Military Veterans: Transiting to Civilian Life

The military plays an integral role in U.S. history, society, and safety. There aren’t many careers that can be compared to military service, which is why retired service members may struggle when their time in the Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, or Coast Guard comes to an end.

Transitioning out of the military and into civilian life may not be without struggles, but with the right resources, understanding of the process, and approach, you or your loved one can reenter the civilian world ready for your next mission.

Transition Resources for Former Military

The military does not expect its service members to make the transition to civilian life alone. In fact, the Department of Defense (DoD), Veterans Affairs (VA), and a many of the branches of the military provide programs for transitioning veterans to ease the stress and struggle of adapting to a new way of life.

Both the DoD and the VA offer Transition Assistance Programs, also known as TAPs, for those leaving military service. These programs offer a range of support for veterans, including providing job and education resources so that they can start their new career on the right foot.

Service members can begin DoD TAP shortly before their departure from military service. The curriculum includes finding and preparing for a new career and understanding how to found your own business. Information about higher education is also covered. Educators running the program measure the service member’s Career Readiness Standards (CRS) through a process called Capstone.1

The VA’s TAP provides similar information through a partnership with the DoD, this time focusing on former members of the military, not service members about to leave the force. Both veterans and family members of vets can use these resources, which include career and education information. Veterans and their families can easily access much of the information online through interactive guides and videos.2

The military branches that are a part of the Department of Defense also offer transition programs specific to their branch.

Why Transitioning Out of the Military Can Be Difficult

Transition from the military to civilian lifeVery few, if any, professional organizations are run like the U.S. military. Because of this, as well as a number of other factors, adapting to civilian life even after a short stint in the military can be a challenge.3

With no orders telling you where to be, what to wear, when to eat, and how to act, civilian life is fraught with dozens of daily decisions that a service member may not have had to make before leaving the military. Without this guidance, leaving the military can feel like starting over.3

Next Step Woes

When it comes to deciding on a new career or job, veterans often remain in a holding pattern waiting for the right opportunity. This can stem from not realizing they already have viable career choices, or from refusing to accept currently available positions. A survey that dove into this found that around 50% of surveyed veterans did not believe that the military adequately prepared them for working outside of the service.4

A former service member seeking out higher education can feel a similar lack of preparedness for attending college/university. Veterans may have a hard time relating to the rest of the student population because of age and life experience differences. Mental health disorders, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and chronic stress, can also seem to alienate veterans.5

Family Life

For service members who have been deployed or spent any length of time away from their home, families, and communities, readapting to family life can be one of the harder, and more heartbreaking, aspects of transitioning to civilian life.

Life has gone on without them in the daily routine at home, and because of this, routines have changed, kids have grown up a bit, and other things that used to be second nature are now foreign. While it can be difficult for the veteran to fit themselves into this life again, it can be a struggle for the family and community as well, as they may not know how to provide the right or adequate support for the veteran’s transition back to civilian life.6 This transition can be especially complicated if the veteran is struggling with PTSD, other mental illness, or substance abuse.

It May Not Be PTSD: Transition Stress

The general public has developed an understanding of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and its association with military service, specifically deployments to war zones. And while many veterans do suffer from PTSD, it’s not the only contributor to the difficult nature of the military to civilian transition.

Although it’s a relatively new concept, transition stress, rather that PTSD, is attributed to many service members’ difficulty coping with a return to civilian life. Because PTSD is better known, and better studied, some veterans suffering from transition stress have been misdiagnosed and mistreated for PTSD.7

A study from 2017 explained what transition stress is: experiencing higher than normal levels of stress caused by a veteran’s reintegration into civilian life. Often, this stress can be caused by feeling displaced rather than welcome in their new surroundings.

Transition stress can result in a range of problems, including:7

  • Relationship issues.
  • Trouble finding, getting, or keeping a job.
  • A difficult time creating or maintaining a sense of identity or purpose.
  • Dealing with mental health disorders, such as depression or anxiety, or substance abuse.

Military Vets, Stress, and Addiction

For some with transition stress, use of substances such as alcohol, marijuana, and harder drugs increased after leaving military service.8

And with over a quarter of veterans reporting to Pew Research Center that they have difficultly readapting to life outside the military, that leaves a lot of former service members in a potentially troubling situation where they may be more vulnerable to substance abuse and addiction.

Help for Substance Abuse

There are several options for treatment if a veteran’s substance abuse has gone too far and they are in need of help to return to sobriety. Private facilities such Sunrise House and American Addiction Centers’ other locations may be the right option for reaching recovery.

Two of American Addiction Centers—Desert Hope in Las Vegas, Nevada and Recovery First in Hollywood, Florida—have programs that are geared specifically towards veterans who are seeking help for addiction and co-occurring disorders like PTSD. The Salute to Recovery program groups former service members and first responders so that they can share their experiences with people who can understand what they’ve been through.

The VA offers addiction treatment services, which veterans and their families can find through their substance use disorder program locator. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration (SAMHSA) also offers a locator tool for addiction treatment on their website.

It’s possible for military veterans to make the leap from service to civilian life in a healthy manner: Transition stress and other issues like addiction aren’t inevitable. But if you or your veteran does have a hard time readjusting, know that help is out there.



  1. Department of Defense Transition Assistance Program. (n.d.). About DoD TAP.
  2. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (2019). VA Transition Assistance Program (TAP).
  3. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (n.d.). Common challenges during re-adjustment.
  4. Turner, D. (2020). Vets facing difficult transition to civilian jobs.
  5. Morin, R. (2011). The difficult transition from military to civilian life.
  6. Military One Source. (2020). Transition assistance programs and resources.
  7. Mobbs, M. & Bonannon, G. (2017). Beyond war and PTSD: The crucial role of transition stress in the lives of military veteransClinical Psychology Review, 59, 137-144.
  8. Derefinko, K., Hallsell, T., Isaacs, M., Salgado Garcia, F., Colvin, L…Klesges, R. (2018). Substance Use and Psychological Distress Before and After the Military to Civilian TransitionMilitary Medicine, 183(5-6), e258-e265


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