Most post-9/11 veterans feel like they were set up to fail in the civilian world
In partnership with KJZZ’s Hear Arizona podcast series, Becoming a Veteran, producer Scott Bourque, an Afghanistan veteran, looks into some of the root causes of the most prominent issues facing the Arizona veteran community. The first part of this three-part series explores how the military-to-veteran transition fails to take the significant cultural differences between the military and civilian world into account. EDITOR's NOTE: This story contains language that may not be suitable for all audiences.
Part 1: Failing as a civilian | Part 2: Struggling to get help | Part 3: Veterans Day
When Dan Bannick graduated from high school in Phoenix in 2008, college wasn’t really in the cards for him.
“I hated [high] school. I thought it was mundane,” Bannick said. “It was all popularity contests. And so I didn't try very hard, and my prospects for colleges were bleak or expensive.”
It was similar for Scottsdale resident Dustin Logan. A latchkey kid with little parental supervision, he graduated from high school in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula in 2005.
“I'd come home from school, and there was no one to tell me to do my homework,” Logan said. “I graduated 64th in my class. Most people probably don't think that's too bad, but my class had 66.”
They both became adults near the peak of U.S. involvement in two Middle East wars. Joining the military seemed like a great option to either escape their situations or get ahead in life. Logan joined the Army right after graduating in 2005; Bannick left for the Marine Corps in early 2009.
Hear Scott Bourque discuss Becoming a Veteran with host Lauren Gilger on The Show
Bannick and Logan are two of the nearly 500,000 military veterans who live in Arizona. Veterans make up about 9% of the state’s population. Since the 9/11 attacks, more than 4 million Americans have served in the military and become veterans.
A 2019 Pew Research Center study found that while 91% of post-9/11 veterans felt the military trained them well for their military service, only half said the military effectively prepared them to reintegrate into the civilian world after their service was finished.
Almost half of post-9/11 veterans said they struggled to adapt to civilian life after their service; only about 1 in 5 pre-9/11 veterans said the same.
Anyone who joins the military is required to attend recruit training, or boot camp. It’s the first step in the indoctrination process, where people are de-civilianized and trained to become professional members of the all-volunteer armed forces.
The word “indoctrination” isn’t meant as a criticism: the military uses it to describe its own process. In the Marines, the drill instructors recite the Drill Instructor’s Creed, which includes the line “smartly disciplined, physically fit, basically trained Marines, thoroughly indoctrinated in love of Corps and Country.”
“It’s an important part of the process. They try to dehumanize you and strip you of your individuality,” Bannick said. He arrived at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego in January, 2009. “The first couple of days, it's a shock. It's shock and awe. They just are screaming. They're yelling, they're loud, it's disorienting.”
The entire experience is immersive. Every minute detail of daily life is regimented, all the way down to how one is supposed to stand, and how their underwear is meant to be stored in a locker, down to the quarter inch. Recruits aren’t even allowed to refer to themselves in the first person.
“You don't say ‘I have to go to the bathroom,’” Bannick said. “You say ‘this recruit has to use the head’ or ‘this recruit would like to use the head.’ There is no ‘I’, there is no ‘we.’”
For Logan, who grew up with little parental supervision, the structure and regimentation was refreshing.
“When I got to basic training and it was, ‘Get in line, do this, do that,’ I was like, wow, this is very easy, because taking care of yourself, especially at such a young age, is actually quite difficult,” Logan said.
It’s all part of the process of taking someone who was probably sitting on the couch, eating potato chips, and playing the video game "Call of Duty" a month prior, and turning them into a basically-trained professional member of the armed forces. It’s a process that is proven to work, and a strong military depends on it.
The process also fundamentally changes someone’s personality, according to Shauna Springer, Ph.D., a psychologist who works exclusively with the military and first-responder population.
“When you go into the military, it's what I call a radical resocialization,” she said. “You are created to be somebody who can serve and put your own needs aside. It's necessary to often change the norms and the expectations when you become a military service member after being a civilian.”
At first, the changes are intense and noticeable.
“You’re talking about going to the dentist, and you’re like, ‘Yes, sir,’ ‘Affirmative, sir,’ ‘Negative ,sir,’ like, all that,” Bannick said.
The first time Bannick saw his mom after graduating boot camp, he addressed her like he’d address a drill instructor.
“My mom was like, ‘Hey, like, oh, I love you,’ and I'm standing at parade rest when she's trying to put her arms around me,” Bannick said. “I'm saying ‘yes ma'am’ to my mom. That went away eventually, but that was what it was the very first time I saw her in 13 weeks.”
After completing recruit training, a newly minted soldier, sailor, airman, or Marine goes on to train for their military career. For Bannick, that meant training to work on avionics on Harrier jets — “I fixed gizmos on planes,” he said. Logan went on to serve as an Army logistics manager.
Military culture gap
Each branch of the armed forces has its own distinct culture. In the Navy and Marines, bathrooms are called heads and beds are called racks; in the Army, bathrooms are called latrines and beds are called sacks. In the Army and Marines, a private stands when addressing a sergeant; the Navy is a little more relaxed.
Beyond that, there’s a strict social hierarchy, a common language, written and unwritten social customs, and a set of universal experiences that make the military a distinct subculture within mainstream American culture.
One of those experiences is serving in a duty station far from home. While his friends, family, and fiancé were back in Arizona, Bannick was stationed in North Carolina, then on a ship off the coast of Africa, and eventually in Japan. Logan completed multiple Middle East deployments.
The only people they saw regularly were the people in their units. Living, eating, working, partying and even sometimes showering with the people in your unit is great for camaraderie. In combat, these aren’t just your colleagues — they’re people you’d be expected to die for.
“I think we tend to think of military service members as coworkers, and we do not understand the depth of those bonds of love and trust,” Springer said. “Those bonds are what protect people from despair.”
Logan, who eventually rose to the rank of staff sergeant, was in charge of dozens of junior enlisted soldiers. There was a lot of latitude in how he could lead them — but in the military, leading often means yelling.
“If a soldier doesn't show up for physical training in the morning, you go beat their door down, you rip them out of bed, you scream in their face, you drag them out there in the middle of the hallway and you make them do [pushups] in their underwear while everyone's walking by laughing at them,” Logan said.
This leadership style works for one reason.
“The Army way is effective in the Army and nowhere else, because people can't quit,” Logan said. “You can't just say, ‘I'm done with the military, I'm out,’ because the government owns you.”
“The Army way is effective in the Army and nowhere else, because people can't quit ... the government owns you.”
— Dustin Logan
Bannick left the Marines in 2013 and moved in with non-veteran friends in Flagstaff. One day, about a month after Bannick left the service, one of his new roommates fell off her bike.
“She scraped her leg pretty bad. And the first thing out of my stupid mouth was, ‘Oh, you want to talk to my buddy, Colin, who lost his legs in Afghanistan? Tell him about your boo-boo?’” he said. “You know, looking back, that was a f---ed up thing to say. But it was what I knew at the time.”
Veterans often struggle to adapt to the relative freedom of civilian society, and often struggle to accept the perceived laziness and lackadaisical attitude of the civilians around them.
“That's a big thing that messes up a lot of guys later on down the line, understanding that the military isn't the real world,” Bannick said.
When Logan left the Army in 2014, he, too, struggled to adapt to working with civilians.
“I still talked to them like a [sergeant],” Logan said. “I'm talking to someone that I oversee and I'm talking down to them, which you cannot do [in a civilian workplace]. I’m tapping someone on the forehead and I'm talking a lot with my hands. I'm talking at them rather than speaking to them.”
Everybody who leaves the military is required to attend a congressionally mandated transition assistance course. It’s a weeklong class that provides separating service members an opportunity to build their resume, prepare for job interviews, and learn about their veterans benefits.
“They go through a lot of the things that are available to you,” Bannick said. “[Veterans Affairs] reps come and tell you if you need medical assistance, the VA's here for you; they tell you about how the GI Bill is going to work, if you decide to go to school, whether it's trade school or college.”
There’s special emphasis on finding work after the military. Over multiple days, the soon-to-be veterans spend hours building resumes, learning how to dress professionally after years of wearing a uniform, and how to impress their future managers with a firm handshake and a nice suit.
What it’s missing, Springer says, is any real discussion on the extreme culture shock veterans are about to experience when they hang up their uniforms and sign their discharge papers.
“Transitioning from the military is about coming back into a society that often has very different rules of engagement,” Springer said. “We don't give enough thought to the psychological dimension of returning from military service and reassembling back into society.”
Leaving the military isn’t like quitting a regular job. The people someone serves with become a second family. Springer says these bonds are significantly stronger than those between traditional co-workers. When someone leaves the military, those bonds are broken. Transition assistance courses don’t address that, she said.
“How do I support someone who just lost the family that they have been connected to for their entire time in service, and [who is] trying to find out who they are and what their identity will be, in a world that really doesn't operate by the same rules?” Springer said. “It's really a massive problem that requires quite a lot of work to really unpack that and hopefully support people through the psychological part of that journey.”
“Instead of telling [me] how to write a bogus resume, you should teach me how to speak to people,” Logan said.
Singa Oliver, who was enlisted in the Army in the 1980s and later served as a Captain in the Army Judge Advocate General Corps in the 1990s, used to work at the Arizona Department of Veterans Services. She said much of this necessary cultural transition process happened once a veteran left the service.
"The crux of what should happen in that transition period happens after people get out," Oliver said. "What veteran services does at the state level here is they start doing those things to help people acclimate to civilian life other than, 'Here's how you write the resume.'"
Unfortunately, Oliver says, relying on outside agencies to help with this cultural transition after people leave the service causes many veterans to fall through the cracks.
"You get out, and sometimes you can't function in a normal society," Oliver said. "That's why I know we have a lot of veterans that are homeless. They experienced things that probably exacerbated their (pre-existing) mental health issues. I think that's why, because where do they fit now?"