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.
When rioters stormed the United States Capitol two years ago, there were veterans present. Two of the 13 men convicted in connection with the plot to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer were veterans. A neo-Nazi group planning an attack on a New York synagogue was led by a veteran. Another veteran was arrested after threatening to recreate the 2017 mass shooting in Las Vegas. On any given day, the news cycle highlights similar stories from around the country.
The postmortem on these stories reveals a tale all too familiar to veterans. After a brief euphoria surrounding transition, a period of post-separation malaise descends. Some feel alone and isolated, in search of a purpose. Others are disaffected, often bitter and lacking direction. Others still find themselves saddled with debt, unable to find meaningful employment with any sense of job satisfaction. For many veterans, this is a tipping point. Some take their anger out on social media, becoming further disenfranchised and isolated. Some fall prey to conspiracy theories spread online, descending into a dark world where disinformation and paranoia overrule facts and logic. Their mental and emotional health suffer while they cling to an identity caught up in a past they can no longer connect to. An identity inexorably tied to a profession they no longer serve.
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.
The Answers for 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.