Military Sociology

Remembering Community

Our modern age is characterized by an increasing level of uncertainty and an increasing number of life-transitions. For Veterans, these uncertainties are heightened when transitioning from the military to civilian life. Their experiences are often fought with suffering, but they can teach us a great deal about the state of our modern way of life. Here is what I learned by talking to Canadian Veterans:

What is hell, but civilian life can be worse
This is Particularly true among Veterans who experience thoughts of suicide upon returning home. Although civilian life is infinitely more comfortable than being blown up or shot at in combat, this does not necessarily translate to an easy adjustment. One Veteran states, “My transition has been nothing short of brutal. I’m trying to find my place now; who am I? Where am I going to go? What am I going to do now?…”

Many Veterans would prefer to go back
Even though they couldn’t wait to leave the treacheries of living in a theater of war, many Veterans return to civilian life to find themselves wanting to go back to an experience that was both a low-point as well as a high-point in their lives. A Veteran states, “…it feels like you’re really alive for the first time in your life, and when you come back and you don’t have that anymore, it’s hard. It’s hard to think to yourself, ‘I’m never going to do that again, I’m never going to be that cool again,’ I’m never going to be able to go back to that.” Another states, “I was married to my men in Afghanistan.” While some Veterans emphasize the appealing thrill of combat more than others, almost all seem to miss the bond they had with their unit.

It can be difficult connecting with civilians
One Veteran bluntly told me,“If you’re around army guys, every civvy is a dirty, long haired, bone-idle, slack, dope smoking civvy…”Another states, “Coming back to the civilian world, there was no sense of urgency here; people are slack and they are bone-idle… they are unmotivated, and they don’t know how good they’ve got it.” Lastly, another states, “Everything’s amazing here and people are still miserable… now try making friends with those people.”

Civilian life lacks a sense of community
This is what it all comes down to. The suicidal thoughts, the desire to go back, and the difficulty connecting with civilians all share a common root: lacking the bonds of community. Community contributes to a sense of purpose and belonging, reminding individuals that they are still worthy of making a contribution. When this is missing, a sense of isolation and burdensomeness creeps in, colours fade, sounds are muted, and our lives no longer connect to a sense of larger meaning. When hope is lost, this scenario can lead to dire consequences. As one Veteran states, “…you’re at the top of your game, you were doing something meaningful, relevant, you had a focus, you had direction, you had support, you had comradery… it’s like god, what do I do now, everybody’s kinda sleepwalking through life here, there’s no purpose, nobody stands for anything, life seems very shallow after that.”

This remembrance day, lest we forget the tragedies of war, but even more, lest we forget the tragedies faced on the home-front. In addition to the lessons from the past wars, let’s remember the lessons from those who are still struggling to come home.

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  1. Both veterans and civilians seem to lack a sense of purpose. There’s a victim-like dependence on government (or other institutions) to solve social problems. Having worked with vets and having to deal with civilians, I understand the frustration. I would like to see vets band together to stop all these wars and put our resources to work healing the damage we’ve already done to our own, military and civilians alike. We have depleted our national spirit and pride to the point where zombie-ism has become the norm.

  2. Thanks so much for sharing this vital perspective, Steve. Some of the comments remind me very much of those I’ve heard (and experienced/felt myself) from those who’ve had near-death experiences (and moreso for most, the ‘after-the-NDE’ experience is far more challenging). It’s a challenge to have conversations with those who ‘get it’, and it’s challenging to re-orient; thankfully, there are also some creative possibilities and pathways for exploring that re-orienting pathway. Sincerely, Jamie

  3. I work in the homeless sector where unfortunately, there are veterans experiencing homelessness. In your last section of your post you write about a sense of belonging — and purpose. In homelessness, especially at a shelter, people have a sense of belonging, of community — but they lack that feeling of purpose, of living a life with intention. In that loss of purpose, despair rises.

    Thank you for illuminating my understanding with your words.

  4. Veterans who suffered the most while in the service were POWs… especially Japanese held during WW 2. My uncle was one of them, and following years of knowing about his past and his never talking about it, I researched what he endured, and wrote a novel based on that which happened to him. The slant of the novel is inspirational, and in honor of Veterans Day, I have placed it on a seven day 99 cent special on Kindle. The title is BREAKING LIBERATOR’S SHACKLES. The significance of the title relates to the bomber he went down in, the B-24, known as the Liberator which enslaved the POWs in shackles they continued to wear long after their imprisonment.

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