Oct 03

Navy Chaplain: Navigating Military to Civilian Transition

Separating from military service brings about both professional and personal change. It can be a time of mixed emotions, ranging from the joy to be able to pursue something new to anxiety about how to assess what’s next. Military chaplains are often on the front line of helping people learn to accept change, and process loss and grief. I decided to ask Navy Chaplain CDR Steven Smith how senior military leaders in transition can navigate these uncharted waters.

VSB: As a Navy Chaplain, you minister to military members of all faiths who are facing diverse issues and seeking guidance. What do you see as some of the key challenges senior leaders may face as they prepare to transition out of military service?

Chaplain Smith: Here are two key challenges for transition. The first is change; it is difficult, it requires a new vision, renewed strength and often, new collaborative partners with whom to network, as new teams are built and new missions are accomplished.  The second pertains to a person’s identity. It is important to develop an understanding that who you are is no longer tied to the rank you once held.

 Identity is a lifelong pursuit; peeling off the uniform often enables a person to shed expectations and frees a person to pursue life in a new and fresh way, with a different perspective, opening up endless possibilities.

VSB: Chaplains, caregivers and those in medical profession often have a heavy burden to carry, having to remain strong for others in times of crisis or extended difficulty. What lessons or techniques could you share with military leaders in transition who may be carrying long-held burdens of their own as they move forward to their next phase in life?

Chaplain Smith: It’s imperative that we practice what we preach. Trust is one of the most dynamic behaviors we possess. This is best recognized when we look at what happens to a person who has difficulty trusting. Someone who doesn’t trust builds a prison for themselves, isolates, lives in fear, develops phobias, struggles to maintain relationships and the horrible list goes on and on. The solution is to simply trust. Yes, by so doing, we leave ourselves open. However, I recommend that we look at all the good things that can come to us because we are now open to them. Talking with others will allow you to let out what it is that is paralyzing you and enable others to relate and to release the inner thoughts that have challenged them. In essence, you facilitate for others when you trust to share your own thoughts. It is how great moments evolve and how special relationships are formed. It’s preventative and healing in a dynamic fashion.

VSB: Yours is a healing profession. How can helping others in need enable transitioning military leaders to heal themselves at the same time?

Chaplain Smith: People say that we are “mind, body and spirit”, “flesh and blood” “heart and soul.” Let me speak to the healing of the soul, spirit, inner essence, the core, or in the words of Dr. Freud, the id. After all, it’s fair to say I’m not my body nor my mind but they are a part of me; should I lose any part of them, I haven’t lost who I am, just a part of me.

So to heal the spirit, we are talking about spiritual disciplines or, as I like to say, spiritual exercises. Healing comes when we exercise our spirit just as we exercise our physical body — the more the better. Spiritual exercise is performing kindness, love, forgiveness, patience, joy, hope, faith. These are exercises/behaviors that not only heal a person but can also help a person to be strong and resilient during tough times.

VSB: Any other guidance you’d like to share with military families in transition?

Chaplain Smith: Remember that life is short, enjoy the day that you have been given, use it in a way that promotes inner peace for yourself, and then you will be a light for others, a refuge in time of challenge and a person of true significance. Nothing else has more eternal consequence than how you care for others.


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