Military Psychology Sociology

What Veterans Can Teach Us About Purpose

Finding purpose after leaving the military is often one of the most difficult parts of the transition. In the military, members experience a high level of communal purpose. This sense of communal purpose and belonging offered in the military is unparalleled in civilian life. As one veteran states:

We are all in the same spot, eating the same shitty ration pack food, getting the occasional phone call home, but not minding it because we were all in the same boat, we know that it could be any of us at any time and suddenly everything is everyone’s, and for that moment in your life it’s true communal living, the closest you can ever get to pure altruism.

Sociologically, altruism means a high level of social integration. This is common in communal contexts where each person depends on the group, taking on a group identity. As another veteran states:

It’s not a job, we’re always military…. I miss being in the forces every day, it’s who I was…. My team kept me going.

This sense of group identity is not simply symbolic. Members are not bound by flags, uniforms, or titles alone. It’s what these things represent that matters: how you contribute to the larger group. Military group identity is about your role within a larger system where everyone depends upon on one another. As written in Memoirs of an Outlaw: Life in the Sandbox:

We had relied on one another to have our backs and would have given our lives to protect the others. We had built a relationship that was stronger than just rank: we were a family, a brotherhood, sewn together by trust, respect, blood, tears, and sweat. Everything we had built together was slowly being torn apart.

During transition, veterans become individuals again. By this, I mean the need to rebuild a sense of individual purpose; an identity outside the group. The difficulty here is that humans are not wired to simply rebuild an identity in isolation. We can have a sense of our own unique abilities, values, and interests, but without a way to connect these things with a larger group, we feel isolated and lost. Veterans may have a sense of their unique individual skills, but struggle with how to apply them in a civilian context. As a veteran states:

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.

Having experienced life in a highly altruistic military context, veterans see the world through a different lens. This lens can help us critically reflect on our social world and what it means to have a sense of communal purpose. As a veteran states:

“You’re always investing in the group… that doesn’t exist at the office really.”

If you’re lacking a sense of purpose, feeling like you’re sleepwalking through life, consider the quality of your social environment. Are you working in a toxic individualistic culture marked by little regard for the larger group? As Simon Sinek states:

We are drawn to leaders and organizations that are good at communicating what they believe. Their ability to make us feel like we belong, to make us feel special, safe and not alone is part of what gives them the ability to inspire us.

We are the best version of ourselves when we connect our individual skills, values, and interests with something larger than ourselves. A sense of purpose is forged in the interaction between the individual and society. This sense of reciprocal contribution matters, but is often lacking. Rather than simply looking inward, we need to look both inward and outward.

How are your social environments facilitating or blocking a sense of communal purpose? How can you operate within your social environments more effectively to contribute to a healthy culture of trust and common purpose? If you find yourself in a highly toxic social environment, how might you draw personal boundaries, remove yourself, or perhaps find a better social environment?

Throughout my research with veterans in transition, these are the questions I’ve come to reflect on. Throughout future posts, I hope to address the how question more clearly, particularly as it relates to recovery from addiction. For now, I hope this helps address the question of what veterans can teach us about purpose.

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  1. This has been my struggle for years – trying to fit into a society where people are just so far apart from each other. Not only after transition from leaving military life entering civilian life has its challenges, but years later, trauma ensues even the long separated Veterans. This article should be as a subject class for any transition team; whether in the military, prison release, parole or other organizations that requires a mental change of environments. Thank you for the enlightening on this obscure subject. Appreciate it.

    1. Thank you for the kind words! From what I’ve heard, the transition programming is lacking quite severely. Any social transition could benefit from specialized training focused on how to cope with the social and cultural realms.

  2. Hits home to me. I spent 26 years in the Navy, half on active duty. I still keep in touch with several through groups on FB, The purpose, drive, camaraderie, and concern for veterans now is important to me. I have a lot of close friends yet it is with military veterans that I can find near-instant ‘connection’. Thanks.

  3. I’m going to be reading and rereading this for a while. Lately, like in the wake of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, “tribalism” has been on many lips, but I think what you write here is much closer to the mark. Not to mention — I just sat down to blog about my own recovery, which involved leaving a cherished community that was blowing itself apart and eventually finding a group, a network of groups, that managed to hold itself together. Thank you.

    1. Thanks Susanna! Glad you connected with this. Partisan tribalism has for sure been on the rise in recent years. Although tribalism benefits in-group members with a sense of identity, purpose, and belonging, it often comes at a cost when it occurs in reaction to political out-groups, particularly when dehumanization is involved. This kind of toxic tribalism prevents national unity and open political discourse. The kind of “tribe” I’m referring to here is perhaps more akin to Sebastian Junger’s book “Tribes”. Thank you for raising this concept. It is something I’ll need to differentiate further in a future post.

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