Why Leaving The Army Is The Most Painful Transition I Have Experienced

Why Leaving The Army Is The Most Painful Transition I Have Experienced

There are many times in life when things happen unexpectedly and circumstances change. These are times of transition. For me, transitions generally tend to be uncomfortable and filled with anxiety about what the future brings, or the fear of the unknown.

For me, one of the most difficult periods in my life was the transition from being a soldier to a civilian. I spent 6 years in the Australian Infantry where my daily life consisted of hard physical training, firing weapons, practising combat warfare techniques and playing out combative scenarios.

For the most part I loved my career, but towards the end I knew the time had come for something new. Upon discharge I, like many other soldiers I know, jumped straight out of this high intensity and stimulating work environment, into doing… nothing. When this happened I experienced a disconnect between myself and members of my community who just didn’t understand the life of a soldier or hold the same values and belief systems that had been ingrained in me every day for the last 6 years. It was a recipe for disaster.

I often found myself alone at this time wondering what I was doing. I wondered who I was, what I stood for, what I was doing with my life and whether my years in the army were a total waste. I had been trained to kill an enemy and go to war. It seemed to me that none of this was useful in the real world.

In hindsight, I was wrong. I had learned so much in the military and at an accelerated speed in comparison to almost any another other job in the world. Yet, I still experienced problems. These are some of the main problems I experienced and how I went about addressing them.

Not knowing how to do new things

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For years I was focused on being a soldier and being the best at it. So I spent my spare time training rather than pursuing any other interests or hobbies. I invested everything into it and when that changed I had no idea what I actually enjoyed doing. I avoided doing anything new by telling myself things like, “I never did it as a kid, so i’ll be no good at it now,” or, “none of my friends do that so I probably won’t enjoy it”.

Eventually, after a long time of doing nothing, I became sick to death of myself. At this point I was offered a simple building block to complete each day with: conduct 3 practices each day.

Meaningful exercise – Not just running for the sake of running but doing something I enjoy that wears me out. It could be running the dog, playing football, going rock climbing or dancing.

Meaningful relationships – Connecting with someone, rather than isolating myself. Having a chat on the phone with a friend or spending some quality time with a family member.

A meaningful task – This is where I would conduct something I have an interest in. It may be reading a book for 10 minutes, watching and practising something I want to learn on a YouTube tutorial or picking up a guitar.

In addition to that, I decided to really give new things a go, sometimes they developed into hobbies or formed new habits. A rule of thumb on habituation is that it generally takes a minimum 30 days to form, so if I didn’t like it the first time I would keep going back and give it another go. I figured if I didn’t like it at the end of that time, fair enough I would try something different.

I found that if I didn’t know anyone who did this new hobby or pastime I would have some anxiety about joining and I’d avoid it. After some time I learnt that I was not alone. Everyone is a beginner once and everyone has their first day. I  found groups like Meetup were a great platform to connect with people in a similar situation.

Not knowing my purpose

When I joined the military I had a plan and thought it was what I wanted to do with my life. Once I left the army I found it very difficult to find meaning and I felt like I didn’t have a reason to jump out of bed each morning. Finding this has been an ongoing struggle. Since the army I have undergone a lot of trial and error in an attempt to find my purpose. An important lesson I’ve learnt in this time has been to welcome change and allow myself to go through this process.

Knowing what my purpose IS NOT was a step closer to finding out what IT IS. I tried multiple new jobs. Knocking on doors one week, packing milk another and landscape gardening another. I approached these these jobs with optimism and I moved on when I realised it wasn’t for me. By doing this I now know what I don’t like and am closer to knowing what I do like.

Additionally I asked people around me what they thought I should pursue. My friends and family know me the best, so I asked them what they saw me being or what they thought I would be good at. It didn’t mean that I went straight ahead and did it, but it has helped me to identify my strengths. When I wasn’t enjoying my work I found that setting time to try new or develop existing pastimes was really beneficial.

These resources were also helpful for developing meaning in my daily life if you’re interested in working on this too. This YouTube clip or this sample of the purpose project by Carolyn Tate.

Not seeking any help

In the army I needed constant resilience and determination to get through the toughest times, so I took this approach to most things. Generally I didn’t talk to anyone about how I was really going or feeling. I was just trying to fake it until I could make it. But at times in my transition I actually felt a little lost, confused and down.

I’ve learnt there is no shame in seeking out help from the professionals. I’ve realised my mind is just like physical abilities — injuries and fatigue will always occur. Talking to friends and family is a good start, yet I found seeing a professional who is removed from my personal life enhanced my understanding of what I was going through and ability to cope.

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I’ve also found it useful to continue seeing someone when I actually feel good and have no major issues in my life. There’s some research that shows it’s not necessarily the treatment or the particular therapy that is the most important factor to the recovery of the patient/individual as much as the relationship between the practitioner and client. With persistence I found a practitioner who I feel understood my needs. And that feels good!

Not understanding different perspectives

Indoctrination and stringently following orders is part of the military, there was not much room for questioning orders. To do so would be seen as an act of insubordination (defiance of authority; refusal to obey orders) and is punishable by military law. An X on your file for this type of behaviour is not good for career progression or status within the group, so I always did what I was told even if it did not sit comfortably with me internally. My behaviour and way of thinking became more about conforming.

This was hard to address upon my discharge. I thought the way I did things were simply the ‘right’ way! I was challenged with this when I returned to a university setting and was forced to think more critically.

Initially I attempted to argue my way through topics, but I didn’t get very far. After a while I found it more beneficial to try to place myself in other people’s shoes to try to understand an idea or viewpoint from their perspective. After making myself do this, I found I could think about ideas differently and critically, rather than either accepting or rejecting it from the outset. Additionally, this created a mindset where I became open to experiences even though they seemed odd or initially uncomfortable. This opened more doors for me, I networked with more people and I grew as a person.

Walk a mile in someone elses shoes

Recently, I was starting to believe I had successfully transitioned. What had seemed like a long and tiring journey of self discovery, was finally coming to end and I felt like I was back on track. I was kicking goals and I truly felt I was on my destined path. I was wrong!

Once again the unexpected happened and I found out my circumstances were about to change in a big way. My partner fell pregnant. I was going to become a Dad. We then found out it’s a dual pregnancy. We’re having twins! But… it wasn’t happening when I wanted it to happen.

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having a baby

I asked someone for advice and he gave it to me straight. He said, you can’t plan everything in your life, sometimes life makes plans for us instead.

This reminded me of my time in the military. We could do all the planning and preparation for a mission and include all the actions to be taken given any possible scenario but sometimes crazy stuff just happened. We couldn’t change the situation so we adapt to it and overcome it. In times of transition I offer the same advice to myself and others — try to adapt and overcome. It is difficult to begin with and although not apparent at the time, I’ve found there are usually lessons to be learned and silver linings in every situation. I just try to breathe, stay calm and enjoy the ride.


If anyone out there is experiencing difficulties with their mental health, or this article brought up any issues for you, here are a few quick details for organisations you might want to consider getting in contact with:

Beyond Blue: www.beyondblue.org.au

Headspace: www.headspace.org.au

Lifeline: 13 11 14