From civilian to soldier and back again

Local veterans who have dedicated their careers to helping returning vets integrate into civilian society discuss the many challenges vets face when they come home

Courtesy of The U.S. National Archives

Transitions are rarely easy — starting a new job, moving to a new city or dealing with a medical condition are challenging endeavors for most humans, but for veterans, these challenges are multiplied as they work to transition back into a civilian realm that is unlike the military world they’ve trained and worked in for years. And for many veterans, devastating wounds and post-traumatic stress make civilian life seem like an alternate reality.

But in a nation with more than 23 million veterans, returning service members aren’t alone. On Nov. 15, Veterans Speak will host a panel of veterans who have dedicated their post-military careers to helping returning vets deal with the physical, psychological and social challenges they encounter when rejoining civilian life.

Barry Baer, a retired full colonel from the U.S. Army, will moderate the panel. He works with veterans to help them find jobs and build careers in the civilian sector. Baer says that flawed perceptions in both the civilian and military mindsets often make getting a job difficult for returning veterans.

“It started in Vietnam, but today more than ever, because a lot of the civilian population didn’t serve [in the military], there’s not a true understanding of what it’s like to serve, and then because of that there’s less understanding of what the training was and the capacity that a veteran today has to be able to operate in the civilian environment,” says Baer. “And so on the civilian side, there’s a perception that all a solider or sailor or Marine or airman have are their war fighting skills. They don’t truly understand that our service people coming back now really have some tremendous civilian skills they could put to use today — there’s discipline, there’s a willingness to work very hard, the very traits that you want in an employee. In the military today, we use very high-evolved information technology. Our veterans coming home really have a skill set so they don’t have to start from scratch when starting a job.”

But Baer adds that returning veterans must also learn to translate the skills they learned in the military.

“You are a veteran. You’ll always be a veteran, but you don’t make it your raison d’être,” says Baer. “You have to make sure people know you’re a person, and when you go to an interview, you have to sell yourself and your skills, not your military service.”

Panelist Michael Pantaleo served in Vietnam in 1967 and 1968. Since 1985, Pantaleo has worked as a clinical psychologist and team leader at the Boulder Vet Center. He says he considers his own experiences with reintegration in his ongoing search to help veterans make a healthy transition back into civilian life.

“The military is so different from civilian life in that, really, a person gives up their individuality when they go into the military,” says Pantaleo. “That giving up occurs when these individuals are just learning to become adult civilians. So what service people learn in the 18-25 year range is how to be in a team. You’ve heard the expression ‘There’s no “I” in team.’ Well, that’s kind of what veterans are dealing with. They are going from being a member of a team to being an individual. Rather than thinking about how to save the life next to me, how do I save my own life? While all of my peers were figuring out to be an adult civilian, I was figuring out how to be an adult soldier or an airman or a Marine.”

Pantaleo says there are also issues with how married veterans reintegrate back into their own families, and beyond that, how families must learn to live with their returning veteran.

“[Veterans] are separated from their family, and not just ‘I went to South Dakota to work in the oils field,’ but ‘I went to a place where people actively tried to kill me,’” says Pantaleo. “It creates a different kind of mindset. That acquiring and losing of identity can be difficult. It’s particularly difficult for men because when people ask us who we are we associate that with what we do. We are not encouraged by the military to talk about ourselves, only how we fit into this team. So people come back and they are trying to figure out why their families don’t understand them.”

But despite the many issues facing returning veterans, Pantaleo says that services for returning vets are better now than ever, and civilians have more appreciation and compassion for veterans.

“One of the things we did learn after Vietnam is there’s a difference between the warrior and the war,” he says. “The military are the hands of the U.S. State Department. The military enforces the rules and standards or relationships that the State Department decides are the way we need to go. I think that has sunk into people that it’s not the military that starts these wars, it’s elected officials.”