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.
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.
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.
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’.
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