Transitioning out of military service and adapting to civilian life is more of a challenge for some more than it is for others. First off, there are many individuals that come into the military as anti-social, non-conformists to begin with so they really never fit into the civilian world before serving in the military. The military does a great job at transforming your average civilians into soldiers and they have it down to a science. For many, the real struggle isn't adapting to military life, it is the transition back to the civilian world, and the suicide statistics prove it. As an organization, our military does a horrible job transitioning soldiers back into civilians because they do not fully comprehend the physiological and psychological impacts (adaptation) the OPERATIONAL ENVIRONMENT has on service members.
There is a very drastic change, both physiologically and psychologically, with individuals who work in career fields where people experience chronic stress (High OPTEMPO, task saturation), sleep deprivation and trauma (death, unexpected loss, sexual trauma) on a regular basis. Individuals who can tolerate that environment for 20 plus years well will struggle immensely after retirement or injury to adapt back to a reduced pace of life. The service members who maneuver through the chaos usually have a clear MISSION, PURPOSE and FOCUS. The military isn’t the only community to experience this type of transition either. Policemen, Firemen, First Responders, Doctors or anyone else who shares the same type of environment or lifestyle, will also be affected by their operational environment.
The human body was never designed to operate in a constant state of stress (task saturation/chronic stress) while being sleep deprived (reverse shifts, multi day shifts/ operations, sleep disorders), bombarded with toxins (heavy metals, pesticides, herbicides, air pollution, burn pits, prescription drugs, radiation), all while being fueled by highly processed artificial foods. These factors (environment and lifestyle) directly effect metabolism, which in turn effects behavioral health and physical health.
Running into gunfire on a regular basis (chronic stress) overrides the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS), your fight or flight response system, that keeps you alive. Sympathetic override is what is known as stress inoculation. After a certain period, individuals get stuck in the "on position". When the body is wired for war it is always on the alert, this is known as "hyper-vigilance.” This condition is not a disease and it isn't abnormal, it is the appropriate response to throwing yourself into life threatening situations repeatedly, instead an adaptation the body undergoes as a method of self preservation.
When you go past the breaking point you hit the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) realm of dysfunction, which is the reaction to unmanageable, uncontrollable, helpless, hopeless trauma/stress. This stress or trauma that you relive is a situation you feel powerless to change the outcome of and you replay it over and over in your head like a broken record. PTSD is when you become mal-adapted to stress and become over reactive (hypervigilant) in order to self preserve.
Stress adaptation is great for survival situations but when you transition out of a stressful war time environment it can be burdensome, especially if you are trying to operate in the "parasympathetic" side of life, also known as the feed, breed, rest and digest mode (repair, maintenance and reproduction). When your body becomes conditioned for extreme stress, it becomes catabolic, and it begins to break itself down in an effort to support basic organ function. This leads to CHRONIC INFLAMMATION and this is what the medial world characterizes as diseases and "chronic illnesses". When your body is constantly breaking down, your immune system doesn't function properly, and you don't repair. Chronic stress means chronic breakdown and more chronic inflammation. It is literally that simple, your body cannot defend against normal environmental threats and you become ill more easily and more often.
Most people who have adapted to high stress environments don't even remember what relaxing or "normal" feels like anymore. You don't deep sleep, you don't feel rested after sleep, your sex life is horrible and your interpersonal skills are suffering as well.
After a while your metabolism will eventually slow down leaving you with high cholesterol, high blood pressure, obesity (a spare tire around the waste), high blood sugar and erectile dysfunction. This is known as "metabolic syndrome." The bottom line is you are not supposed to be relaxed, aroused or do any type of repair when you are in fight or flight mode (stressed/survival). You are stuck in work mode.
After a while the high wears off and you go from living an exciting life to just existing. This is also known as survival mode. You lose pleasure in the things you used to love doing and you probably feel exhausted when you are finally off of work and have some time to enjoy to yourself. You have probably seen these questions on surveys and periodic health assessments. Social isolation, loss of interest in doing things and malaise are usually diagnosed as “mild depression” or PTSD and treated with dangerous prescription drugs by those that fail to understand how environmental stressors affect basic human health. You cannot medicate away your poor lifestyle choices and toxic environment.
Another aspect of military service related to sympathetic override is when individuals adapt to a team environment and often find themselves feeling vulnerable going anywhere in public without their teammates. Spouses and significant others will often complain that they never get to spend “alone time” with their loved ones. Alone time translates into work for an individual who is in public with a loved one or with family. You can’t relax when you are constantly looking for threats to your family. This is not PTSD, this is the correct psychological response to the environment you adapted to survive in. You survived decades of war because you were hyper alert to the threats in your environment, it isn't a bad thing but you have to be aware of the long term effects of that mindset.
When you become adapted for extreme environments, you will have a very difficult time trying to fit into a normal garrison/civilian "environment." The Civilian world is not to blame for you having to live “normal” life, it is the lack of understanding between the two cultures that leads to animosity. The life you adapted to in the military is an incredibly hostile and chaotic environment, meaning the only time you feel "NORMAL" is when everything around you is going 100 MPH. If you find yourself unable to shut it down or to simplify things, it is probably because you are used to being task saturated. The chaos you adapted to may have become your new normal, but for those that you live with or your civilian friends and counterparts, it is far from normal. Nobody will ever understand your chaotic world unless they lived in it. Don't expect them to, they didn't sign up for it, you did. That chaotic world of military service is where lifelong bonds are forged and that bond is a big reason why veterans often separate themselves from their civilian counterparts.
How are people supposed to adapt to civilian life if they don't even understand how they adapted to military life?
Service members know more about their occupations and equipment than they do their own health. You can never improve your situation if you don't know what is wrong with it to begin with. You cannot recover from something you don’t fully understand. If you add prescription drugs, alcohol or recreational drugs to the situation, it only clouds the mind from rationalizing what is happening or how it can resolve the underlying problems.
The personal qualities that make Special Operators special, is their ability to adapt to any situation, in any environment, to complete any mission they are handed. Special Operators are problem solvers by nature and usually don't settle for anything normal. When Special Operations members retire, they often lose their MISSION, PURPOSE and FOCUS and often leave their TEAM ENVIRONMENT and LIFESTYLE they adapted to behind. The sudden and abrupt changes can leave service members feeling like they are flapping (purposeless, vulnerable) and often leads to social isolation and self-medication.
The world owes us nothing and civilians owe veterans nothing. Blaming and seeking attention and preferential treatment from civilians only further alienates veterans and makes us all look like self-entitled fools. Learn to take care of yourself then learn how to help others with the knowledge you possess, don't ever be a victim.
Advocate for yourself and others in your circle and bring something to the table. Every person's experience is a learning tool. Learning from other people's mistakes is wisdom. Help the next person struggling down their own path to recovery and guide them to success. Leaders create other leaders, not followers. Veterans are not the only ones struggling with the effects of stressful careers. Reach across the aisle to your civilian counterparts and work together on creating SOLUTIONS that help all people build healthier and happier communities for everyone. Be part of the solution, not the problem.
Knowledge is the key to a successful transition from military service to the civilian sector. Service members deserve the same amount of time and education with their transition into the civilian world as they did in processing into the military to become a Soldier, Sailor, Airman or Marine. If you want to be successful in any endeavor, you must have the correct mindset.
If you are the person who has a negative outlook about everything, you will have negative outcomes with almost everything you do in life. Wellness begins with the willingness to be well. You must will your way to health and success. A toxic mindset will have toxic effects. People who make excuses as to why they can't do things often find themselves working for people who find ways to succeed. Educate and empower yourself with the knowledge to heal, repair and rebuild. Take everything you learned selflessly serving your nation abroad and apply it here at home with a new MISSION, PURPOSE and FOCUS. If you understand your OPERATIONAL ENVIRONMENT (First Special Operations Forces Imperative) and how it affects you, you can prepare for it, protect yourself from it, and learn how to thrive in it.
Geoffrey P Dardia is a serving Special Forces NCO and a friend of every service member trying to take better care fo themself. He has helped countless people in his pursuit of a better answer to preventative care in the military through his work as the Founding Director - SOF Health Initiatives Program. Follow his Facebook group SOF Health Awareness, or check out and support his work through Task Force Dagger Foundation.