At first, I wrote him off as “just a little odd.” Despite being retired for more than two decades, every conversation devolved into a lengthy, often pointless war story. When meeting someone for the first time, he typically introduced himself with his former rank. Where most veterans of my generation eschew public recognition, he basked in it, even actively seeking it out. Over time, as I came to know him better, I realized it wasn’t “odd” I was seeing, it was someone whose identity was caught up in a profession that he’d long since left behind. He was lost, living his days in a past that grew further distant by the day.
Last week, when rioters stormed the United States Capitol, there were veterans present. One of them, a former Air Force noncommissioned officer, was killed by Capitol Police as she attempted to leap through the broken window of a door inside the Capitol. Another, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, was photographed in full tacticool in the Senate chamber, with a handful of flex cuffs at his side. A day after his picture flashed across the internet, he was fired from his job; two days later, he was in federal custody, charged with a number of offenses.
The postmortem on the woman shot in the assault on the Capitol reveals a story all too familiar to veterans. A relatively long but undistinguished military career followed by a period of post-separation malaise. She was disaffected, saddled with debt, in search of a purpose. She became an avid follower of QAnon conspiracy theories, and her descent into that dark world played out in public view as she took to social media. By the time she arrived on the Capitol Mall, she believed she had found a cause that gave her life purpose. As more information becomes available on the lieutenant colonel, we should expect much the same: a veteran whose identity was caught up in a past he could no longer connect to; someone who had no identity of his own outside of a profession he no longer served.
Reasons for a Post Military Identity Crisis
We’ve all seen this, so why does it happen? Like many high-pressure professions, the military emphasizes the need for an “in-group” identity where an individual prioritizes the values and norms of the group over their own needs and wants. That doesn’t mean you sacrifice your own identity, but that over time you identify more with the group, form a common bond, and build a shared identity. This serves the profession well, as shared identity and values are essential. But for some, they lose themselves in the process of developing an in-group identity. The profession becomes their identity.
There are three distinct aspects to military service that can lead to this phenomenon. First, rewards (raises, promotions, and reputations) are often associated with the amount of time spent at work rather than the quality of that work. The more time someone spends on the job, the more likely it is to become their central identity, displacing relationships, activities, and hobbies that might shape an individual identity. Second, military service is highly valued within our society, and success within the profession of arms only adds to that prestige. As a result, some people become so focused on career success and service identity that they disconnect from family and friends, allowing their work to become their sole identity. Third, lengthy service can lead to significant socioeconomic changes, the “trappings” of the profession. When someone forges an identity around a uniform, career achievements, or influence, it’s very easy for them to chain themselves to that identity.
5 Steps for Veterans in the Identity Transition
So, how do you save yourself from losing your identity? In a 2019 article, psychologist Janna Koretz tackled this same subject, but from a business perspective. Using the term “enmeshment” to describe how people working in positions of power often lose their individual identities, she offered five steps that can save someone from losing their identities:
This is as much about giving up some control as it is about freeing up time. You don’t have to do everything, and you don’t have to spend your nights and weekends in the office. This starts with “trust but verify” and builds from there. In the end, it reduces stress and buys back time you might not otherwise have.
2. Get a hobby
Koretz’s advice is to start small, to find something that interests you and give it a try. You don’t have to commit to anything long term but start trying things that help you to find who you are. Don’t go out and buy the racing bicycle or the full garage gym. Start small, find what you like, and enjoy it.
3. Expand your network
Your network should not be comprised of the same people you see every day. Reach out to friend and family. Connect with new social circles. Text, email, direct message. It doesn’t matter you do it, just connect. This had the added benefit of giving you a better cushion to land on after you take off the uniform.
4. Find the One Thing
In City Slickers, Curly often spoke of finding the One Thing: “One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and the rest don’t mean shit.” What’s the one thing? That’s what you have to figure out. What’s important to you. What do you care most about in life? What do you value? Find that and stick to it.
5. Look beyond the job
This is critical, because eventually, the job is going to leave you behind. If your entire identity is wrapped up in the rank you wore or the title you carried, you will struggle to find a purpose and an identity outside the ranks of military service. Rather than framing who you are in terms of those two, define yourself by your skills. Because no matter where you go or what you do, those skills will stay with you.
Finding the Identity Balance
Identifying closely with your profession isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It can, however, leave you vulnerable to a brutal and painful identity crisis, leading to—as Koretz noted—“anxiety, depression, and despair.” Maybe you have become the veteran who regales random people on the street with tales of your exploits during the Cold War. Maybe you become the geardo standing in the Senate chamber with a fistful of flex cuffs. Or maybe you become the well-balanced veteran who builds a meaningful life apart from the profession you once served. The decision is yours.