Military Psychology Sociology

Identity Crisis Among Veterans

...Veterans are not simply national symbols of pride and reverence on Remembrance Day. They are real people who often feel alienated from the country they served.

In the social jungle of human existence, there is no feeling of being alive without a sense of identity. — Erik Erikson

Erickson’s concept of identity crisis has been generally associated with adolescents trying out various identities as they find their place in the world. Before my research on veterans in transition to civilian life, I never even considered the fact that many veterans experience an identity crisis, leading to a difficult transition.

Growing up, Remembrance Day ceremonies shaped my idea of veterans as a particular symbol of national pride. Perhaps I assumed they all held strong identities based on this national reverence. Little did I realize, this image was an idealized sacred nationalism that is often irrelevant or forgotten when it comes to everyday matters in civilian life.

One of our nation’s most revered roles is simultaneously one of the nation’s most forgotten and misunderstood. This is a huge cultural cognitive dissonance. Throughout my conversations with veterans, I repeatedly found identity is a central concern among those in transition. As one veteran states:

I’m trying to find my place now; who am I? Where am I going to go? What am I going to do now? I have been seriously struggling with transition.

Like Erikson’s concept of identity crisis, many veterans experience role confusion upon transition to civilian life. Combined with the loss of one’s tight-knit group of fellow service-members, this can leave veterans feeling isolated and lacking a sense of meaning and purpose. As Erikson states:

Life doesn’t make any sense without interdependence. We need each other, and the sooner we learn that, the better for us all.

“Interdependence” refers to our ability to work together in complimentary roles, becoming more than the sum of our individual parts. The military is a great example of institutionalized interdependence. Our identities are built on the way we self-identify our skills, abilities, preferences, and character, in reference to its relevance to a particular social role. In this way, self-identity and social-identity depend on one another. Identity is not simply an abstract concept we create for ourselves or somehow discover though introspection. Rather, our identity depends on action in the social world. As explained by Powell in The Design of Discord:

Man derives his identity from his action. Action is more than motion, a mere doing things; it implies purpose, the pursuit of a goal. Without some aim beyond the moment, life becomes intolerable, meaningless.

This model of identity places action at the center, emphasizing how our social role provides us with a particular outlet for meaningful action. Contemporary psychologist, Herminia Ibarra builds on this idea in her book Working Identity:

No amount of self-reflection can substitute for the direct experience we need to evaluate alternatives according to criteria that change as we do.

Our identities are constantly being negotiated and renegotiated within the roles we play. For example, her research looked at how investment bankers built a concept of what it meant to be successful within their organization, taking on identities based on the actions required for success. She also looked at how we can make occupational transitions by slowly trying out new roles. Transitions can be difficult because one’s identity capital must be rebuilt within the new role. Ibarra states:

To be in transit is to be in the process of leaving one thing, without having fully left it, and at the same time entering something else, without being fully a part of it.

In the military, identity capitol is built up though the institutionalized symbols and codes of conduct regulating the various interdependent roles within the organization. As one veteran I spoke with states:

In the military, when you walk into a room with your uniform on, you’ve got your CV on your chest. You’ve got your ribbons, you’ve got your rank, and you’ve got your unit insignia… it gives people a certain pride in the organization, rather than just a suit and a tie.

Veterans come from an organization with distinct roles and symbolism that does not necessarily make sense in the civilian world. As another veteran states:

It’s difficult going from mastering your work, to no one understanding your skills.
The cultural fissure produces a communication barrier, further emphasizing the lack of understanding. As another veteran states:
Nothing was more demoralizing than trying to find work with a military resume… the literacy of the general population to reading military, they all read it as a PTSD case.
Although this alienation affects many individuals, it can be overcome. One veteran offered the following advice to those undergoing the transition:
Transition out of the military is effort… you don’ t just hand in your uniform and leave unless you want to stay home and watch TV…It’ s just like a military mission, you have to have an objective, you have to get resources, you have to retrain yourself, you have to mobilize a network, and then you have to carry out that mission in a very focused way.
Although this particular individual emphasized individual responsibility, he also recognized the role of the institution in facilitating the transition:
Veterans need to be retrained, learn a new language, and be prepared for a world where there is a lot of ‘ no’ before there is a ‘ yes’.
Another stated that the military has done a good job institutionalizing things like decompression and post-tour interviews, but falls off in terms of implementation, suggesting systems that incorporate more peer-support, in addition to giving veterans the tools and resources to translate their military skills and experience to employment in the private sector.

Veterans are not simply national symbols of pride and reverence on Remembrance Day. They are real people who often feel alienated from the country they served. Identity crisis does not occur in all cases, and does not need to ever occur because veterans have a great deal to contribute to civilian organizations. Perhaps we need to see their practical value in the same way we see their sacred value once a year

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  1. Great article Steve, I have recently completed my thesis on veteran transition here in Australia and identity crisis featured heavily in that body of work. I am writing a series called the ‘Silent support army, my life as a war veteran’s wife’ I’d love to hear what you think.

  2. I totally agree! I lost a friend who went to Vietnam and came back to find that no one acknowledged the fact he had been there, then faced being ostracized that left him with empty feelings of guilt. He lost his fight with finding his identity by taking his own life which in turn left his friends and family with regret that we didn’t understand or know how to help.

    1. I am very sorry to hear about your friend. This has been a very real issue for Vietnam veterans, especially given the lack of understanding at that time. Although this issue still exists today, I couldn’t imagine how difficult it would have been for those who fought in that conflict.

  3. I thoroughly enjoyed your post. I am still in the military and I showed this to some of my coworkers. We are all Air Force maintainers. Our job is demanding and when you have a good crew, a family mentality prospers out of the stress. Your article highlighted some gaps in my thought process in regards to “my plan” of what I am going to do when I get out. Thank you, you got us all thinking.

    1. Thank you for this comment and for sharing! Glad it could spark some thought on this topic. Many of the veterans I spoke with emphasized planning early for the transition. So many of them, especially those who were unexpectedly medically released, found themselves thinking, “what now?”. It was particularly demoralizing, compounded by the fact that many of them made the transition during the recession when jobs were harder to find. Hopefully things are a bit better now, in addition to more awareness among employers regarding the value of hiring veterans.

  4. The interdependence the military fosters negates the very reason so many men and women serve… home and family.

    Members of the military are in constant transition from civilian life to the military and back again. (Like Ibarra said…entering one thing without fully leaving the other.) While the rigors of military service ‘can’ change its members, the family left at home does change…parents age, children grow up, and spouses/partners handle it all. I’ve witnessed members of the military, especially men, have difficulty re-establishing their place in the family unit, which, of course, led to employment and social problems.

    Wish I had the answers to help all vets make successful transitions back to civilian life, but any program of any scale must fully incorporate family to build the solid support needed after programs end and the ‘experts’ walk away.

    Your posts are so thought-provoking! Thanks! Sharing! 😉

  5. A friend of mine, he said he missed being surrounded by guys he’d die for, knowing they’d do the same for him. I would think that shifting from that kind of cohesion to the civilian experience would be difficult.
    Great insights!

  6. “Little did I realize, this image was an idealized sacred nationalism that is often irrelevant or forgotten when it comes to everyday matters in civilian life.”
    Excellent reflection as usual. Just imagine in the US with returning Vietnam veterans left to their own wits after such a mind blowing experience. Untrained for what they fought and no parade afterwards. Your embracing a rediscoveu for a healthy identity for vets is so important…and life-saving. Blessings.

  7. Steve, when one thinks of “War”, we generally think in terms of defending our family, our nation and our way of life. But, speaking from an American perspective, our nation has lost control. Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan posed no threat, are regional wars, and never were winnable,from our perspective!

    I say this as someone who spent two tours in Vietnam, albeit in Intelligence, and not in the Infantry. Also, in our high-tech military, the overwhelming number go troops–75% in Vietnam–were not in “Combat Arms”.

    Following services, when I read about how President LBJ and his Secretary of Defense, Robert S. McNamara highjacked the Run-Up to War, 1963-65. SecDef Donald Rumsfeld even did them one better in fabricating the need to go to War in Iraq in 2003, and to an extent in Afghanistan in 2001.
    Neither of those countries threatened the US, or its allies. Rums felted overruled both the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the CIA. MY CONCERN TODAY IS WHETHER THIS MIGHT BE THE TEMPLATE THAT DONALD TRUMP HAS CHOSEN TO FOLLOW!

    Both wars remain now, 15 years later–without a Mission–and without any Reason. The US is now in as State of Permanent War. Might some of our allies be following suit? Tony Blair certainly caught Holy Hell, after a bit!

    When I think of Veterans today, I believe that the Combat Vets put their lives on the line, day-in, day-out, but for most of us, War was just a job! Sure, your life can occasionally be in danger, when you’re in a War Zone, but so too can driving on any of our highways!

  8. I can’t even imagine how difficult it must be to come home, leaving your “pack” behind and standing alone. It has to be similar to loosing a loved one, or having part of yourself go missing. I doubt whether outsiders can truly understand what the person is going through. Words don’t really help because when you feel alone/isolated/detached, words just seem like meaningless noise. Words often show that people don’t understand. I hope returning military people find peace and, through peer groups, can transition back into daily life. It’s a long road.

  9. We need to, adjust our identity, socially, based off of the roles we take up in life, but, we still need to, stay true to our cores, the cores of who we are, where we came from, is what makes US into unique “entities”, although our behaviors, attitudes, can change, with the various external stimuli we may come into contact with…

  10. Of course the VA could do more than the token support it offers. I would be curious about what vets say regarding current wars. When I was working with them, they almost all told me that they wanted to support the troops but believed the wars (then it was Iraq and Afghanistan) were wrong.

    The vets are not speaking with one voice, or with united voices. I wonder if it’s because they are so used to following orders that they don’t know how to take initiative in their own behalf.

    1. Military men and women aren’t mindless drones shackled and chained by “following orders.” They are lectured, trained, and constantly placed in leadership situations where initiative always wins the day and way ahead and survival. I personally know more 20-year-old kids that are in charge of million dollar tanks, crew chief the latest Blackhawk helicopter and are personally held accountable for thousands upon thousands of dollars worth of equipment who can turn a shitty situation into a winning initiative in a nano-second because initiative, adaptation, improvisation, forward thinking and drive are constantly preached, encouraged, rewarded and publicly recognized. The average “civilian” has absolutely ZERO concepts of military culture and whose only exposure to it is the skewed portrayal seen at the movie theater or on the idiot box at home.

      I spent 22 of the best years of my life in uniform as a Military Policeman and went from being a not too confident 18-year-old kid, fresh out of high school not fully realizing my own self-worth, attending 17 weeks of One Station Unit Training (OSUT) to a fully confident, educated, inspired and valued leader because of the United States Army’s “institution of learning and initiative.” I would take any average 20-year-old Soldier, Marine, Airman, or Sailor and put him/her up against any middle-management-corporate-lemming in any situation and know who the winner will always be.

      Sure, following orders and complying with lawful directives and guidance are the norm, but inside of those broad boundaries (commander’s intent) the individual small unit leader (team leader) is encouraged to modify, improvise, adapt, and improve upon the assigned mission to get the job done as swiftly, efficiently and effectively as possible; and yes, has a duty to disobey ANY and ALL orders which are unlawful, immoral, or unethical.

      1. Mr. Stolfi,
        Thanks for your reply. However, I’ve seen too many Vietnam vets 30 years later who never adapted to returning to civilian life, as this article notes. They are perpetually strung out on drugs and alcohol, trying to live with what they saw and did, and addicted to their service-connected disability.

        All I was saying is that the VA doesn’t take care of its own, yet our perpetual wars are creating more maimed and mutilated soldiers on a daily basis. No wonder the VA is overwhelmed. It can’t even provide for the most basic need, housing, on its vast acreage of impressive-looking hospitals. It’s going to tele-medicine in a big way, because the bureaucracy prefers to spend money on building buildings and buying fancy technology to pretend they are keeping their promises of health care.

        Don’t try to tell me killing is ethical or moral. While it may be legal in the context of war, that doesn’t make it–or war–right. Why do you think vets have a problem adapting to civilian life, where the rules are so different?

        You’re right that I, as a civilian, have no concept of military life, but as a citizen and taxpayer, I’m forced to subsidize what I believe is unethical and immoral. Who protects me from my self-assigned protectors?

        1. Thank you for your continued reading and comments! Always good to see familiar names. It seems that Leo’s comment was focused more narrowly on the question of mindless conformity rather than the VA system or the ethics of military engagement.

          1. Steve,
            I saw it that way, too. My main point was that these vets could put their minds and wisdom together to help each other in constructive ways. They have been trained, like so many of us, to wait for leaders to take charge, but they do have (maybe underdeveloped) capacities for leadership, as Mr. Stolfi says.

          2. Thanks Steve, my response WAS specifically geared toward the “all too typical” military stereotypes of mindless, lock-step conformity and the perception by the greater population (who have never served) of the “crazed PTSD afflicted Rambo-ish” sub-human wreaking havoc on society or themselves through self-abuse. And Yes Katherine, I am not only a veteran’s advocate, but also have received some of the best care possible from the VA (so I’m also a client). Does the VA suffer from typical government bureaucratic and efficiency issues? Absolutely a resounding yes, but INSIDE of the system, there are thousands of caring doctors, nurses, technicians, clinicians and the like who are deeply committed to serving their former “protectors” in spite of the government boondoggle at the macro-level. There are also literally thousands of veteran advocacy groups who do in fact, “take care of their own” much better than the government has or probably ever will.

            My point again is that unless one has ACTUALLY served, they will never really know or understand the culture, or many sub-cultures which exist as well as those that have and are currently serving. I’m not casting stones at anyone, but to make what I interpreted as uninformed, general assumptions and cast broad stereotypes around ultimately does no one any good. And yes, I actually pay more than what I consider my “fair share” of taxes along with you. Also, I never tried to insinuate or state that killing is either ethical or moral, but there is a huge difference between murder and killing. Contrary to another stereotype, I don’t personally know a single veteran who actually enjoyed killing when he or she had to. I may be just a brain-washed, sheltered, ignorant veteran suffering from sociopathy who doesn’t properly understand large moral or ethical issues. Or maybe I just have a “…underdeveloped [capacity] for leadership.”

            Question: Would you advocate the national defense/killing of a force of foreign invaders on sovereign U.S. soil who are hell-bent on murdering, raping, and maiming our citizens and destroying our way of life and freedoms? Or should we turn the other cheek and allow them to use us a speedbump on the world map? I believe I can assume what your answer would/will be.

            1. Mr. Stolfi,
              Sorry, but I didn’t see your reply until today. I’m glad you had good service from VA personnel. I, too, found patient-contact staff quite caring and competent, most of the time. I do believe the trouble comes from the absentee bosses and bureaucrats, who mis-spend the budgets and don’t seem to know or care how to make the most effective use of the money they have.

              No, of course, as a civilian, I couldn’t know what the military culture is like, but I would also claim no two people have the same experiences in any culture. To go into the military, either via draft or voluntarily, is to know you might be put in a position of having to kill or be killed. I would never volunteer, and would probably be a draft dodger.

              I don’t know what I would do if under attack by murderous foreign invaders. I would probably try to hide, coward that I am. Would I want someone with guns to rescue me? Probably not. But I do believe the US is creating new enemies every day, and they are making it ever more likely that attacks on our home turf will occur. 9/11 was just a preview of what might happen if we don’t rein in our aggressiveness.

      2. Thank you for this thoughtful point. It is something I’ve also seen throughout my research. Someone actually told me they saw more conformity in civilian life, upon returning to the corporate sector.

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