Military Culture, Difficult Transitions, and the Impact on Military Families
by J. “Glen” White, Ph.D., CPRP
Central Arkansas Veterans Healthcare System/Mental Health Service
Persons transitioning from the military to civilian life face many challenges. Service members with post-traumatic stress or who have experienced deployment in a combat arena face additional difficulties and often require a period of adjustment. Even Veterans who have served exclusively in non-combat areas during their service will have incorporated into their worldview many aspects of the military’s unique culture. Their training while in service offers many positive skills that can be helpful in various civilian contexts, but some aspects of the training and military culture can also pose problems as the Veteran seeks to assimilate into civilian society.
The U.S. Army Medical Command has in recent years begun to appreciate that their highly effective training of soldiers to deal with combat, survival and carrying out of missions needs modifying when the individual approaches return to civilian life. Behaviors and attitudes that are helpful in a military and combat context – aggression, hyper-vigilance, rigid structure and control, emotional control or suppression, obsessive control of one’s belongings, etc. – can sometimes be problematic when the soldier tries to fit back into his/her family and into the community. Thus, efforts are being made to help soldiers with their transitions by learning to change from a mindset of “battlemind” to “peacetime mind.” Providers who work with Veterans and their families and are familiar with these important issues can help the Veteran and their family negotiate a successful transition.
Returning service members operating from the “battlemind” mentality may exhibit some new behaviors that were acceptable or even expected while in service but which are potentially problematic back in the civilian world. Whether due to exposure to the stresses of combat or to the military culture, the returning soldier may display such behaviors as:
- High expectations for order, structure and discipline.
- Minimal communication with others (active soldiers operate on a “need-to-know” basis).
- Rigid control of emotions, with anger often the only acceptable feeling to show.
- Unpredictable or dangerous driving habits.
- Highly aggressive reactions to stressful situations.
- Use of substances as a coping style.
- Being drawn to the company of other returned soldiers who are seen as “the only ones who understand” because of their shared experiences.
- Highly vigilant awareness of surroundings, staying “revved up” to watch for danger.
- Obsessive care and control of one’s “stuff” and strong reactions if others don’t share this standard.
While a service member must negotiate many challenges upon their return, it is less appreciated that the family to which a soldier returns also must adjust, both during the member’s absence and then upon their return home. Some of the difficulties military families encounter surrounding the soldier’s deployment include:
- Anxiety and fear of the unknown about the soldier’s absence and their experiences in combat.
- Difficulties connecting with the deployed family member (less of a problem these days with the widespread availability of technological solutions such as the internet, email, text, satellite phones, web-based videoconferencing, etc).
- The spouse remaining at home is now head of the household and has to assume what are often new responsibilities, such as additional work, making all household decisions, and parenting with less support.
- The spouse must develop a new routine for children and find a strong support system (including new friendships, networks, and activities).
- Spouse has to maintain their own physical and mental well-being, as well as their children’s.
- Spouse often has to sacrifice or postpone their own needs and desires (careers, educational goals, proximity to friends and family) for the good of the entire family.
Upon return from deployment, Veterans often experience problems from post-traumatic stress, and exhibit behaviors different from what the family experienced prior to deployment. Some of the challenges the returning soldier and the family now encounter may include:
- The family must adjust not only to these new behaviors, but they must now incorporate the returning soldier into the new household structure and routine.
- The returning soldier, expecting to return to the old, familiar family environment, may be upset that things have changed.
- Increased independence developed by the family while the soldier was absent may lead to resisting changing back to what the soldier recalls as normal.
- The spouse may feel ambivalent about the loss of some of their freedom, skills and responsibilities that were developed in the soldier’s absence.
- Soldier and family must re-negotiate roles of authority upon return.
- The spouse develops new or strengthened sources of support in soldier’s absence which also must be negotiated when the soldier returns.
- Kids may resist the soldier’s resuming a parental role.
In order to successfully negotiate this potentially difficult transition period, the family must realize that some things have changed (both with the soldier and the family) and accept that a return to the old normal family situation is not feasible. Instead, all must work together to create a “new normal” for the family. This process will take time and can be difficult, especially if the returning soldier experiences symptoms of PTSD. If the family has persistent difficulty negotiating a new way of being a family, professional assistance may be helpful, especially with providers who have some familiarity with the issues involved. Development of this new normal can create a new, strong and healthy family environment and routine if the transition is negotiated in a collaborative way within the family.
Resources for Military Families or Veteran Parents
- Operation Enduring Families, a 5-session family education and support program for service members and veterans who have recently returned from a combat theater and their family members: (www.ouhsc.edu/oef/)
- Resources and Videos for families and kids from the folks at Sesame Street: http://www.sesameworkshop.org/what-we-do/our-initiatives/military-families/
- Help and resources for Veterans’ family issues by Veterans: WWW.VETERANSANDFAMILIES.ORG