Adjusting to Civilian Life after Combat Duty with the Guard or Reserve

If you’ve recently returned from deployment with your Guard or Reserve unit, you may find that your transition to civilian life is more challenging than you expected. Like many combat veterans, you may continue to relive your experiences after the initial joy and relief of being back home subside. You may find yourself reacting to situations in ways that were appropriate in a combat zone, but not at home or on the job. You might even believe your experiences have changed you so much that you can’t recapture the relationships you once had. Although you probably won’t go back to being exactly the same person you were before deployment, there are things you can do to reach the point when you feel you’re really home.

Give yourself time to readjust

Every service member returning from a combat zone needs time to readjust. It’s not possible to leave an environment where you’ve witnessed death and destruction, been exposed to life-threatening events, or suffered personal losses without bringing intense feelings and memories home with you. In past wars, combat veterans were able to decompress as they returned with their unit by ship; today, you can be in a high-threat environment one day and back home the next day.

Even if you didn’t have intense combat experiences, you’re still making an extreme transition. After months of working long hours in demanding and high-stress conditions to achieve a critical military mission, you may find yourself bored with civilian life. Or you could be struggling with life’s uncertainties and miss the clear objectives of military duty.

It’s important to recognize that the mental journey back to civilian life will take longer than the physical journey. After the homecoming celebrations have stopped, you’ll still be in transition. During this time, experts recommend that you focus on taking care of yourself physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Get plenty of rest and good nutrition. Keep active and fit, and take care of any health issues that come up. Talking about your experiences with buddies from your unit or supportive family and friends can help ease the transition. Try to focus activities that help to reconnect with family, friends, and co-workers and find meaning in civilian life.

Reestablish relationships with family and friends

Service members returning from combat often find that their relationships present the greatest challenges. Reuniting family and friends can seem like starting over rather than picking up where you left off. Not only are did your experiences make you a different person, but changes were also occurring at home while you were gone. Your spouse may seem changed by the experience of managing without you for a long time. Your children are at a different stage of development, with new behaviors and attitudes that you’ll need to get used to. Your parents might have difficulty recognizing how your combat experiences have shaped and defined who you are now. You may no longer have the same interests and social activities as your old friends. Reestablishing positive relationships after combat duty requires patience and understanding, as well as accepting changes in yourself and others. Good communication is important to your progress in reconnecting and rebuilding healthy relationships.

What you can do as a husband or wife

After taking care of the household single-handedly, your spouse may have newfound feelings of independence and self-reliance, and will have established some new routines. It will take time to return to comfortable daily life as a couple.

  • Learn about your spouse’s experiences on the home front. This means asking questions and accepting the answers without being judgmental. Through talking together and listening to each other, you can come to an understanding of the changes in each of you, and begin to find the trust and comfort you both need in your relationship.
  • Try to adapt to new routines rather than expecting your spouse to start doing things your way. This can be difficult for someone used to calling the shots in a high-threat environment. Understanding and appreciating how things have worked in your absence makes it easier to negotiate shared responsibilities for the future.
  • Share what you can about your combat duty. It can sometimes be easier to talk about experiences with unit buddies than with your spouse, but it is an important step in reaching a new level of trust and intimacy in your relationship. It is normal for it to take time to feel comfortable opening up.
  • Watch for indications that stress reactions are affecting your relationship. Angry outbursts, aggression, physical or emotional withdrawal, unrealistic expectations, and frequent unresolved conflicts can tear down even the best relationship if not checked. Consider getting professional help if you see that your behavior is hurting your relationship.
  • Go slow. Even when getting back together seems to be going well, it makes sense not to rush things. It takes time to reconnect and achieve the emotional and physical closeness that you both want. Patience is a quality every couple needs in abundance after a long and difficult separation.

What you can do as a parent

As a parent, you know that children learn and change quickly: the middle-schooler who was playing with dolls when you left may have moved on to softball or computer games. Again, you’ll need to be patient and to listen.

  • Recognize and accept children’s new developmental stages. After a long absence, service members are often taken aback by how their children have grown and changed. Listen to your children and talk to teachers, caregivers, and your spouse to understand and relate to who your children have become.
  • Give yourself time to get back into the role of parent. Your children may need time to reconnect and feel comfortable with you as their parent again. You and your spouse may also need time to discuss and negotiate your return to shared parenting responsibilities. Be careful not to push your way back into the parent role all at once, and be patient if your children don’t respond as quickly or as positively as you’d like.

What you can do as a single service member

You’re likely to find that reestablishing a relationship with your parents will take patience and work.

  • Be understanding and respectful with your parents. It may be difficult for them to understand how you’ve changed. They may be so relieved to have you back home that they fuss over you too much or tiptoe around you. Try to understand their needs and be careful not to push them away. Use your time together to begin negotiating the kind of relationship you want to have with your parents as an adult.
  • Expect that people will make continuing demands for your time and attention. Even after you’ve been back for a while, parents, relatives, and friends may continue to put you at the center of activities and events or have unrealistic expectations for your time and energy. It’s good to think about how to manage these demands and negotiate what you’re comfortable doing.

Resist becoming isolated. Single service members often feel that they’re in a different place emotionally and intellectually from their old friends without service experience. Sometimes it’s easier to withdraw than to spend time with people you don’t feel a connection with, but it’s important to resist the impulse to withdraw. Avoid isolation and loneliness by reaching out to other veterans for friendship or getting involved in activities where you can meet new people.

Finding a place in your community

For many service members, getting connected to a larger community is an important step toward feeling at home. Community involvement provides a wider circle of friends and neighbors who support you and appreciate your service. Some people experience a sense of community by joining service organizations, clubs, or civic groups. Many veterans find community through their faith by participating in the activities of their place of worship. Whatever your interests, there are opportunities for community where you live. At first, you may have to push yourself to get involved outside of work and family, but it will help you to readjust. Veterans often discover that focusing on needs beyond their own has a way of reducing the time it takes to feel like a whole civilian again.