Abandoning the tribe: The psychology behind why veterans struggle to transition to civilian life

by Dan Pronk · January 10, 2019

I had seen the cliff coming for six months before I eventually fell off it, and I thought I had prepared myself well for the fall. I was wrong. Having spent the preceding 14 years in the army, the last five with special operations, I was looking forward to a slower-paced and simpler life with my young family. As a doctor, job prospects post-army were good and promised wages significantly higher than what I had been earning during my military service. We would be moving back to a newly built house in my wife’s hometown, which meant more social support for the family. I had accumulated a significant amount of leave, which would allow me to ease back into civilian life without the pressure of needing to immediately find work.

As a precaution to stave off boredom and to have a structured focus in my life following my discharge, I had enrolled in an online course to get my master of business administration. I was physically uninjured from my service, and although I had experienced a significant degree of psychological trauma during my four tours in Afghanistan with special operations, at that point I was seemingly largely unaffected by symptoms of post-traumatic stress. I had naïvely anticipated that the void that would be created in my life by leaving the army could be neatly filled by increased family time, post-graduate study, a new job, and increased income.

Within six months of transition from army to civilian life, the cracks were well and truly beginning to appear in the armor. Demons from my service, centered primarily on the memories of soldiers I couldn’t save, began to infiltrate my conscious thoughts and caused my palms to sweat and my heart to race. My sleep was regularly disturbed by vivid dreams of my family members drowning and me not being able to save them despite my best efforts. Crowded places caused me to become highly anxious and the smell of raw pork began making me gag.

As a doctor I, of course, recognized these symptoms as those of post-traumatic stress (PTS); however, as time progressed I became convinced that PTS was only a small component of what was at play. As I reintegrated into the workforce as a fly-in, fly-out doctor on a mine site, it became clear that the process tearing my life apart at the time was more a grief response than PTS. I was grieving the person I used to be and had absolutely no idea how to be the new person I had become.

I was grieving the loss of my previous army support structure, those who I had shared experiences with and who truly understood me, and I felt a cavernous divide between me and the civilians who now surrounded me. I could see no obvious way for me to traverse that divide and become one of them. Furthermore, I had absolutely no desire to become one of them. I was caught between worlds with seemingly no way back and no way forward.

This struggle continued for years and it is only now, some five years post-discharge, that I can truly reflect with clarity on the issues I faced while reintegrating into civilian life. I now realize that the root of these issues stems from well before the time I discharged, well before my tours of Afghanistan, well before my entry into special operations, and right back to the day I signed on the dotted line and entered the Australian Army.

This article uses contemporary literature to explain the psychological basis of what I experienced during my military service and then during my transition back to civilian life. I have found it hugely beneficial in understanding my personal struggles to be able to define the processes that took place, and it is my hope that doing so might help fellow veterans out there who are facing the same struggles.

In order to truly understand the issues veterans face when leaving the military, I feel it is important to first understand the factors involved in the initial transition from civilian to military life that occurs at the start of a military career. First and foremost, it needs to be appreciated that a distillation of society occurs when being selected for the military. Out of necessity, certain physical, psychological, and mental attributes or conditions will exclude a percentage of society from entry into the military. Hence, a distillation of society occurs simply by entering into service.

For argument’s sake, let’s say that successful military recruits come from the top 50 percent of individuals in a given society based on overall function, and as defined by a standard bell curve. As with any group formation, the successful recruits will then become redistributed among their new cohort and form a new bell curve based on performance within the military environment. This new distribution becomes their norm, and there will be relatively high and low performers in the new group. The military members will quickly lose sight of where they were positioned in the broader societal bell curve and benchmark their performance against their new cohort.

This scenario can play out multiple times during a military career, with an example being selection for a special operations or other niche units. Once again the soldier will recalibrate to the new environment, and once again there will be perceived high and low performers within that specialist unit. The extreme example of this phenomenon is the “low-performing” special operations soldier. When the societal bigger picture is considered, this soldier is likely positioned in the top 1-2 percentile of the broader bell curve. That soldier, however, is perceived as a failure within his specialized unit, potentially leading to removal from the unit and associated psychological ramifications.

Specialized units aside, military members become accustomed to working with a higher functioning, generally more highly motivated group than the societal norm, and it can be appreciated that adjusting back to the bigger bell curve upon leaving the military can prove frustrating for some based on this alone.

Next, the underlying objective of military recruitment and training needs to be considered: to “…strip away the vestiges of the civilian identity and transform men and women into soldiers…” (Mobbs, 2018). This very deliberate process of indoctrination into the military is characterized by practices that instill accountability, responsibility, and readiness, with an overarching objective of transforming civilians into soldiers who are competent and dedicated to their organization (McGurk, 2006). Emphasis is placed on creating cohesion and interconnectedness between previously disparate individuals, and ultimately group integration and personal bonding through recurrent positive interactions (McGurk, 2006).

What is at play during the process of military training is the social psychological theory known as Social Identity Theory (SIT). SIT works on the premise that individuals define their own identities with regard to social groups, and that these identities bolster and protect self-identity (Tajfel, 1982). Group identities rely on the formation of one’s “in-group” with regard to an “out-group”, and the tendency to view one’s own group as superior compared to others, and the potential to degrade other groups in order to bolster one’s own group cohesion. In the military context this can be seen in the distinct differentiation made between military and “civvies” (civilians), with the latter often being perceived negatively by the military cohort.

As a soldier progresses along their military career, the same process occurs with subsequent groups as they are assigned to specific units, and then perhaps complete a selection process for a specialized unit. This group cohesion and rivalry can be seen between the individual services, between individual units within the same service, and even within smaller subgroups within the same unit. It can prove beneficial with regard to esprit de corps, however, taken to extremes, it can lead to toxic rivalries between elements ultimately with the same overarching agenda. Whether this toxic situation occurs or not, the individual gradually becomes “moored” (Tajfel, 1982) to their new group.

As an individual spends more and more time with their specific group they may move on to experience the next level of investment in that group known as identity fusion, that being “…a visceral feeling of oneness with the group wherein the personal self joins with a social self and the borders between the two become porous” (Bortolini 2018, p.2). Identity fusion is characterized by not only strong feelings of association with the group, but also strong relational ties within group members (Bortolini, 2018) and the belief that oneself and the group each strengthen one another (Gomez, 2015).

This experience is what Rudyard Kipling is referring to in his famous passage “The Law for the Wolves,” with the line “For the strength of the pack is the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is the pack.” Identity fusion fosters the perception of familial ties among group members, promoting a potential situation where an individual will willingly sacrifice a great deal for the greater good of the group, up to and potentially including their own lives (Swann, 2018). Many members of military, law enforcement, and other such first-response organizations will associate with this concept.

Once a group member has affiliated to the point of identity fusion within a group, it is likely they are also experiencing a degree of what is known as contingent self-esteem, which occurs when an individual derives feelings of self-worth from success or failure exclusively from one specific life domain (Crocker, 2001). In the context of an elite military unit, this contingent self-esteem will be judged by the individual’s performance in their specific military role within that unit, and is not only determined by their self-evaluation of performance, but is also determined heavily by the subjective evaluation of their performance by other soldiers within the element.

When an individual is performing well at their specific role and being praised by other ingroup members, their self-worth as a whole is bolstered; however, when the individual performs poorly in that specific work-related domain in isolation, although they may be performing well in other domains of their life, due to contingent self-esteem linked to their work performance, they suffer a decrease in their overall self-worth.

By analyzing the psychological literature, the reader can begin to appreciate the mindset of a military member who has experienced Social Identity Theory in joining the military; identity fusion as they bond strongly with their fellow unit members, potentially deploying and experiencing combat with them; and ultimately contingent self-esteem when their personal identity and self-worth become at one with their performance in their military role. This all works fine while the individual continues to serve in that role and perform at a high level of function, as perceived by both themselves and their fellow teammates. It is when the individual is unplugged from that military unit through either injury or discharge that problems can occur.

Looking back on my experience through the lens of psychological theory I can see that my identity was completely fused with my military role and my self-worth was completely contingent on my performance in the domain of my role as a special operations doctor. When I discharged from the army and moved interstate from the locality of my last posted unit, not only had I uncoupled from the group that I socially identified with and had fused my identity to, I was removed from the domain within which my performance was required for me to derive my overall self-worth.

Further compounding the issue was the fact that I then found myself grouped with the “civvies,” being one of the very out-groups that we had belittled in order to strengthen our group identity in my initial process of social integration into the army. Once the situation is looked at from this perspective it is unsurprising that I struggled during my period of transition.

I have used the military example in this article because it is the one I am most familiar with; however, the same concept unquestionably applies to transition from any similar occupation, including, but not limited to: law enforcement, first responders, firefighters, the list goes on.

It is my suspicion that many veterans who receive a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder are possibly not suffering primarily from PTSD, but rather what is now being termed “transition stress” (Mobbs, 2018) resulting in at least part of the process described above. Indeed, studies suggest that regardless of a PTSD diagnosis, 44 to 72 percent of veterans experience a high level of stress during the transition to civilian life, characterized by difficulties securing employment, interpersonal and family relationship issues, legal problems, and difficulty adjusting to the schedule of civilian life (Morin, 2011). Sadly, but somewhat unsurprisingly, the majority of first suicide attempts by veterans occur post-military separation (Vilatte, 2015).

With millions of veterans from the contemporary conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan having already transitioned back into civilian life globally, and millions more likely to do so in the coming decades, I feel the topic of transition stress is one that warrants our attention as much so, if not more so, than post-traumatic stress. It is my hope that this article opens some dialogue on the topic, stimulates some debate, and perhaps even normalizes the feelings that a veteran out there is experiencing but hasn’t quite been able to put a finger on. For my hard-won thoughts on strategies for a healthy transition from the military to civilian life, please keep an eye out for the second article in this series titled, “Filling the void: Maslow and transitioning out of the military.”

Dr. Dan Pronck’s new book “Average 70kg D**khead: Motivational Lessons from an Ex-Army Special Forces Doctor” is available now!

Bibliography

Bortolini, T. N. M. N. J. e. a., 2018. Identity fusion predicts endorsement of pro-group behaviours targeting nationality, religion, or football in Brazilian samples. British Journal of Social Psychology, 57(2), pp. 346-366.

Crocker, J. W. C., 2001. Contingencies of self-worth. Psychological Review, Volume 108, pp. 593-623.

Gomez, A. V. A., 2015. The power of “feeling one” with a group: Identity fusion and extreme pro-group behaviours. Revista de Psicologia Social, 30(3), pp. 481-511.

McGurk, D. C. D. B. T. A. A., 2006. Joining the ranks: The role of indoctrination in transforming civilians to service members. In: Operational Stress. Vol 2. Military life: The psychology of service in peace and combat. Westport, CT: Praeger, pp. 13-31.

Mobbs, M. B. G., 2018. Beyond the war and PTSD: The crucial role of transition stress in the lives of military veterans. Clinical Psychology Review, Issue 59, pp. 137-144.

Morin, R., 2011. The difficult transition from military to civilian life. Washington DC: Pew Research Centre.

Swann, W., 2018. What makes a group worth dying for? Identity fusion fosters perception of familial ties, promoting self-sacrifice. Journal of personality and social psychology, 106(6), pp. 912-26.

Tajfel, H., 1982. Social Psychology of Intergroup Relations. Annual Review of Psychology, Volume 33, pp. 1-39.

Vilatte, J. O. S. L. R. e. a., 2015. Suicide attempt characteristics among veterans and active-duty service members receiving mental health services: A pooled data analysis. Military Behavioral Health , 3(4), pp. 316-327.

Dr Dan Pronk completed his medical schooling on an Australian Army scholarship and served the majority of his military career with Special Operations Units, including four tours of Afghanistan and over 100 combat missions. Dr Pronk was awarded the Commendation for Distinguished Service for his conduct in action on his second tour of Afghanistan. During his military service Dr Pronk served as an Australian medical liaison to the Committee on Tactical Combat Casualty Care, as well as representing Australian Special Operations at the NATO Special Operations Forces Medical Expert Panel. Dr Pronk holds a Fellowship with the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners, and is an instructor on the Royal Australian College of Surgeon's Early Management of Severe Trauma Course. Dr Pronk currently works as a Senior Medical Officer in the Emergency Department of a regional hospital and serves as the Medical Director for TacMed Australia, providing tactical medical advice and training to a number of Police Tactical Groups and Other Government Agencies.


See also works by Sebastian Junger.

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TRIBE is Sebastian Junger’s excellent book on the subject.


Junger and Hetherington were embedded with US Army troops at Restrepo, way outside the wire. How do soldiers return to “normal" life after this ...

On November 16, 2010, Staff Sergeant Sal Giunta of the 173rd Airborne became the first living Medal of Honor recipient since the Vietnam War. His actions occurred in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley duiring the deployment chronicled in the movie "Restrepo." This fourteen-minute video tells part of his story.

https://youtu.be/50RFJfUzNsY

Co-producer Tim Hetherington, a British photojournalist, was subsequently killed during the 2011 civil war in Libya.

Here is more:

National Geographic Australia
Published on 30 Nov 2010

Winner of the Grand Jury Prize for Documentary at Sundance Film Festival 2010, Restrepo chronicles the development of a platoon of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley. The movie focuses on a remote 15-man outpost, Restrepo, named after a platoon medic who was killed in action. It was considered one of the most dangerous postings in the U.S. military. This is an entirely experimental film: the cameras never leave the valley; there are no interviews with generals or diplomats. The only goal is to make you feel as if you have just been through a 94-minute deployment. This is war, full stop. The conclusions are up to you.

Restrepo 2010 documentary

Part 1: https://youtu.be/M1aq4j1RWQE

Part 2: https://youtu.be/ssb2BeEDjQ4

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