Vets need more than job training to adapt to civilian life

We need a new model of transition that looks at the military experience of every current and prospective veteran and their families.

PUBLISHED : Monday, May 23, 2016 12:00 AM
“Seamless transition” is the latest buzzword for helping Canadian Forces members and their families releasing into a new civilian life. Throwing money at the same programs while focusing principally upon the most severely wounded chips away, but does not directly address the problem. We need a new model of transition that looks at the military experience of every current and prospective CF veteran and their families.

Transition for all veterans has predominantly focused upon employment. If the veteran is employable, then prepare and find him or her a job. If the veteran is not employable or suffers injuries, then offer medical care and compensation. Seamless transition begins this process well before release from the CF.

When leaving CF employment, finding new employment or likewise compensating and caring for the injured, if accomplished in a timely manner, should overcome transition barriers, right?

We have forgotten that the military is not a job but a vocation, a way of life. Leaving one way of life in uniform for a very different way of life as a civilian requires far more than job training, job placement, or even medical treatment: it requires life retraining.

We conveniently overlook the tools we employ to change civilians into military members. Military indoctrination is the most powerful, legally sanctioned means of manipulating a human being. The goal: to provide the most fail-safe means of ensuring Canadian citizens in uniform do what government wants, including taking the lives of others while potentially losing one’s own life. This is known as unlimited liability.

Yet government has demonstrated a very limited liability in transforming military members back into civilians. The indoctrination process occurs throughout one’s military career. Even the brief periods of basic training can result in individuals being profoundly, comprehensively, and irrevocably changed. Military indoctrination affects key aspects of emotion, perception, and cognition, not just task-oriented, institutional behaviour.

Indoctrination also emphasizes the separateness of military members from civilians. How can a military member deeply indoctrinated to mistrust civilian forms of working, thinking, and belonging be expected to have a seamless transition into a new civilian life? Most would not be aware of how indoctrinated beliefs and skills that are beneficial on the battlefield are detrimental to a successful civilian life. Likewise, the self-reflection, broad innovation, and creativity that are key to success in the private sector are cognitive features that are soundly suppressed in the military environment.

Military socialization emphasizes a mission-mind where all relationships become judged based upon their contribution to or hindrance of a task. Friendships, family, and work relationships become more about common goals and less about understanding and relating to one another. Mutually encouraged growth needed for deeper intimacy, stronger relationships, and trust are subsequently diminished.

Job-seeking assistance or even job and/or education retraining are unlikely to reverse these effects. How do we create conditions to optimize the well-being of each and every veteran, past, present, and future?

If basic training is necessary to indoctrinate civilians to become military members, perhaps a reverse form of basic training can catalyze the transformation process from being military to becoming civilians once again. Self-reflection, caring relations, and broader forms of thinking are the eventual goals. However, a course that expands awareness of the consequences of the military experience can open many doors for veterans and their families. Families along with civilians can join the transformation process, encouraging veterans to feel like they intimately belong to the society for which they were willing to sacrifice everything.

Just as military team-building suppresses important aspects of the individual during indoctrination, a parallel system of individual coaching would enhance the transformation process, optimizing the potential of each individual veteran. Socialization and other life-skills coaching would complement financial, career, and job-performance coaching.

Homelessness, suicides, veterans in the criminal justice system, and disaffected injured veterans are symptoms, the tragic manifestations of poorly understood civilian integration. Similarly, it would be short-sighted to assume that those veterans who remain hidden from the media are all optimizing their well-being, relationship, and employment potential.

Eight years ago, I proposed a “homecoming” course in this newspaper. The need is far more acute today. Let’s stop reinforcing failed or limited approaches. Let us remember the broader sacrifices of military service. Not only would each and every veteran benefit from Canada’s investment in their capacity, but Canadians would benefit from the return on the investment we make in our veterans and their families.

Sean Bruyea just completed a post-graduate degree in public ethics focusing upon the obligation government has to veterans during and after transition. He is also a retired Air Force intelligence officer.

The Hill Times

Sean Bruyea, vice-president of Canadians for Accountability, is a retired Air Force intelligence officer and a frequent commentator on government, military, and veterans’ issues.