The Identity Shift: From Military to Civilian

Filed Under: Career Advice

The Identity Shift: From Civilian to Military and From Military to Civilian

In this post, we will delve into the profound and transformative journey that individuals undergo when transitioning between civilian life and military service, and then back to civilian life. This exploration sheds light on the emotional and psychological aspects of these transitions. You'll discover the unique identity shifts that take place and how individuals adapt and evolve in the process.

In a recent exchange of comments from UK veterans, the concept of identity within the military and its subsequent stripping away upon departure was brought to light. These candid reflections offered a profound insight into the unique and transformative experience that military service can be.  

The first comment emphasised the emotional toll of "de-kitting" – the process of returning one's military equipment and uniforms upon leaving the service. The soldier described it as a surprisingly challenging experience, likening it to having one's identity stripped away. It's a sentiment that many might not fully grasp unless they've handed in the boots and uniforms. The comment also highlighted the power and confidence of a uniform and rank, which can shape perceptions and create a sense of authority, even if the ideas being presented aren't always the best.  

;It's very easy in the Military world, rightly or wrongly, to walk into a room confidently, deliver knowledge or advice and know that, because of the positive unconscious bias that is created by a uniform and a big badge, your words will carry weight due to that preconceived notion that you must have bags of experience (although not always the right ideas). Humility is understanding that age & experience doesn't always mean you're right and that the Pte / 2 Lt different approach might be the way forward.’  

The second comment harks back to the initial stages of military service when, upon donning the uniform and having one's head shaved, there's a profound sense of identity transformation. The feeling of having one's identity stripped away in those early days can be equally powerful. It's as if the military moulds you into a new identity, one forged in discipline, camaraderie, and duty.  

In the world of military service, a unique transformation takes place when individuals transition from being civilians to becoming part of the military. This process not only involves donning a uniform but also a profound shift in one's identity.

Civilian to Military: An Identity Transformation

The first transformation occurs when civilians join the Military. They step into a structured environment where uniforms, ranks, and a code of conduct shape their identity. In this new world, the uniform becomes a symbol of belonging, a visible marker of a shared purpose, and a source of pride. The transition can be challenging, but it's also accompanied by a sense of purpose and the assurance that their words and actions carry weight due to the uniform's reputation.

Image: UK MOD © Crown copyright 2023

The process often involves shedding aspects of their civilian identity to adapt to military life. The initial haircut can feel like a symbol of this transformation, where they watch their familiar image disappear in the barber's chair. The military moulds them into disciplined and resilient individuals, where collective identity often overshadows individuality.

The Return to Civvy Street: An Identity Stripped Away Again

When it's time to leave the military, the transition can be jarring. The structure and identity that the military provided must now be reshaped into a civilian one. This transformation can be a challenging process, as it involves navigating a world where the uniform and rank no longer carry the same weight, where you are no longer the Warrant Officer, Petty Officer/Fight Sergeant, or private. This process of transitioning from one identity to another is not always straightforward.  

The comments of UK veterans highlight the struggles that come with this transition. Rebuilding confidence and finding a new identity can be a daunting process. The skills and experiences gained during military service are undoubtedly valuable but translating them into the civilian world may require adaptation and reintegration

Balancing Both Identities

The connection that these veterans make between the initial identity shift upon entering the military and the subsequent shift when leaving is a profound realisation. It highlights the cyclical nature of identity, where it is built, deconstructed, and then rebuilt in a new context. This metamorphosis can be emotionally taxing, as service members grapple with questions of who they are now, what their role is, and how they fit into society as civilians.

While it's essential to maintain pride in one's service and the network established during military life, it's equally crucial to embrace and invest in a civilian identity.

Some veterans might resonate with the sentiment of being "always a Veteran, never a Civilian," but the most successful transitions often occur when individuals can balance both identities. Being proud of one's service while committing to belonging in the civilian community can lead to fulfilling post-military lives.  

It's crucial to recognise that the uniform is a part of professional identity but not the entirety of it. The civilian world doesn't recruit soldiers; it welcomes well-adjusted professionals with a wealth of experiences and skills. Embracing this duality is key to a successful post-military life.

In Conclusion

Understanding and acknowledging this shift in identity from civilian to military and from military to civilian is crucial for both veterans and civilians. It's a reminder that military service is not just a job; it's an experience that shapes individuals in ways that may not be immediately apparent to those who haven't served. It's a testament to the resilience and adaptability of our service personnel, and the need for empathy and support for veterans as they make the transition from military to civilian life.

It's essential to acknowledge the challenges of these transitions and understand that they shape who we become as individuals. Pride in one's military service is crucial, but so is a commitment to thriving in the civilian world.  

Identity is not static, it evolves, adapts, and encompasses the richness of our diverse experiences. The military uniform is a significant part of the journey, but it doesn't define our entire identity. We can be both proud veterans and successful civilians, and it's in that balance that we find our true selves.