Reintegration: The Challenge After the War

In 2010, I deployed to Iraq with a Combat Stress Unit from Boston. I was a Behavioral Health Specialist at a Combat Stress clinic where we worked very hard in assisting service members deal with the various home front issues and deployment stressors that they are often faced with when they’re away from home. During that period, we noticed that many service members that were in the final months of their tours were beginning to come to our clinic stating that they were worried about how they were going to be able to provide for their families now that they were going home and didn’t have a stable job to go back to. Thanks to the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1994 (USERRA) my job was going to be there when I returned, but that was not going to be the case for everyone.

That uncertainty had given them feelings of anxiety and stress now that they were going to be faced with a greater challenge: reintegrating to civilian life. Reintegration is a process of adjustment to a new sense of normalcy. This period of adjustment, depending on how much things have changed, can take days and up to 6 months. In order to find that “normalcy”, they would have to obtain jobs so they can continue to provide for their families. Although there are various military friendly companies that are willing to help these young men and women, there are others that do not have the same luck, and have to work for companies that do not really empathize with the type of experiences soldiers go through while deployed.

Some people do not realize the difficulties that come with being a war veteran. Yes, we are honored and given praise constantly from our supporters, but on the flipside of that, we are also faced with the stigmas that are often associated with mental health issues. This is due large in part because of the references of a deployment are often mistaken and compared to those seen in movies and portrayed on the news. It is very important to note, that although many of these service members do not share the exact experiences, they are all returning from a hostile environment where being aware of your surroundings is vital to surviving and where storing your feelings away (also known as compartmentalization) can help you get by a year long deployment.

There are many feelings associated with a deployment and those who have experienced it are often overwhelmed with everything. These brave men and women are not always willing to talk about their deployment activities. When I returned from my deployment, I went back to the job I held for the last 12 years and although my coworkers were very supportive, none of them could relate to any of the experiences that I had just come back from. One coworker actually asked me how many people did I kill! Sadly, this is a reality for many service members that are getting interviewed for new jobs. People make the assumption that we all have mental issues and we all have PTSD. PTSD (Posttraumatic stress disorder) is a mental health disorder that in the last 10 years has gained a lot of recognition because of the national exposure it has gotten due to the amount of service members that have been affected by it. Several signs and symptoms associated with PTSD can be (but are not limited to) flashbacks, nightmares, feelings of detachment, and loss of interests in activities of daily living, avoidance, difficulty sleeping and concentrating. [*PTSD is not exclusively a military associated disease. It can affect anyone who has experienced a traumatic event.]

When we combine the uncertainty of a new experience and a lack of a strong support group to get them through the reintegration process, many can feel excluded and resort to isolation. Service members are used to being with their “brothers in arms” when they endure challenges such as these. The absence of the essential tools to reintegrate can lead to feelings of loneliness and higher levels of stress, making it harder for them to concentrate, make rational decisions and focus on tasks.

How we can help them reintegrate

It is very hard to duplicate a military support network outside of the military. Not many people understand the military life, and the odds of working with someone that has deployed is very low. Still, there are several steps that can help a company make the reintegration process a bit easier.

  1. Avoid stigmas. Not everyone that has deployed comes back affected adversely by the war. As soon as I came back, I completed my Masters in Social Work and have dedicated my work to helping others achieve “normalcy” in their lives.
  2. Have a military liaison. If there is no other service member on the worksite, companies can educate their Human Resources reps to be aware of certain signs. This can help to be a bridge from the regular workers to those who have served.
  3. Communicate often. Discussing your expectations for them is an effective way to cope and relieve some of the stressors that come with a new work experience.
  4. Allow for space and time. Many have come from long deployments and their attention has just been shifted from a hostile environment to balancing work, home, family and leisure. Make sure they ease into their jobs by giving them the proper amount of time to train and the required amount of rest afterwards.
  5. Know your resources. There are many people and agencies that can be contacted if a service member is having a hard time reintegrating to civilian life. Organizations such as Army Community Service Center (ACS) or Military OneSource (available 24/7), to name a few, are in place for service members and their families. It is important to know that they have places available to help if they needed it.