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The Transition from Military to Civilian Life

By Damon Poeter

Leaving the military is one of the most challenging life changes anyone can experience.

There are the practical considerations, such as where to live and what sort of education or work to pursue. But there are also emotional challenges for service members and their families, says Ingrid Bruns, director of personal finance and military life advice at USAA.

“Whether it’s a short stint in the military or a career, it can be a tough transition in those first weeks and months – and even years – after finishing your service,” she says.

Here are some of the main challenges faced by service members, their spouses and kids when they separate or retire from the military:

Leaving Your Military Family Behind

Parting ways with the friends you’ve served with might be the toughest part of leaving the military, Bruns says.

“Service members enjoy a camaraderie revolving around things like Family Days and just day-to-day life on the installation. Spouses often have their own “tribe” of supportive spouses that they have to leave behind as well,” she says.

Some parting service members choose to live near their former installation, but that’s not always practical. Keeping up with friends via telephone, emails, listervs, social media and scheduled meetups can help – and maintaining a post-military support group can be a great way to learn about education and job opportunities in the civilian world.

Civilian neighborhoods and workplaces are unlikely to provide you with the same level of support and camaraderie that military life provides – but you can find reasonable substitutes. Consider participating in activities like coaching youth sports or volunteering in the community to recapture some of the spirit of teamwork you’ve left behind, Bruns says.

Picking a New Career After Military Service

Separated service members often change jobs several times and can be challenged by new financial obligations like rent and health insurance.

But service members also have skills and talents that are highly valued in the workplace, Bruns says.

“Managing and leading people is a skill that ex-military members have. Whether you served four years or 30, you’ve learned about integrity, you’ve learned about leadership, you’ve learned how to strive for perfection, accountability and organization,” she says.

“Those are things that are very important to employers and even to your new civilian community. Spouses also often have built up leadership and organizational skills that are valuable to employers.”

Balancing Freedom with Responsibility

It’s a whole new world of freedom. No longer bound by strict codes of conduct and a chain of command, ex-service members can be tempted to exercise those freedoms a little bit too much, Bruns says.

“You’re going from being a 24-hours-a-day, 7-days-a-week employee of the DoD. Now you have your own time. If you were a career service member, you might want to take a little time off to catch your breath after 20 to 30 years in the service. That’s fine,” she says.

Still, leaving the military doesn’t mean leaving behind basic responsibilities and norms of conduct.

“Don’t leave behind those core values when you leave the military, because your actions in public or on social media can still affect things like your employability outside the military,” Bruns says.

How to Successfully Transition Out of the Military

Ultimately, transitioning from active duty to veteran status is unlikely to be entirely smooth sailing. For those leaving the service with physical or mental health disabilities, it can be even tougher.

But some of the best assets you have for managing this change are the ones you gained from your service, such as:

  • The friends you made
  • The skills you learned
  • The discipline you mastered
  • The leadership you demonstrated
  • The path of integrity you chose to walk

Use those assets whenever possible in your transition to civilian life. After all, you’ve earned them.

Transitioning from active duty to veteran status can be challenging. USAA’s collection of tools, checklists and services for those leaving the military can help.

Ingrid Bruns, the director of personal finance and military life advice at USAA, is an Accredited Financial Counselor and holds the Accredited Domestic Partnership Advisor designation. Prior to joining USAA in 2013, Ingrid worked as a personal finance counselor for service members and their families as a Department of Defense contractor. Before that, she was the director for the Stuttgart, Germany USO, where she worked to help provide a home away from home for military families. 

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