Jun 27

Camouflage to Pinstripes – Journey to Civilian Life

Dr. Sydney Savion Giving up a familiar lifestyle and a profession that has embodied who you are is not an easy or simple process. This is especially the case as you take the steps to leave the military behind to to seek success and fulfillment in civilian life. Dr. Sydney Savion, retired Air Force officer, author, researcher and expert on human and organizational learning, shares her perspectives on the complexities of the military to civilian transition process and what makes it so different from other life transitions.

VSB: Dr. Savion, what inspired you to write your new book, Camouflage to Pinstripes?

SS: It is becoming more evident that the journey of starting a new beginning for many of our separating service members can prove to be quite challenging. I have witnessed the experience of friends – primarily senior ranking officers – who have made the change from active duty to mainstream society and for many of them, at the outset, it was a very concrete struggle.

The other aspect of this experience is observing the emotional and cognitive struggle of adapting to a distinctly different social structure, i.e. a civilian culture that runs counter to the military culture.  As a retired Air Force officer, an applied behavioral scientist and researcher, I saw a very real need to thoroughly examine this phenomenon – the experience of veterans who had traversed the psychological process of life transition to start a new beginning and identify the practical and meaningful ways they were able to successfully assimilate into civilian culture.

VSB: You talk about the intensive socialization process that takes place when one joins the military and the fact that there is no counterpart “resettlement system” to help one re-enter civilian life upon retirement from military service. Why are so many military leaders surprised to find that the process of “reentry” is somewhat chaotic and unsettling, especially after long careers in military service?

SS: Socialization, in this context, is the complete transformation of the whole person.  It is a process that is intended to completely change an individual’s identity from who they were as a civilian. This means that a person’s mindset needs to be altered from being centered on individual interests to assimilating into and operating within a cohesive unit, hence the core value of “service before self.”

Moreover, the societal norms, core values and beliefs of the military are very distinct from civilian culture. Therefore, when many military members reenter civilian culture, the stark differences they experience can foster doubt and conflict in the way they feel, think, and behave, as a result of being in a very dissimilar environment. 

camouflage to pinstripesVSB:  Why do you believe is it so important to deliberately detach from one’s military identity and role attached to military life as part of the transition process? 

SS: What I emphasize in my book and in conversations with groups is that identity is the sense of who you are as an individual and your role as a contributor to society.

Your sense of self is important, because it connects you to your past, present and future.  Many who have spent decades in the military have attached their identity and self-worth to their rank, position and status within the military.  So once they are removed from that context, many experience a very sudden, psychological descent to obscurity.  This rise and fall of one’s ego is known as Hero to Zero mentality.

People can easily get stuck by resisting changing the way they see themselves and their outlook on life.  That is why it is so vital to be intentional about shedding attachments to the past way of thinking, doing and being that cause this tension, and discover new ways that are meaningful and purposeful.

VSB:  You reference the importance of being able to “surrender” as key to a successful transition into civilian culture. This is typically a term associated with being in a position of weakness. How would you advise retiring military leaders to turn this word on its head as a means of gaining strength and achieving success in a new culture? 

SS: In this context, I would suggest that retiring military leaders view the notion of “surrender” as the opportunity to discover and embrace a new way of thinking, doing and being.  It is being intentional about letting go of one’s outlived life (that is, one’s past life in the military) and strive to create a new life that flows and flourishes in civilian culture.

VSB:  In your book, you reference Dr. Peter Adler’s definition of culture shock as “a set of emotional reactions to the loss of perceptual reinforcements from one’s own culture, to new culture stimuli which have little or no meaning, and to the misunderstanding of new and diverse experiences. It may encompass feelings of helplessness, irritability and fears of being cheated, contaminated, injured or disregarded.”

Certainly, most military leaders could not imagine harboring such feelings while on active duty, nor envision that they might feel this way once they retire. What are the best ways to address such feelings if and when they should surface?

SS: Yes, I get that! Individuals should focus on ways to prevent or ease these feelings, rather than getting stuck on them. I found that the key is staying centered on positive outcomes and being intentional about repurposing one’s life.  It begins with visualizing your desired outcome, setting and believing in your goals, and taking the first step.

It is so important to have hope and to:

  • Tap into your support system
  • Nurture your self-confidence
  • Be proactive in reading and learning about the craft of your choice
  • Discover ways to enhance personal and professional growth
  • Be mindful and deliberate about changing your way of thinking.

 These steps are all very beneficial to easing negative feelings and to making a successful life transition in civilian culture.

1 comment

  1. Steve Baxter

    Dr. Savion accurately captured many of the scenarios I’ve experienced since leaving the military (as an 0-6) following 32 years of service. I’ve always felt that it’s much more important to know yourself as who you are vice what you do…as long as you remain true to yourself, a successful (but always challenging) transition from the military will happen.

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