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Black and White to Grey

Military to Civilian Transition

,One of the many lessons that Veterans have taught me is about the profound sense of disconnection that can result from a retirement from the military. The language I have heard is sometimes visual, painting the process as a move between the certainties of the ‘black and white’ military world to the uncertainty of the ‘grey’ civilian world. Some stories evoke a sense of the emptiness, a void, or the ‘nothingness’ that results as familiar structures and self-definitions are removed. In some cases the story is told by the body, where the void can show up as a sensation of frozenness or the inability to move fluidly. In the emotions, the void can feel like a flatness, and the lack of a rich emotional range.

A 3B release carries with it additional complexity, often including a sense of betrayal and loss, much like what we may feel when a close personal relationship flounders. If individuals also experience post-traumatic stress, they will need to find ways to negotiate extra ‘navigational hazards’ in the transition process. In practical terms, medical release may include vocational rehabilitation, the navigation of complex VAC systems for access to benefits, weighty financial decisions, the search for civilian health care providers, and the renegotiation of family roles and structures. It is a complicated, ungrounding experience, and it can last for varying lengths of time; there is no standard transition.

Although military to civilian transition after a 3B release has common elements, an individual approach can be useful. Each of us has unique personal and interpersonal resources, and part of the difficulty of transition is that we loose sight of these in the ‘overwhelm’ of the process. In therapy we have an opportunity to uncover and validate resources that we have become disconnected from, and to acquire new ones. Each of us makes meaning of our experiences in our own way. Therapeutic approaches need to be tried on in order to sense a proper fit. A well-suited therapy provides a powerful tool, and as we practice using a collection of tools, our relationships to problems will change. The benefits of therapeutic work include in increased ability to stay grounded, and act according to our own intentions and goals, even in the face of an overwhelming process.

The military training that was once the focus of a service member’s life placed value on practice, in the form of drills and exercises, so that certain behaviors would become embedded and internalized, eventually forming the part of the self that operated in the military. In therapy, cultivating change also happens through focused, intentional practice. Navigating a military to civilian transition is a courageous new practice, and like military life, it is a path that can be both difficult and joyful, but does not need to be walked alone.

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