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3 Pieces of Advice for Veterans Transitioning Back to Civilian Life

This article was originally published by Active Minds and was written by Bryan Adams, a member of the Active Minds Speakers Bureau who speaks to schools and groups nationwide about his military service and his struggle with mental health issues once he returned to civilian life.

Through the drones of machinery and roaring turbines, a calm voice came over the loudspeaker of the C-141 troop transport plane: Please prepare for landing. I had been in Iraq for over a year on what seemed like a dark and twisted Groundhog Day. Stepping off of the plane in Germany was a surreal experience. The lush green hills and puffy white clouds draped against the blue sky were a far cry from the deserts of Iraq. I had never felt so relieved in my life.

After being wounded during an ambush, I came closer than I had ever imagined to dying. My life as an Infantryman in Iraq was a mix of long hours and overwhelming boredom, peppered with brief moments of pure terror, racing adrenaline and extreme focus. Conversations with friends ran the gamut of pop culture, politics, sports, music and goals. There was a lot of time to think about home, about family and friends, and about what I wanted to do when I got out of the military.

The first few months back in the United States I was riding an almost euphoric emotional high, spending time with family and friends and enjoying the freedoms our country has to offer. For me, trying to settle back in to civilian life was the priority. Eventually the newness of it all faded away and I was left with the realization I had no real plan. I was 21 years old and had spent three of my formative early adult years in a highly structured environment where “right place, right time and right uniform” was the overarching mantra to the lower enlisted soldier. Having choices and excessive free time were a welcomed, yet unfamiliar luxury.

I became consumed with anxious thoughts that kept me awake at night. Depression crept in as the reality of what I had lived through began to fully sink it. The guilt of surviving, while other soldiers who were stronger, faster and more proficient did not, was hard to digest. Frustration permeated my daily life as the larger questions loomed over almost every moment of my existence.

Admitting I needed help was one of the toughest realizations I came to in my life. Stigmas are a very real barrier to mental health treatment. From my personal experience, they are even more pronounced in the military, where not being able to pull your weight can lead to mission failure or getting someone killed. Through supportive friends, family and caregivers I accepted the realization I wasn’t able to do it on my own, and I sought treatment for what was eventually diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder.

After years of focus, time and hard work, I was able to fully appreciate and respect the importance of mental health. I felt the need to educate others, to change the conversation about mental health. That is what lead me to Active Minds — their mission is to eliminate stigmas on college campuses.

I found myself working to raise awareness for mental health treatment through speaking engagements and publications; my current duties also include working in veteran’s services at Rutgers University, where I have learned a lot about the reintegration process and mental health. I do not however, consider myself an expert; I feel I am more of an observer and fellow traveler on the journey. I want to share some of the practices which I have seen as effective not only to my personal situation, but for many returning veterans.

Below you will find three recommendations I have for you to keep in mind if you are a transitioning veteran or working with transitioning veterans.

1. Have a plan:

  • Develop a concrete plan of action several months before leaving the service. Smaller goals are an easy way to measure progress and build confidence.
  • If you plan on attending college after leaving the military, it’s a good idea to start researching schools up to a year in advance as many have early admissions deadlines. Learn about their rankings, majors, accolades and veteran programs. Start contacting them with any questions you may have; there is no such thing as a dumb question.
  • If you are looking to start working immediately afterwards, take advantage of the career and professional development resources available to you as a veteran. Veteran friendly companies, job fairs and job placement companies for veterans are all great resources. A simple internet search can yield local and federal hiring events that could connect you with Human Resource professionals and hiring managers.
  • Much like in the military, you should dress for success. Make sure you prepare for your interviews by practicing with others. Do research on the company, its goals and major initiatives. Tailor your resume to the specific company you are applying for and utilize resources available to translate your training and experience into civilian terminology.

2. Take Care of Yourself: Maintaining a healthy mind and body will make your ability to deal with stress, change and adversity more manageable. It has been shown that as many as one in five adults have some form of diagnosable mental health disorder. The Department of Veterans Affairs offers a variety of treatments and psychiatric services which can be tailored to your individual needs. You can also file for disability claims for any injuries or illnesses you believe you may have developed as a result of your service. You may be eligible to receive financial compensation as a result. If you’re going to file a disability claim, I recommended seeking assistance from a specialized claims officer or veteran’s service organization. If you have private insurance you can utilize providers within your network who may have specializations in working with veterans.

There are many other holistic approaches which you can take advantage of as a returning veteran. Mindfulness practices, meditation, yoga, outdoor recreation, regular exercise regimens and group activities which promote healthy coping mechanisms have all been proven beneficial. A service animal can also act as a day-to-day support mechanism to help you navigate through life. Seeking treatment should never be viewed as weakness; it takes a strong person to take the tough steps necessary in recovery.

3. Continue to Serve: As veterans we are used to having a mission and serving the country for the greater good. This sense of service runs strong in us all and it is important that we continue to fulfill this need. Community service and helping others is one of the highest forms of self-actualization one can achieve. There are many opportunities for veterans to give back to their communities and country. We can use our skills, knowledge, and experience to improve the lives of others who are less fortunate.

This piece originally appeared on the Active Mind’s blog.

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