Do you know what civilians call civilian life? They just call it life.
And the “civilian world” is just, well—the world! The term is clearly meant to distinguish the lifestyles of non-military persons from those of military members. But in case you forgot, you were a civilian before joining the military, and will be again once you get out. So start thinking like one so you can make civilian friends again!
Our experiences in the military often permanently alter the way vets interact with others in the so-called civilian world. But thinking in terms of labels only reinforces the idea of division, as if there’s an “us” and a “them.” This gives us an excuse to not make an effort to bridge the gap, and then we’re apt to avoid forming new social connections altogether.
Don’t fall into that trap, because it has detrimental effects on our well-being and sense of belonging. Those suffering from prior traumatic experiences are even more susceptible to closing themselves off and thus encountering issues with loneliness. So what’s the solution? How can vets find camaraderie with non-vets after they get out?
Why It’s Important to Get a (Civilian) Life
For starters, you have to let go of the past. Vets are separated from the military, and any sort of separation can lead to anxiety. But reality must be faced. When you’re out, you’re out. No more rank, no more getting to order people around. And no more stringent dress and appearance regulations or UCMJ, either. The bubble of unreality which we knew and (sometimes begrudgingly) loved as “military life” is over. And re-entry into normal life may, at first, seem like someone blasted you into the Wild West!
Things are different “out there.” It can be tough to find common ground when everyone dresses differently, acts differently, has different backgrounds. Of course, service members are not cookie-cutter clones of one another, but the shared experiences, lingo and lifestyle do give us a unique shorthand with which to communicate. We build up strong relationships with our coworkers, our teammates, our leaders and our subordinates. Those bonds are forged through adversity.
In the military, we know our place in the world and we know our mission. And that’s exactly the trick to finding happiness in the civilian world, too!
Make Insta-Friends with Other Vets
Once you’re separated, you’ll be a veteran for the rest of your life. And that’s a proud status to walk around with. But it’s not a shield which can protect us from experiencing loneliness or isolation after our time in service is over. We must find ways to make friends on the “outside.”
Many vets “cheat” a little by seeking out other vets to be friends with. Nothing wrong with that! This is especially easy to do if you separate but don’t leave the area of your last duty station. In fact, for folks like that, they may not lose their military friends at all.
But for those who do move out of the area for work, family or some other reason, they may seek out veteran groups or look for employment on bases or within the federal government (which is laden with former military members from all branches!).
Finding fellow vets to make friends with is sort of a no-brainer. The key is actually getting out there and doing it! Even if it’s with a person from a different career field or military branch, you’ll find a level of automatic camaraderie which might surprise you.
But what if making vet friends isn’t an option, or you just want more or something different? That’s good, too, because it’s important to get some diversity. Find ways to broaden your horizons by looking for relationships beyond what you’re “used to.”
This can require a little soul searching. Who are you, besides a veteran? What are the things you like to talk about or the activities you enjoy? Maybe it’s working on motorcycles, playing an instrument or grabbing a fishing pole and getting out on the lake.
Finding coworkers who share these same interests is the fastest way to make new acquaintances, but also check your city’s events calendar and sign up for notifications about upcoming activities. If you enjoy running and miss those old formation runs, why not join a local running club? If you actually liked getting in front of troops to give presentations or training, consider signing up for Toastmasters or perhaps even to teach a community college course. For those looking for spiritual sustenance, attending local religious services is a surefire way to make lots of friends instantly. There’s no shortage of ways to meet people, but it doesn’t happen by itself. You’re in charge, so take command of your own social life!
Get Involved, Stay Involved
The more you engage within your own community, the more you’ll feel at home in non-military environments. In a way it’s like a person just starting to work out. What you do is less important than the fact that you’re doing something!
So if you haven’t started, what are you waiting for? Don’t let yourself fall victim to the one thing which plagues vets transitioning out of the service. Isolation. It’s too easy for many people to get sucked into the virtual realms of the web or to seek solace in substances as they slowly slip away from contact with others. Avoid that, and if you see it happening to someone else, reach out and make contact. Who knows? You just might make a new friend.
If you find yourself in need of someone to speak with immediately, or you’re concerned about someone, the Veterans Crisis Line has folks ready to listen. Call them anytime at 1-800-273-8255.
You can even send a text to 838255 to reach a VA responder.
If you’d rather use a confidential online chat, visit VeteransCrisisLine.net/Chat.
Active Duty, Guard and Reserve members can also use MilitaryCrisisLine.net as a resource.
Wondering how you’re doing? The Veterans Crisis Line Quiz can help you figure that out!