Challenges of the Military Transition to Civilian Life
Whether a person measures their service by the year or by the decade, making the transition from active duty to civilian life presents many challenges. Military life offers a sense of routine, structure, and purpose that is difficult to replicate in civilian life.
Service time can also create physical and mental health complications that make the transition that much more trying for new veterans. Fortunately, there are many resources available to help retiring servicemembers who are struggling with this change.
Challenges of Transitioning Out of the Military
Military service is an experience unlike anything else, and life in the military is significantly different in many ways from life as a civilian. During their time in service, the men and women of the military abide by the directives and orders passed down from their superiors, so shifting back into civilian life where this kind of structure is not present can pose a significant challenge for these new civilians.
Veterans ending their service may struggle to relearn aspects of civilian life (such as working on a resume or managing their budget). Those who entered the military right as they came of age may have to learn these skills for the first time.
Some of the most common challenges someone will face when transitioning to civilian life are:1,2
- Relating to people who don’t have military experience. Outside of the service, veterans may struggle to be understood by others.
- Joining or rejoining the workforce. The military provides people with countless skills and opportunities to build their abilities but figuring out how to translate these to civilian life can be complex. Veterans may also face employment discrimination.
- Establishing structure and routine on their own. In the military, someone tells people when to wake up, go to sleep, what clothes to wear, and what to eat. Outside, people may struggle to adjust to the new freedom and the myriad of choices they now have.
- Connecting to services. Doctors, dentists, barbers, and many other services are provided by the military. In the civilian world, a person must establish new relationships with providers. They may also need psychiatric care and counseling to address mental health concerns and may fear how they’ll be seen for seeking it out.
Between 27% and 44% of veterans report having a difficult time when transitioning from military life. Some of the factors resulting in greater difficulty during this civilian transition include:3
- Experiencing a mental or physical trauma during service.
- Being seriously injured.
- Serving in the years since September 11, 2001.
- Having been involved in combat.
- Having served with someone who was killed or seriously injured.
Transition Stress vs. PTSD
Two significant factors affecting a military servicemember’s life are transition stress and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The former is a commonly experienced level of stress linked to moving into civilian life. The latter is a psychological disorder that can adversely influence a veteran’s social, mental, and physical well-being.
All people are at risk of developing PTSD, but due to the specific rigors of the military, vets may be especially at risk. PTSD in veterans is associated with:4
- Exposure to combat.
- Experiencing a physical or sexual assault.
- Learning of or witnessing the death or serious injury of a loved one.
- Acts of terrorism.
Symptoms of PTSD include:4
- Reliving the event through memories, flashbacks, and nightmares.
- Staying away from and avoiding people, places, and things linked to the trauma.
- Experiencing an increase in unwanted thoughts and feelings.
- Being hypervigilant.
On the other hand, transition stress is a typical reaction to rejoining civilian life. Transition stress, like other types of stress, is not necessarily bad. In fact, some low doses of stress can help people prepare to face a challenging situation.5
When stress is too intense or prolonged in duration, however, it can begin affecting a person’s mental and physical health. Sources of transition stress include:6
- Grief (e.g., over the death of a fellow servicemember). New veterans may also grieve the loss of the military lifestyle.
- Idealized memories about time in the military.
- Shame and guilt over acts committed during service.
- Fear about confirming other people’s negative perceptions of veterans.
- Maintaining a strong masculine gender role often promoted in the military.
The differences between PTSD and transition stress are numerous:
- Whereas PTSD usually begins shortly after a traumatic event, transitional stress begins around the conclusion of a person’s military service.
- Transition stress will likely improve with time, while PTSD is unlikely to improve with time alone.
- Transition stress can be managed with stress-reduction strategies, while PTSD often requires professional treatment to resolve.
It is important to note that chronic transition-related stress left unaddressed can result in psychological disorders.5
Other Mental Health Challenges in Returning Vets
Other major mental health concerns facing vet include but are certainly not limited to:7,8
- Rates of depression are much higher in vets and active-duty servicemembers than civilians.
- Excessive worry and anxiety can cause many problems for veterans, including insomnia, relationship conflict, professional issues, and even an inability to perform day-to-day tasks.
- Traumatic brain injury (TBI). Caused by physical harm to the head, TBIs may result in headaches, fatigue, drowsiness, memory problems, and rapid mood changes.
As if having one of these disorders was not problematic enough, vets can—and often do—suffer from more than one mental health challenge. For example, they may suffer from both depression and PTSD.
Civilian Reintegration and Substance Use
With the stress of the return to civilian life, which may be coupled with mental health challenges, substance abuse is a risk for veterans during this time.
The military and substances are connected in an unfortunate way as rates of use among active duty and vets often surpass rates of civilians, especially with male veterans aged 18 to 25.9
For veterans, alcohol is the main concern. When it comes to substance abuse in veterans, statistics from the National Institute on Drug Abuse show that:9
- Alcohol use disorders are the most common type of substance use disorders in military personnel.
- Veterans are more likely to drink heavily than their non-veteran counterparts.
- Among veterans entering addiction treatment, an estimated 65% report alcohol as the primary substance of abuse. This is nearly double that of the general population.
Alcohol and other drug use can cause major difficulties during military-civilian transition. Rather than improving symptoms and stress levels, substance use only compounds the problems and worsens mental health symptoms over time.
The difference between typical and problematic alcohol use is often subtle in the beginning. Warning signs of problem drinking include:10
- Drinking more or more often than intended.
- Trying to cut down on drinking unsuccessfully.
- Getting into situations where drinking increases the risk of injury, such as driving intoxicated.
- Needing to consume more to produce the wanted effects.
- Continuing to use even when it creates mental or physical health problems.
- Damage to personal or professional relationships due to drinking.
- Having legal, financial, housing, or employment issues because of alcohol.
- Feeling sick when you don’t drink.
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Treatment for Veterans
Fortunately, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) recognizes the unique challenges facing vets transitioning from the military.
The VA offers treatment for mental health disability and substance abuse to aid vets dealing with:11
- Suicidal thoughts and actions.
- Substance abuse.
- Sexual trauma.
You can receive treatment in a VA inpatient substance abuse treatment center or in an outpatient VA rehab facility. To access a VA substance abuse assessment or speak to someone about treatment:11
- Call the Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255.
- Reach out to a nearby VA location.
The VA also makes it possible for veterans to receive private treatment through a community provider when the VA is unable to provide services. The VA authorizes community care providers, or CCPs, who they allow to provide treatment to veterans at the same rate as the VA. Many American Addiction Centers-run facilities offer specialized programs geared toward the needs of veterans.
Helpful Transition Resources
Other resources that can help you manage transition stress include:12,13
- The Department of Defense’s Transition Assistance Program (TAP) – A program offering service-specific transition assistance that begins at least a year before the transition date. TAP aids with educational, employment, financial, and other needs to streamline the adjustment.
- inTransition – A free and confidential program connecting mental health services to active military, reservists, and vets. When someone is relocating, returning from deployment, shifting their military status, or ending military service, inTransition provides coaching to help maintain and build new supports.
Like with other treatments, seeking help and support early is a great way to reduce stress and improve the odds of a smooth transition out of military service.
Those interested employment services can access a range of resources include:
- Feds Hire Vets – connects vets to federal government careers.
- VA Careers and Employment – offering vocational rehab and transition assistance.
- Department of Labor Hire Vets Program – rewarding companies for hiring vets.
- VA Careers page for Transitioning Military – a jobs listing with vets in mind.
- Veterans Employment Toolkit – resources for employers to successfully hire vets.
- Hire Heroes – provides job search assistance to vets free of charge.
- Paralyzed Veterans of America – links vets to health care, research, and employment opportunities.
You may be entitled to special preference in getting hired for federal jobs in some cases. For example, Feds Hire Vets give preference to vets based on:
- Dates of active duty service.
- Receipt of a campaign badge.
- Receipt of a Purple Heart.
- Any service-related disability.
Take the opportunity to review and contact resources that could help your future or the future of your family members.
Additional Veteran Resources
Additional programs aimed at serving vets:
- Veterati – a mentoring network for military members.
- Wounded Warriors Project – providing free services for mental wellness, physical health, career counseling, and independence.
- Transitioning Service Member Programs from the VA – a full range of services for vets and their families to make the shift to civilian life successful.
Moving away from military life to civilian life is full of unique and stressful challenges. Rather than attempting to confront the problem alone, get help when you need it. This could include utilizing the transition-related resources available or calling for mental health treatment when you’re suffering. If you’re in crisis, call us now at to learn more about addiction treatment for veterans through American Addiction Centers.
- U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (n.d.). Common Challenges During Re-Adjustment.
- U.S. Department of Labor. (n.d.). Veterans.
- Morin, Rich. (2011). The Difficult Transition from Military to Civilian Life, Pew Research Center.
- U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (2019). Understanding PTSD and PTSD Treatment.
- National Institute of Mental Health. (n.d.). 5 Things You Should Know About Stress.
- Mobbs, M.C. (2017). Beyond War and PTSD: The Crucial Role of Transition Stress in the Lives of Military Veterans, Clinical Psychology Review.
- National Alliance on Mental Illness. (n.d.). Veterans and Active Duty.
- U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (n.d.). Mental Health.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2019.). DrugFacts: Substance Use and Military Life.
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (n.d.). What Are Symptoms of Alcohol Use Disorder?
- USA.gov. (2020). Mental Health and Substance Abuse.
- Department of Defense. (n.d.). Welcome to DOD TAP.
- Psychological Health Center of Excellence. (n.d.). inTransition.