once served to keep them alive and unharmed.


Christopher Gorman
Director of Veterans Affairs
Wingate Hall, Room 107
160 Convent Avenue
New York, NY 10031
p: 212.650.5374
f: 212.650.7369