By Kristie Fennessey
“Veterans cocoon themselves; it is great on the battle field but terrible psychologically,” says Joseph Simon, a veteran of the Marine Corps and a student studying history at IU Southeast. I felt the same way.
When veterans get out of the military, they usually face a huge learning curve. There is not the automatic trust and camaraderie with civilians that comes from wearing the same uniform. I find that I have to try much harder to connect with those I work with and I almost have to tippy toe around in order to not offend anyone. In the military we were sensitive to each other’s needs but not overly sensitive to each other’s moods. That was okay, we were able to accept the best and the worst of each other and still work admirably together.
I joined up at 18 years of age, right after I graduated from high school. I often found myself frustrated at the lack of control over my own life, but I found comfort in the fact that many of the large life-changing decisions a young adult faces were made for me. From 2002 until 2014, the Air Force provided me with a safe haven, free medical, housing, extensive training in my specific career as a medical laboratory technician, managerial/leadership training and an opportunity to get a college education.
When I left the military there was a loss of that community and camaraderie.
For some, the most important thing the military provides is guidance and an extended tight knit family they learn to trust and to lean on. No matter where I was, whether it was a high tech laboratory in the middle of Nebraska or a dusty ill-equipped trauma unit in Afghanistan, I always had support. I had an extended family with shared experiences who would help out if I did not know what to do, would lift me up when I was down and would share in my successes.
I remember sitting around while waiting on an inbound patient in Afghanistan, I was a new team member being trained by the solider I was replacing. I had not yet developed a rapport with the girl sitting next to me, when suddenly we started talking about the random bloodstains on our boots and where they came from. That was our introduction, blood stains on combat boots. Stains that connected us in that we were medical personnel far from home, seeing things that most people would not want to.
Those relationships were forged by the fires of deployments and by having to put my coworkers on my family care plans [as emergency contacts]. In the event that something happened to me, my relatives were often too far away to immediately take care of my child. I often had to be able to trust my teammates with the most precious thing in my life, my child. That is something that would be socially awkward and even unacceptable to ask or expect of my civilian coworkers.
That was our introduction, blood stains on combat boots.
I got out of the medical field, therefore my new coworkers and fellow students are often unable to relate to me on that level. They never laid down beside me on the dusty floor in the trauma bay, laughing nervously to ease the tension as the klaxon sounded overhead, and we heard the distant boom of a mortar exploding. That common ground and common struggle does not exist with most people I meet in civilian life.
Having recently separated from the Air Force, I know firsthand how abruptly life changes the second you retire. The reintegration process can be difficult for both the soldiers and their families. Often to our families, it feels as though a stranger has returned home. Inversely for the soldier, we may feel as though we have returned home to find strangers with the names and faces of family and friends.
Now, soldiers getting out of the military are required to participate in the Transition Assistance Program or the Career Transition Assistance Plan. TAPs or CTAPs are programs designed to prepare troops for relocating, knowing what their veteran’s benefits are and how to use them, addressing what challenges they may face during the readjustment phase and knowing where they can turn for help if needed. They also require them to attend classes on how to write a resume, how to act during an interview and how to dress for the civilian work place. These classes and programs are incredibly helpful, giving veterans a chance to slowly reintegrate back into making what may seem like simple decisions on their own. There are many differences and adjustments veterans face when they leave the military. Some may find these to be small hurdles while others may see them as insurmountable roadblocks. The truth is veterans often need assistance and support when they return home from service. In the past decade, the Department of Veterans Affairs and the military have come a long way in realizing how much veterans struggle when they retire and have started developing better programs to ease the transition.
Some veterans actually miss the stability and comfort of having choices made for them. As ludicrous as it may sound, there is a degree of comfort when you don’t have to worry if you have made a huge mistake relocating your family to a new city or by switching career paths.
When those decisions are made for you, less of the responsibility that comes from these huge decisions lies squarely on your shoulders. While in the Air Force, I could lament about how they moved me to an unsavory city, or how they pulled me away from my family. At the end of the day, I never had to say I made the wrong choice for my family. It was always out of my hands. Now that I am out of the military, I have to face the three big questions that all adults face all over again.
I have this freedom and control over my life I have not had since I was 18.
What do I do now? Where do I go? What do I want to do with the rest of my life? Perhaps as seasoned veterans, we are better equipped to answer these questions than average 18-year-olds asking themselves these same questions, but facing them is still daunting. When I got out, I chose to move to Southern Indiana. I chose to separate myself from my son’s father by three states after eight years of marriage, and I chose to pursue a degree in journalism which is a hard field to be successful in.
For students here at IU Southeast there is a lot of support for the veteran community. We have the Veterans Services office run by Jack Howell. “Mr. Howell is probably the best VA representative in this region,” says Simon [who is also in the Student Veterans Organization]. “He has been an outstanding resource. I cannot say enough good things about him, how his office is run and the compassion and care he shows for veterans.”
I have this freedom and control over my life I have not had since I was 18. On the one hand, it feels fantastic, but now I am plagued with doubts that I have never had to face. What if I fail? What if I pursued the wrong degree and I cannot afford to take care of my son and myself when I graduate? What if my 10 year old son hates it here and misses his father and resents my decisions? I can no longer lament my lack of control, because I did this. I made these choices, and I have to take full responsibility if it does not work out. |t|
Transformations is a publication of IU Southeast Diversity.