The True Story of Our Veterans: Challenges of the Military Transition to Civilian Life

November 7, 2019

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In our 2018 Military Family Lifestyle Survey, 47% of veteran family respondents reported that their overall transition experience was “difficult” or “very difficult.”

We found that service members and their families encounter a range of transition-related challenges during their reintegration into civilian life. So, in honor of Veterans Day, we thought we’d shed some light on just a few challenges that military families face when transitioning out of the service.

  1. Loss of Connection

In 2018, loss of connection to the military community (45%) was the key transition challenge for both veteran and veteran spouse respondents. 

Why? Because the military environment is often perceived as a “family”—providing support, valued friendships, bonds, structure, and security. (PLOS ONE) Therefore, separation from the military can be experienced as a separation from these “family” connections. Additionally, extant literature indicates that veterans may experience symptoms of grief and stress in response to the perceived “loss of the military self.” (PLOS ONE)

The difficulties associated with these changes become exacerbated when veterans and their families feel they don’t “fit in” with civilian society or that civilians don’t understand or value them. (Journal of Loss and Trauma

And those feelings are far too common. In our 2018 Survey of veteran family respondents, 82% felt that the general public does not understand the challenges military families face when transitioning out of the military, and 60% felt that the general public does not understand that veterans bring value to their communities.

When those same veteran family respondents experienced a negative transition, it was generally associated with decreased feelings of connectedness and belonging. For instance, the more time it took for veteran respondents to find employment after transitioning, the lower the feelings of connectedness to their local community. For veteran spouse respondents, mean connectedness and belonging scores for those who were employed full- or part-time were significantly higher than those who were not employed but were looking for work at the time of transition.

transition connectedness


  1. Loss of Purpose

During the transition, loss of purpose is closely tied to loss of connection. (PLOS ONE) In our 2018 Survey, loss of a sense of purpose/camaraderie (39%) was the next top transition challenge for veteran family respondents following the loss of connection to the military community. Nearly half (47%) of veteran respondents reported that they did not have a sense of purpose when they left the military. 

Locating employment or education after transitioning out of the military can help service members find purpose and achieve a greater sense of connection and belonging. (American Journal of Orthopsychiatry) In the qualitative responses of veterans in the BSF Survey, those who pursued higher education after separating reported that their education provided them with direction and purpose.

  1. Stress, Depression & Suicidal Thoughts

For the past three years, our BSF Survey has found that veteran respondents’ arduous transition experiences have been associated with higher stress levels and a greater incidence of depressive symptoms and thoughts of suicide. Much of this may be due to inadequate transition preparation for service members and their families. 

Nearly 70% of veteran family respondents in 2018 reported that they started preparing for transition less than a year before separating, yet 64% of veteran respondents reported that they “needed time to figure out what to do with their lives during their transition.” Research has found, however, that service members and their families have improved transition experiences and outcomes when they have more time to formulate their post-service plans. (PLOS ONE)

stress during transition

In short, by helping veterans, we help our active-duty service members.

One day, your active-duty service member will be a veteran.  Let’s work together to alleviate these transition challenges today, so that you and your family don’t have to deal with them when it’s your turn to retire.

What can be done to help right now?

Veteran respondents of our BSF Survey identified a strong support network for transitioning service members as their top transition improvement solution. Also, veteran spouse respondents identified the inclusion of spouses in transition programming as their top improvement solution.

Employers as well as government and nonprofit agencies can help build strong support networks for transitioning service members and veterans and provide broader transition outreach so transitioning spouses are aware of the resources afforded to them. Additionally, local communities, veteran service organizations, and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) could work together to create programming to educate civilian and veteran families, encourage connection, and welcome veteran families.

In our 2019 Survey, we found that the majority of military family respondents think that informal support networks, especially local friends, are the most helpful resource during service member separations (for deployments, training, etc.). Yet many respondents report having no one in their local civilian communities with whom they can talk to or ask a favor.

For that reason, formal networks are essential because they help military families develop informal networks. As Martin Bowen, along with others, writes:

[The] primary function of formal networks should be to support informal networks, because it is these informal group associations that are the most accessible to individuals and families and those who they most often rely upon on a daily basis. (Journal of Community Practice)

Ultimately, formal military resources and programs built to support military families need to focus on engaging civilians to empower active-duty/veteran members to develop informal networks in their local communities.

Stay tuned for more of our 2019 Survey findings and recommendations – coming in 2020!

We’ll be releasing the results of our 2019 Military Family Lifestyle Survey in early 2020. While you wait, join Blue Star Families for free today to read through our 2018 comprehensive report and a summary of trends related to significant shifts in military issues. We can’t wait to welcome you to our family!