When servicemembers make the transition from military to civilian life, they often miss a number of things: the all-encompassing focus on mission, the overriding sense of accomplishment, the personal pride of serving our country.
But, for many, losing the esprit de corps between fellow soldiers, sailors, or airmen might be the toughest part of the process.
“Being in the military, you have your own lingo. There’s the whole atmosphere of it, the culture of it. You get very used to it,” says National University student Christopher Price. “Then you get out, and that feeling’s not there.”
Price is well on his way toward completing his military to civilian transition. He has fought through many of the challenges, overcome most of them, and now he’s working on his bachelor’s degree in nursing. He also serves as a peer mentor at National’s Veteran Center. There, he’s able to help fellow veterans, many of whom face the same challenges he had to overcome.
It’s normal to feel strange
One of the first things Price tells a new veteran is: Find a buddy. Become friends with someone who has dealt with the same things you’re dealing with now, someone who can help you overcome your daily hurdles.
One advantage of a military-friendly school like National University there are many veterans walking around its campuses, so friends are easy to find.
Price says that post-military, it’s often difficult to find people who share the same experience.
“It’s really hard to find people you have things in common with, or that you can talk to,” Price says. “That’s a thing that is really cool about National. There are a lot of veterans here, so it makes it really easy to adjust. It is more comfortable here, compared to a typical college, where you have mostly people who didn’t serve.”
One thing that unites active-duty personnel is that everyone is literally in the same boat, plane, or barracks. From the day you report to boot camp, you’re surrounded by others who have decided to serve, and each mission or assignment forces everyone to band together.
But walking onto a college campus for the first time can be a lonely experience.
“A lot of veterans come in not really knowing anybody,” Price says. “It can be kind of challenging. I think having other veterans around definitely plays a part in your success here. If you’re happy to go to school, if you’re excited to go to school, you’re more likely to succeed.”
And it also helps rebuild that all-important esprit de corps.
“If we’re talking about transitioning from the military, I pretty much came to National with a blank slate,” Price says.
For one, he explains the VA hadn’t provided information about how to start or use educational benefits.
“I had no idea,” he says. “It’s not really explained when you transition out; it’s not like you take a big class on it. So that was something that was challenging for me. It was one of those, ‘If I had known then what I know now’ situations. But we help each other out here, and that’s really nice.”
Re-Building Your Structure and Routine
As anyone who has served knows, life in the military is, if nothing else, regimented. From reveille to taps, just about every hour is accounted for. Then, on the day you’re discharged, suddenly each hour is yours alone to fill. For some who have just left active duty, all that freedom can be almost overwhelming. It certainly was for Price.
After years of service, one of the hardest adjustments might be the basic blocking and tackling of civilian life. You have to find an affordable place to live. You have to budget for meals, transportation, entertainment, even clothes.
“If you’re transitioning back into the civilian world, you have all these responsibilities and you don’t really have somebody there holding your hand, per se,” Price says. “In the military, there’s stability. Sometimes that’s why people go to school, so they can get that stability back.”
Price reiterates that veterans often don’t get much information to help guide them as they transition out.
“I don’t want to say it’s nerve-wracking, but you’re finally getting out of the nest and you’re kind of like, ‘OK, where do I go and what do I do?’” After seeing so many people walk into the Veteran Center for just the basics, Price was inspired to do something that would help veterans like him get started. He launched a mentoring website to supplement resources provided by National University and the Veterans Administration. On his site, he answers the questions he had when he left the National Guard, and questions about the difficult transition from military to civilian life his peers ask him every day.
“The main idea was to create a one-stop source that would answer common questions or direct student-veterans to the resources already available,” Price says. “I feel the website also creates a community to collaborate together and gets people involved to build relationships.”
Laying the Foundation
Just about every day Price spends at National’s Veteran Center, he helps someone making the transition from military to civilian life find out about their benefits. He admits the paperwork can be a bit daunting. But he knows from personal experience that every bit of assistance is essential because things don’t always go according to plan.
Price served as an army reservist and was on orders with the National Guard for more than four years. He began as a medic, then served as a licensed vocational nurse. He set up and ran aid stations, and provided free health care to civilians. But, when he applied for Post-9/11 GI benefits, he found out the VA had classified some of his orders as “training” rather than active duty time.
“So I did not get 100 percent of my benefits; I got 70 percent,” he recalls. “That was really big and kind of hit me hard because I’m paying 30 percent for my classes. Seventy percent versus a hundred is a pretty big difference.”
Despite that setback, Price plans to graduate with a nursing degree from National in 2021 and eventually become a nurse anesthetist. But, he admits with a laugh, there are plenty more classes to take and lots of exams to pass before that happens. And, of course, lots of forms to fill out.
There is a culture in the military of keeping your head down and plowing through until the job gets done. Price says he sees it all the time with the students he mentors, but stresses this approach doesn’t always work in civilian life. National University’s Yellow Ribbon status and military-friendly programs help, and Price has experienced the difference first-hand.
“When I was going to a junior college, it felt like I was just part of the cattle,” he says. “One of the things I do like about National is, to me, it feels more personable. If I need to speak to an advisor, I can come in and get that one-on-one. “
National’s Career Service Department offers programs and procedures to help new vets find internships in the San Diego area, create a LinkedIn profile, get ready for a job interview, and translate military experience into a civilian resume that can help them land a job.
But the information changes very quickly. That’s one reason Price spends so much time updating his website with the latest on opportunities for community involvement, scholarships, businesses that give discounts or free services to veterans, and updates about National’s student veterans organizations.
“Working in the Veteran Center I come across pamphlets and flyers that present services and opportunities for veterans,” Price says. “While the information is out there, I feel it is hard to find unless you accidentally stumble across it or someone tells you about it. Many of these services and opportunities were new to me.”
Building Extra Support
Making the military to civilian transition can be difficult for just about everyone. But a lot of vets face another obstacle that can make it even more trying. National University works with veterans who have been injured in service and provides programs to help them both navigate their surroundings and negotiate the benefits to which they are entitled.
“There are a lot of veterans who have been injured,” Price says. “Knowing the routes and processes for dealing with that, I think, is very important.”
Again, Price knows what he’s talking about first-hand. He’s one of those injured vets. After all the PFT (physical fitness testing), working in field hospitals, and carrying heavy medical equipment, he says his right knee is just about shot.
Even though Price is pretty much an expert on helping recent veterans get the assistance they have coming to them, even he needs a hand to get his injury covered under the VA’s vocational rehabilitation program.
“For me it was, well you’re out of the military, so your medical benefits are over,” he says. “I’m receiving help from other members to guide me. For a lot of people coming out, it can be really, really overwhelming. Really overwhelming.”
Plenty of other things can add to the stress of the transition from military to civilian life. A good job and a close family provide emotional and financial support, of course, but they can also make the transition more complicated.
“I found it to be a difficult transition,” he says. “The hard part for me was, I knew I wanted to go to school but I was a manager at a mobile doctor’s office. I was working really hard, but I didn’t feel like I was moving forward anymore, so I decided to go back to school and I’m actually happier.”
In addition to attending class, serving as a peer mentor in the Veteran Center, and keeping his website up-to-date, Price is raising his six-year-old son, Naythan.
“Part of why I got out of the military was to take care of him,” he says. “It can get complicated, but luckily with National University, they have morning and evening classes; the evening classes work for me. I’m able to manage my time a lot better. There’s a lot of juggling, but it works.”
For many vets, returning to school while also transitioning to civilian life can be overwhelming. That’s why National offers online degree options that let students take classes that fit their schedule. National’s one-month-long classes also give students the flexibility they need to succeed. And National offers hybrid classes, which provide a bit more structure—and it’s Price’s preferred set-up.
“They meet once a week, and that’s very doable for a lot of people,” Price says. “For me, I like to be there in person. It just works better for me; for some people, online courses work better for them depending upon their location.”
No matter the format, Price says there is one thing that all classes at National University share.
“National’s instructors are really great because they’re more understanding, as far as where we’re at as veterans. And that,” says Price, “makes things a lot easier.”
Learn more about how National University can help you make the transition from military to civilian life on our military admissions program page. You can also find additional information on our Blog, including articles on How Military Tuition Assistance Can Fund Your Education and How to Gift Your GI Benefits to Your Spouse.