3 Steps to Overcoming Military Identity Loss

Jun 08, 2023

 When one opts to join the military, there is often a specific reason for doing so. 

Some believe it will begin their professional career and get them out of a town they may feel “stuck” in. 

Some may join knowing the military has educational opportunities to catapult them into future work professions without having college debt or school loans haunting them for the next 99 years.

Some may complete their education and decide to step into the service as an officer.

Some may have a familial draw- their mom, dad, grandfather, or aunt, may have served and they are eager to continue the tradition.

Some may feel a selfless sense of patriotism and want to serve their country. 

Whatever the reason, I assure you, there is in fact, a reason.  I have never met anyone who joined the military that was satisfied with where they were and just on a whim decided to make a change.  Maybe there is someone out there like that…. I’m just saying I’ve never met them.

The veterans I have met joined the military for a reason and many times when the reason was fulfilled, they complete their military obligation and transition to another career outside of the service.  Others find the reason is a spark that ignites another reason and another reason, and they find themselves 20-plus years down the road deciding when it is time to transition to the next career. 

Regardless of the time frame, one thing most patriots DON’T realize is how wrapped up their identity will become in serving as a fill in blank- Soldier, Airman, Sailor, Marine, Coastie, or Space Cadet… and leaving the military can cause an identity loss.

I have said many times to a group of transitioning service members “As you transition from one career to another, remember that it was the character that made the uniform, not the uniform that made the character”.  I try to encourage our service members to remember that our military is only as good as the people who serve.  So, when those “people” transition to another career, the next organization reaps the same benefit our country did.

 It is the character that makes the uniform. 

However, saying that to someone and watching them walk that path of identity loss, is a different thing.  It is easy to give a pep talk when you are standing on the sidelines. It is different when you are in the game and the pressure is on.

So- lets take a moment to identify the “why” of our military identity loss- then we can focus on the “how” of embracing our future changes and being successful.

You see, identity loss occurs in the military, regardless of the branch of service because of the following concepts:

  1. Change in routine.  Regardless of how often you “PCS’ed” some routines were always the same.  I recently heard a veteran say “The first time we PCS’ed, we made a few mistakes, But then we PCS’ed again, and again and we became proficient.  When it comes to transition, we only do that once.  We don’t get a chance to ‘get better at it’.”  Additionally, you have routines.  How many years have you woken up, got your workout clothes on and headed for your morning PT routine? That process alone has become so ingrained in you, when changed, implies even the start of your day will be different when you transition.  

So, step one to combating identity loss: keep what you don’t have to change.  Keep the routines and patterns and ideas consistent so the things that DO have to change won’t feel so overwhelming.  If PT is what you have done every morning for the last 20 years, why change it?  Now, altering it has to be an option, but eliminating doesn’t have to be.  Rather than getting up at 5 am for PT, maybe consider sleeping until 6:30, or even 7 am (gasp), and then going for a 2-mile walk versus a run, or a swim or yoga or whatever you truly enjoy that will contribute to being physically healthy and emotionally energetic.  Transitioning from the military takes a toll both emotionally and physically so let’s control what we can.  In addition, begin new routines that will positively impact you AND your stakeholders (family).  Here is a novel concept…start having sit-down dinners 2 times a week with your family- no TV, no phone.  Start implementing a date night once a month with not only your partner but your kids individually.  When creating these new habits as well as keeping some of the old, the “change” will become something you look forward to, versus feeling like you are drowning.  

  1. When you join the military, you join a team.  No matter how much the Army wanted to make “Army of One” a successful logo- the truth is- you were never an Army of One.  You are a member of your immediate team; your peers, your subordinates, your leaders, and the leaders of the military are all key components of your team.  And now it is time to leave that team.  The loss of “community: can be a factor that some veterans feel, but initially, you may not realize exactly how to identify that “feeling”. 

Step two:  look for a job that has a community that will matter to you.  Whether that is a community working directly with the military so you can maintain your common connections or whether that is a separate community where your invested time is valued.  Either way, community matters- add that to your job search planning.

  1. When you join the military, you build a professional reputation.  Some may believe their reputation is built on their progression of rank, which can be a factor.  But many build a reputation on their work ethic, their moral character, and their integrity. You have a deep understanding that every team member, no matter their MOS, contributes to the team.  There is dignity in hard work. 

Step three:  Look for a job that values your character.  You will be surprised how many employers are looking for the exact professional ethics and morals that you possess.  I know I will sound old when I say “In my day,” but truthfully, in my day, hard work was something folks valued and knew how to do…” today, hard work- ethical hard work, isn’t as common as it used to be and employers are feeling the impact of that change. They deeply desire and seek a team member who values an honest day of work.  

Let’s take that same mindset and apply it to finding a job with a purpose.  Let’s get away from titles.  Let’s get away from preconceived notions that working in an organization different from where we came from will be a career move that doesn’t provide us with purpose. 

Look at the job opportunities around you and decide how being a part of those teams would provide some level of professional satisfaction you got from being in the military.  What is the mission of the company?  What is the product they produce and how does it impact others?  What is the reputation of the company, not only in the community but in the way it gives back to the community?  Those are the things that we look for when we step into the desired role in the civilian company. You now have a professional purpose.  You now have a mission.  You understand that what you do impacts others, be it the law enforcement officer or the tattoo artist.  It makes a difference.

Identity loss when leaving the military is real.  But here is the good news…. Identity loss is combatted by finding a position that has a purpose and a mission.