“It isn’t normal to know what we want. It is a rare and difficult psychological achievement.” ― Abraham H. Maslow
Ask any Armed Forces member about their purpose. You will likely get a clear and certain response: operational readiness, mission completion, and keeping one another alive. This clarity is pervasive in the military, yet it something very rare in civilian life. Sebastian Junger illustrates this issue in War, stating:
…throughout history, men… [at war] have come home to find themselves desperately missing what should have been the worst experience of their lives… they miss being in a world where everything is important and nothing is taken for granted. They miss being in a world where human relations are entirely governed by whether you can trust the other person with your life. It’s such a pure, clean standard that men can completely remake themselves in war.
This sense of clarity, “this rare psychological achievement” according to Maslow, is fostered within the unique structure of military life. Individual decision-making takes a back seat to hierarchically organized, group-centered processes designed for the purpose of group solidarity, strength, and operational effectiveness.
In an article titled What Vets Miss Most Is What Most Civilians Fear: A Regimented, Cohesive Network That Always Checks On You, the author states:
The truth is that I had never been in such a supportive social environment in my life.… when Veterans leave military service, many of them, like me, are leaving the most cohesive and helpful social network they’ve ever experienced.
In my own research with Canadian veterans, one individual stated the following:
You get two paychecks in the military: you get your pay monetarily, but you also get paid psychologically in the military… a sense of purpose, focus, comradery, mission, and all those kinds of things… but when you leave the military often times they take away both of those paychecks, or at least one of them; they take the psychological pay.
In contrast to the highly structured collectivist focus of military life, the civilian world may seem unstructured, individually-oriented, and relatively meaningless, leaving veterans with a lack of purpose and direction. In War, Sebastion Junger writes:
In the civilian world almost nothing has lasting consequences, so you can blunder through life in a kind of daze. You never have to take inventory of the things in your possession and you never have to calculate the ways in which mundane circumstances can play out — can, in fact, kill you. As a result, you lose a sense of the importance of things, the gravity of things.
The classic sociologist Émile Durkheim emphasizes this interplay between social structure and individual purpose. He states, “…for the sentiment of duty to be fixed strongly in us, the circumstances in which we live must keep us awake.” He places emphasis on the importance of strong social bonds that facilitate a sense of duty. Examples include religious life (in traditional contexts) and one’s occupational group (in modern contexts). Durkheim states:
“…when community becomes foreign to the individual, he becomes a mystery to himself, unable to escape the exasperating and agonizing question: to what purpose?”
Lucky, in the U.S, U.K, and now in Canada, we are making progress building transition programs that help bridge the institutional gap. Team Rubicon is one of these great programs. They allow Veterans to regain a sense of purpose in civilian life by giving them the opportunity to serve those suffering from natural disasters. As stated in their mission:
Team Rubicon offers a unique opportunity to be part of humanitarian efforts with a unified purpose, mission, and intensity that is reminiscent of military experience.
Successful transitions to civilian life cannot happen in isolation. Beyond individual counseling, we need to understand the importance of innovative programs like Team Rubicon that allow individuals to regain a sense of purpose in civilian life.
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