Counseling Center

Student veterans

From Soldier to Civilian

Welcome home. The transition from active deployment to civilian life is one that many soldiers look forward to, but one that often proves to be more challenging than expected. You may feel as though you are returning to an unfamiliar environment or that exposure to the sights and sounds of war have left you a changed person. Even soldiers who have not been exposed to such traumatic events have typically experienced the cumulative stresses of living in harsh environments, separation from loved ones and deferring other life ambitions. Often, one of the most challenging tasks for returning veterans is the need to put aside “survival mode” which, while critical in the war zone, may create difficulties in civilian life. Examples of behaviors that veterans are asked to leave behind include:

  • Being on constant alert for danger.
  • Expecting others to obey directions without question.
  • Keeping emotions sealed off.
  • Suspicion of others.
  • Reacting quickly and asking questions later.
  • Focus on accomplishing a task no matter what.

Additional Challenges Faced by Student Veterans

Many veterans have also found that there are unique challenges in returning to an academic setting. Frequently noted concerns include:

  • Developing a primary identity other than as a soldier.
  • Developing a sense of safety on campus (e.g., becoming easily startled or choosing classroom seats that allow for monitoring of others and rapid escape).
  • Difficulty relating to traditional college students. Age differences and the experience of combat frequently cause veterans to feel different than and alienated from traditional college students.
  • Finding importance and meaning in experiences and ideas that are not life-or-death. Campus life and concerns may seem trivial compared to those found in combat.
  • Negotiating the structural and procedural differences between the military and higher education bureaucracies (e.g., knowing the rules and norms of the campus, how to address professors and others in positions of authority, etc.).
  • Making a much greater number of decisions in a far more complex world. While the potential consequences of a combat soldier’s decisions are staggering, the total number of autonomous daily decisions is quite small when compared to college life.
  • Boredom (e.g., missing the adrenaline rush experienced in the ‘high’ of battle)

Tips to Facilitate the Transition Process

Despite these challenges, there are a number of step veterans can take to put their military experience in perspective and to regain a sense of control and normalcy. In negotiating this transition it can be helpful to:

  • Pace yourself. Avoid becoming overwhelmed by understanding that your transition will take time and allowing yourself to gradually assume responsibilities over time.
  • Consider use of a daily schedule to maintain organization and to adjust to the greater number of options and choices available to you.
  • Actively reduce feelings of isolation by finding others you can share your feelings with. Connecting with others veterans who understand the impact and experience of being in combat can be particularly powerful.
  • Reestablish relationships with family members. Recognize that this is a transition for them as well, as they may have adopted new responsibilities or habits in your absence. Communicate openly when renegotiating family roles.
  • Prepare an answer to questions about your war experience . This can reduce the difficulty of sharing what happened in combat and the impact that those experiences had on you.
  • Pay attention to your physical needs. Get enough sleep, eat healthy, and get exercise. Exercise and adequate sleep are perhaps the best anti-stress strategies available.
  • Limit use of alcohol and illegal substances . Use of these substances increases the likelihood of depression, insomnia, relationship problems, academic difficulties and legal troubles
  • Avoid triggering your own trauma by limiting your exposure to war-related media.
  • Reestablish an identity separate from your military service . Make an effort to identify important values, passions and hobbies. Consider seeking spiritual fulfillment through prayer, meditation, or volunteer work.

Signs That Counseling Might Be Helpful

While many soldiers will make a successful return to civilian life, research suggests that as many as 1 in 3 returning veterans experience a serious psychological problem related to their war zone experience. With the passage time and the opportunity to live in a civilian environment, these typically diminish. However, if your symptoms and reactions last for more than a month or interfere with daily life and functioning, professional assistance may be required. Consider seeking counseling if you are experiencing:

  • Recurring and intrusive memories and/or dreams of combat.
  • Avoidance of anything associated with war-zone experiences.
  • Diminished interest to participate in important or previously enjoyed activities.
  • Feelings of being emotionally distant, detached, and/or estranged from others.
  • Suicidal thoughts, feelings, or behavior.
  • Frequent experiences of irritability, anger, and/or rage.
  • Hypervigilance and being easily startled by noises and movements.
  • Guilt or anger over having been unable to prevent the death or injury of others.
  • Abuse of alcohol and drugs.

UW Resources:

  • Counseling Center
    401 Schmitz Hall
    (206) 543-1240

Additional Resources: