Is the lack of a peer group social network a cause of struggling vets?

I don’t usually go to Business Insider for deep thoughts. But I think this author might just be on to something.

And then you exit the service.

No more intrusive surprise health and welfare inspections. No more grueling runs and setting your speed to the slowest member of your group. No more morning formations. No more of the countless bureaucratic irritations of military life. Paradise, right?

Actually, for many of us, no.

Gone, suddenly, is the cohesive structure that existed to take care of you. Gone is that strong sense of social security. Gone is the sense that, wherever you go, you know where you fit. Gone are the familiar cultural norms. Gone are your friends from your ready-made peer group, who are just as invested in your success as you are in theirs.

Much of the time the service spends its time intruding upon your life outside the normal duty hours. It’s almost always incredibly annoying. And the enforced close conditions with others can be wearing. But on the other hand, if you stick a group of 18-20 year old men together 24 hours a day, bonds of friendship, or at least shared purpose, are bound to develop.

But I suspect that the main contributor to troubled adjustment to civilian life is something else entirely, and rarely is it because of battle trauma. Rather, when Veterans leave military service, many of them, like me, are leaving the most cohesive and helpful social network they’ve ever experienced. And that hurts. Most recent Veterans aren’t suffering because they remember what was bad. They’re suffering because they miss what was good.

Of course, many Veterans just power through and do fine. Veterans on average have better health and earn more money than the average American. But others fall short of their potential, simply because they’re missing something, and they can’t tell what it is.

I remember that same sense of loss when I got out to go to college. I struggled to make friends with dorm residents and classmates. The shift from working toward a unit mission to a pursuit purely of the self was disorienting.

It’s a cliché that people will say the strongest friendships they’ve ever formed were those in the service. But there’s a reason that cliché has evolved.

What say you?

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7 responses to “Is the lack of a peer group social network a cause of struggling vets?

  1. While I never served, the transition from college into the working world was jarring for similar reasons. Lots of time spent around one’s peers facing the same issues suddenly replaced with exposure to people with whom I had little to nothing in common. While being on a campus does not generate the ties that serving together would, it is glimpse at what you all go through.

  2. I had been in college for a year prior to enlisting in 1974 so when I went back some of the old crew were still there. I did join the local guard unit but got no satisfaction. I entered the ROTC program, liked it and made a career, retiring in 1996. It just felt right to be around other soldiers.

  3. GGinNC

    Nothing replaced the experience of being bonded with comrades, whether the common “enemy” of Drill Sergeants or deployment against a real foe. The armed forces have almost 240 years of experience forging strangers into groups willing to fight together regardless of culture, ideology, civilian education or experience. Ask anyone who has been under fire and they’ll tell you they fought for their brothers way before they’ll mention patriotism or a cause. College, work, church, or civic pride can’t come close to the esprit de corps experienced in the military. The Bible has it precisely right when it says, “Greater love has no man than he lay down his life for a friend.”

    The military is excellent at making soldiers, sailors, marines, or airmen out of civilians. It’s not so good at preparing them to be civilians again. But sites like this fill some of the gap . I know I’m grateful for your work in helping us keep current, share stories, and feel like we were part of something important, even though the application of this knowledge is limited at best.

    Seriously, thank you. It means more than you can imagine.

  4. About a year after I got out of the Army, I chanced upon a sergeant whom I’d served with early in my career. He had been a TC in my first platoon. Lots of miles and field experience. But then six years of no contact. Weeks after our re-acquaintance, he called to chat and let it slip his computer was broken. Without hesitation on a Saturday morning, I drove four hours to his place and fixed the infernal machine. Then four hours back. All in front of a predicted snowstorm. My wife (at the time my bride of just two months) couldn’t understand. Why would I take such a risk to do some trivial favor, with no expected recompense, for someone whom I’d barely kept touch with after all those years? Simple answer – we served together. These are things we do.

  5. Shared mission, shared danger, shared enemy (even drill sergeant as GG in NC said). People who will pick you up and carry you … Civilian world has none of that.

    • GGinNC

      You’re never accidentally forgotten in the military. Even If you found yourself cut off, captured, or even killed, you know you have someone who will remember and would be willing to pay the ultimate price to get you home; I don’t care if you’re a chaplains assistant or a SF Operator. It crosses generational lines, branches of service, and even across sides. This is why a bunch of Vietnam vets will form a wall to shield grieving families from protesters. It’s why we’ve buried our enemy dead with full military honors. It’s why names get engraved on walls. It’s a brotherhood.

  6. One of my former co-workers who is retired Army (waves at SH1!) said one of the harder adjustments for him was that nothing he did mattered as much as it did in the Army. A soldier does things because it can be a life or death situation, so all-out effort is required or demanded. Civilians, especially some government employees, not so much. Few cared if the job got done or not.