Homecoming: a new direction to welcome our soldiers back into Canadian society

We invest millions of dollars and decades into a complex process to ‘transform’ the civilian into a soldier. So why is there so little to help the soldier retransform back into a civilian?

By Sean Bruyea-THE HILL TIMES-March 10, 2008

Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan have been engaged in some of the most intensive combat since Korea. Those Canadians who have never worn a uniform see the military with a vacillating proportion of awe, fascination and incomprehension.

But the soldiers were once civilians. We invest hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars over years and decades in a complex process to “transform” the civilian into a soldier. Why is there so little to help the soldier retransform back into a civilian?

We have forgotten how to welcome back our men and women who gave up so much in uniform so that others can loathe the idea of ever putting one on.

The military, Veterans Affairs and the Canadian public are now learning that while a soldier takes off the uniform he/she may psychologically never leave the military. And that is not only a problem for the veteran; it is a problem for society. Soldiers are not reintegrating back into civilian life as successfully as hoped. Why should they?

It is easy to understand why soldiers think in different ways from the rest of society. The first thing that greets the civilian recruit is months of constant bombardment with indoctrination, drills, sleep deprivation, mental and physical obstacle courses, trust, confidence, and skill-building exercises and a host of other tools which allow Canadian soldiers to become the fine examples they set for the world.

“The military becomes you and you become the military,” explains Dr. Augustine Meier, professor of psychology at St. Paul’s University. “It’s not just a way of thinking; it is a way of being.”

The change from civilian to military life is profoundly transformative and goes far beyond education or job training. Experiences of combat in peacekeeping operations or wartime only reinforce this new “way of being.” Over the past decade and-a-half, many soldiers have served in multiple operations such as the Gulf War, Bosnia, Rwanda, Somalia, and Afghanistan. Such experiences reinforce the transformative process, expanding the gulf between soldier and civilian.

And yet the complex and lengthy process to create the soldier is quickly forgotten in trying to unmake the soldier. There has been much talk and some successes in rehabilitation with a focus on job training and placement. This is valuable, but employment is just one part of rehabilitation. The other sorely-needed component is a method of retransforming soldiers back into civilians.

“Everybody must transition, everybody must take the uniform off,” says retired Sergeant Tom Hoppe, who completed his masters in leadership and organizational management. “We don’t realize until the uniform comes off that all of a sudden we have all these feelings we don’t understand.”

Helping the soldier “understand” must transcend seminars and “talk-therapy.” The next step must be taken. We must create a program of courses, follow-up, coaching and what Dr. Meier calls “transformative therapy.” All this would go beyond job placement while assisting the military member retransform into civilian life. The goal would be to cultivate a strong sense of trust and belonging between the veteran and society.

In creating a soldier, the individual is immersed in an experiential environment in order to establish life-giving and life-saving trust with peers, subordinates, supervisors, the unit and the military as a whole. Trust, experiential training and a strong sense of belonging are the keys which help ensure survival and mission success.

This same experiential approach can be integrated into a “homecoming” course. Instead of military-only participants, civilians, including local businesses and family of the military member, could learn together, act together, and rely upon each other to accomplish tasks, build trust, and develop a sense of belonging. In this way, military members can learn to establish a newfound and appropriate level of trust with civilian culture. Civilian culture can then better understand the military forge in which the soldier was created.

Soldiers know the military will manage pay, healthcare, relocation, career planning, training/retraining, paperwork and a myriad of other administrative and professional services. This allows the military to devote more of the individual to the “unlimited liability” all soldiers must accept whatever the mission.

Understandably, the soldier may expect civilian life to take on these same responsibilities. However, the course and its follow-up components would help the releasing soldiers know at a deeper level, not just cerebral, what society can be trusted to provide and what the soldiers must learn and relearn to manage their lives. Communities may also develop new ways to provide services and support which benefit more than just the veteran.

Imagine a network of courses run throughout Canada. Government, businesses and communities, large and small, would send participants who would help the soldier and the community and eventually society grow through this mutual retransformation.

On an individual level, soldiers would be ‘life-coached’ for more than just retraining and employment. The most effective coaches would be veterans and some civilians having in-depth experience with the military culture. It would be imperative that the coaches successfully make or profoundly understand the psychological and emotional process in transitioning to civilian life.

Training in relevant areas of rehabilitation/psychology would allow the coaches to develop trust with the soldiers during what can be a frightening process to leave behind decades of indoctrination and security.

“There needs to be assistance to enter civilian life which acts as an adjunct to what is already in place,” says retired naval lieutenant and nurse, Louise Richard. “In order to build trust and be effective, assistance to soldiers leaving the military needs to operate at a different level than what is currently offered.”

A coordination of resources would allow the creation of this much-needed evolutionary process in recognizing the obstacles faced by military members rejoining society. Of course Veterans Affairs, National Defence, the Operational Stress Injury Support System, and experts in rehabilitation/psychology will be necessary components. However, the most important architects of this reintegration plan would be the soldiers, their families and the members from the communities they will join.

Everyone benefits from successful reintegration. The soldier has a higher quality of life while maximizing education and work potential. The family is more stable and supportive. The community grows in understanding and society has a valuable new participant.

Often, popular culture has been quicker than government at responding to the problems plaguing ex-military as they reintegrate back into civilian life. The other night, my wife and I watched the 1946 Hollywood movie, The Best Years of Our Lives. Made just as the Second World War ended, the movie poignantly tracks the experiences of three service members as they struggle to re-enter civilian life. Instrumental to their reconnection with civilian society is a delicate balance between self-discovery and hands-on involvement by the civilian support systems. Civilians learn they must actively welcome back the infantryman, the sailor and the airman. In this way both the veterans and the civilians learn from each other and all are positively transformed by the experience.

More than 60 years later we must relearn what we once knew in helping our military return home.

The time is ripe to implement a transformative way of welcoming back our military men and women into the homes, schools, and workplaces. They need our time and effort just as much as our lives depend on their sacrifice. However, for those that survive, they sacrifice more than just their health or time away from families. Soldiers sacrifice that sense of trust and belonging they once shared with “civil society” but must now rejoin as fundamentally different individuals.

For most, if not all, who have served in the military, it is a “way of being,” thinking and valuing life, deeply rich with reward and satisfaction. There is no reason why we cannot make the years our soldiers spend after the uniform comes off even more richly rewarding and satisfying as those years they sacrificed protecting us.

Sean Bruyea is a retired captain and disabled soldier who served as an intelligence officer in the Canadian Forces for 14 years. He is now an advocate for other disabled veterans.

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