ACA Blog

Natosha Monroe
Jun 22, 2011

Service Member Challenges of Transitioning Between a “Military Culture” and a “Civilian Culture”

A potentially difficult and complex part of being a Reservist or National Guardsmen in the military is transitioning between the “military culture” and the “civilian culture.” For this group of Service Members, transitioning can be confusing and even frustrating as they move from the “military life” back to the “civilian life” and then back again. To complicate things, there are fewer clear pathways to assistance and accurate answers to questions about things such as medical or educational benefits. Some of us navigate these waters better than others, thanks to previous experience and the good fortune of having adequate, knowledgeable support personnel to turn to for assistance.

First of all, the challenges of transitioning vary greatly. Some Reservists/National Guardsmen never deploy at all during a 20-year-long career, some deploy once or twice, some have chosen a position that is in high demand so may deploy every third year or every other year, while others may volunteer to deploy more frequently (I have known fellow Soldiers who volunteer and tell their loved ones it was not their choice to deploy when in reality it was). For instance, a Soldier who only deploys once in a 6-year career may find more difficulty in the initial deployment and homecoming transitions than someone who is used to a more frequent deployment cycle and has served for 20 years; However for the Soldier who deploys frequently, there may be almost constant transition frustrations in the areas of keeping the civilian job or adjusting to ever-changing medical benefits and policies, for example.

I am currently in my 10th year as an Army Reservist. Over a third of my military career has been on active duty orders, meaning I was working in an Army position full-time. These active duty work periods ranged from my yearly two-week-long annual trainings to month-long humanitarian missions to places such as Haiti, to year-long tours to Guantanamo Bay and the Pentagon. I have enjoyed all of my active duty service and have gained valuable professional and life experiences that have enriched my civilian career as a Professional Counselor. All of my Active Duty experiences have been related to my civilian career because in the Army I am a Behavioral Health Specialist. However, some Reservists and National Guardsmen chose military jobs that have nothing to do with their civilian careers or aspirations, which may cause dissatisfaction when they are deployed. On the other hand, I know some people who do this purposefully—they may be an accountant in their “civilian life” but in the military they are something they consider to be more “adventurous” and they look forward to their training assignments and deployments. This has even created resentment from their spouses who don’t understand this and/or who see this as “irresponsible” or “playing Army” which turns into marital discord.

Another aspect of transitioning between the two worlds, so to speak, may be the increase or decrease in the amount of respect one is given due to their particular situation and position. For example, in the civilian world I am regarded as a professional. I have a great responsibility to help people in their lives and I’m given a certain level of respect and my opinion on matters in my field is taken seriously due to my education and experience. However, since the military branches do not recognize the Licensed Professional Counselor and Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist professions to the point of giving them a position to serve in the military, I cannot become an officer and do what I do best. Therefore, I’ve remained an enlisted Soldier which actually has afforded me great opportunities to connect to the majority of Troops in a way that would not have been as easily obtained had I been an officer. But my enlisted rank almost always results in officers assuming I have nothing to contribute above menial tasks and that they are more educated than I. This can be particularly frustrating when I witness those in the behavioral health fields treating Troops unethically, for example, or when I witness outdated information being disseminated. There have been times over the years when I have felt “over-worked and under-utilized” and I have almost always had to prove myself time and time again whereas if I simply had an officer’s rank on my uniform I would have automatically been given a certain level of respect and responsibility. I understand this and accept it for what it is, but that doesn’t mean it is an enjoyable part of my military service.

On the other hand, a Reservist or National Guardsmen may not be successful at all in his or her profession in the “civilian life” yet he/she shows up for monthly drill weekend and suddenly he/she is the boss. This can be a huge ego boost for someone, because typically hardly anyone else will know what the other’s job is outside of their military position. It can also result in an unhealthy attitude that affects subordinates negatively. I’ll never forget a Reservist officer at the Pentagon who would treat the enlisted Soldiers very condescendingly. He acted so superior to us that he would even make derogatory remarks. The way he acted and how he treated everyone below him in rank never indicated that outside of that uniform he was unemployed, had an associate’s degree business, and was a Frito-Lay delivery driver who had lost his job. Once we found that out, it explained to us why he might feel insecure to the point of insulting us (we all happened to have undergraduate degrees and masters-level degrees and had careers outside of the military) and why he reveled so much in his superior position over us.

Perhaps the most difficult waters to navigate for Reservists and National Guardsmen are the Waters of Educational Assistance. (Ha.) I know this from personal experience, from many shared stories from fellow Service Members over the years, and also from many who have asked me questions and those I’ve assisted. I don’t know how many times I’ve gone to an Education Assistance office on a military installation or college campus and was told, “Oh, I only know about Active Duty benefits” or “You need to consult your Education Assistance Officer at your unit.” Ugh. Guess what? I’ve never had one of those. This must be something that is supposed to exist and is in writing somewhere since I’ve heard it so much. It always frustrated me to no end that someone seated in a “Veteran assistance office” on a college campus and who earns a paycheck to help Veterans is comfortable not knowing enough to answer basic questions. I was repeatedly reminded of the fact that I was on my own. I have noticed this getting better over the years, thank goodness. I recently called a number from the VA website and the phone representative was able to answer my “Reservist-specific” questions (yes, it’s usually a half-hour wait and sometimes I’ll get someone who seems annoyed that I’m asking questions or wants to rush me off the line, but that’s better than nothing).

The Reservist or National Guardsmen must also pay careful attention to policy changes and time limits to their benefits—which are different from Troops who are active duty. For example, when I returned from Guantanamo Bay, I was offered health insurance options. The price was around $80 a month if I remember correctly, which at the time was more affordable and provided me better co-pay and coverage than did my civilian job, so I decided to accept the offer. Thus began my uphill battle to actually receiving these benefits for the next few years of entitlement I’d supposedly just earned. The paperwork, timelines, and steps to follow were as though I was seeking permission to ship a nuclear weapon across country lines or something. I couldn’t apply right away, I had to wait for a set time. If I missed that window by a day, I no longer had the option to receive benefits. The paperwork and lack of assistance in filing was another issue. Determined, I wrote all the steps on a piece of paper, circled the important dates of each step on my calendar, and had alerts come up on my cell phone. Finally the magical day came when I received a letter that I had been granted the medical insurance/benefits. Yea! I set up automatic payments out of my checking account to ensure payments were all on time because if ONE ever was late, I would lose the benefits. Then, without warning, there was a change in company. I received a letter in the mail after the fact. By the time I placed phone calls and got an answer as to what specifically must be done to continue my benefits, I had a short amount of time to complete the entire initial application again. I rushed to do this and was successful! I even double-checked that the payment came out of my account automatically the following month to ensure all was well. It was. Then one day I received a letter in the mail informing me that by such-and-such date I would be dropped from receiving benefits because no payment was received. I looked at the date on the letter—it had been written AFTER that date. (I’ve had this happen with military-related letters on several occasions.) I immediately called and found out that my payments had not been set up to come out of my checking account automatically each month. I informed them that this is how it had been for two years, but apparently when the new company took over, the representative had not entered this into the system. I pointed out that clearly I provided this information because that initial payment was drawn from my account. But it didn’t matter. I was permanently dropped from the benefits.

I’m not sharing this story to vent. I was fortunate enough to have a good job as a teacher at the time, so was able to get on another health insurance plan. I am sharing this as just one of MANY frustrating situations about constantly-changing military policies/benefits that may cause confusion and frustration for Troops. The most recent I’m aware of is that Post-9/11 benefits will soon decrease after the end of this fiscal year due to changes put into place by the current political administration. Therefore, my previous educational benefits under the Reserve Educational Assistance Program would be more beneficial to me, but I can’t ever choose to go back to that option since I’ve already applied for the Post-9/11.

I realize that any individual may encounter changes in insurance policies, etc. And trust me, I feel appreciative of the benefits I receive. I’m sharing this information to provide insight into the things that contribute to frustrations in transitioning for members of the military and their Families. Particularly due to the instability of a person who is deploying regularly or even an Active Duty individual who moves from different posts, the transition phase can be a source of additional frustration and even economic hardship. For a Reservist this is often more frustrating because it is virtually impossible to keep track of all the changes when you aren’t on Active Duty all the time and unfortunately there is not a comparable amount of assistants or resources to help. Combine that with things such as being new to a community, adjusting to another lifestyle before/after a deployment, and not even knowing what questions to ask—things can become overwhelming.

In assisting Service Members who may be in the middle of a transitional period, being aware of these and other potential stressors can help counselors and therapists to better understand the multiple layers of what might be otherwise displayed as “anger” or “difficulty adjusting.” Familiarizing oneself to these types of things can also provide the opportunity to refer the client to appropriate resources. That being said, I would suggest the provider actually call or visit those “resources” personally first to check them out to ensure they will, indeed, be helpful and in what ways. A great resource I’ve seen improving consistently is Military One Source. A Service Member can call 1-800-342-9647 and be directed to all kinds of resources from childcare services, to moving companies, to therapists close to their residence.

I think it is important to recognize the different aspects of transition that may affect an individual’s life—financial, career, social, family, self-esteem, etc.—and discuss these areas with the military client. Also important to note is that while transition stressors may be more noticeable immediately around the time of deployment and homecoming, there may be other times of transition as well. With me, for instance, I have been struggling a bit recently with the decision to end my Active Duty time at the Pentagon so I can return home to Texas to be closer to my family, to resume my therapeutic work, and to cut down on hours so I can focus on my doctoral dissertation.

On a lighter note, in learning to deal with the constant transitions between my “military life” and “civilian life,” I have learned to laugh at things that may have upset me more earlier in my career. A prime example was this past Friday. I was flown to San Antonio to teach a portion of a course designed to help prepare Behavioral Health-related professionals for their upcoming deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq. I enjoy teaching, so always look forward to these trips. I also enjoy them because I’m a Texan and love a reason to return to my home state and visit with family and friends. In my eagerness to enjoy my “civilian” weekend with friends, I gave myself a manicure Thursday—bright pink polish—and met friends for dinner in San Antonio. Well…Friday morning as I was setting up my laptop for my presentation, something caught my eye just past my Army-uniformed sleeve. You guessed it—my bright pink nail polish. This is NOT allowed in uniform. My immediate thoughts were along the lines of, “Oh my gosh I can’t believe I did that!” and “The audience members are going to think I’m unprofessional!” Then I took a deep breath and decided to just get over it. Nothing could be done at that point. I didn’t have nail polish remover in my right cargo pocket, after all. Didn’t even have any in my room. So when I began my introduction, I got a feel for my audience. They were primarily providers new to the military. All but about five had never deployed. Many were Reservists and National Guardsmen. So I decided to go for it. I made mention of the fact that we are a unique bunch who voluntarily asked for a life in which we must be a Civilian one day and a Soldier the next. I said that none of us will ever be perfect and without mistake in this transition so to go ahead and accept that and just be the best source of support we can be as our Service Members are encountering sometimes unimaginable life events. I pointed out that we must choose our battles and stressors wisely and not sweat the small stuff or we too will be in need of serious therapy. And then I held up my hands and made a joke about my bright pink fingernails. It was well-received and got a huge laugh and set the stage for my presentation: We as Service Members have a huge responsibility and a huge opportunity as we transition to a deployment. Hopefully what I shared about Afghanistan helped to ease my audience’s fears and question marks about what is ahead of them.

Natosha Monroe is a counselor and PhD candidate passionate about increasing Troop access to counseling services. Her blog contents are not representative of the Army or Department of Defense in any way.

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