Life After the Military

Panel tackles difficulties of adjusting to civilian life when military service ends

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What is it like for veterans and their families after military service? What are the reintegration issues, especially for those returning to school? The Virginia Commonwealth University Department of Psychology in the College of Humanities & Sciences addressed these questions in a panel discussion that included student veterans and military family members in honor of Veterans Day.

The panel was part of a larger reception for veterans and their families on Nov. 13 in the University Student Commons.

"All of us who have served feel special when something like this happens," said Raymond Tademy, Ph.D., Postdoctoral Research Fellow with the Center for Cultural Experiences in Prevention at VCU and a U.S. Marine for 25 years. "We feel acknowledged. When you sacrifice or give your youth to serving your country, it's nice when someone says thank you or shows their appreciation, 'cause during that time you sacrificed freedoms that most Americans take for granted. We don't have freedom of speech, freedom of assemble. We can't quit our jobs; we can't call in sick. And we're always on call even when we're at home with our families. We can always be called in at any time."

Tademy, who participated as a panel member, spoke of the difficulty he had adjusting to civilian life as a college freshman following his service in the Marine Corps as a senior enlisted E9 sergeant major and student master chief.

"You have to understand, when you have that position in the military, you're kind of expecting the whole room to look your way and get quiet when you walk in the door," he said. "You're used to your word being the word, and you expect a certain type of deference based on your rank and your position.

"And so it was very difficult — very difficult — for me when an 18-year old called me by my first name. And when I had a graduate student — who would've been one of my sergeants or corporals or maybe a first lieutenant I was trying to educate — actually give me an assignment that I had to give back. These type of things, they may not seem significant to you, at a certain level, but when you're a senior enlisted or a senior officer in the military hierarchy, you have some serious clout. I didn't realize how much I thought I was till I came here and I was just another number, I was 'Ray.' It took me two years to get used to being called by my first name by someone under a certain position."

The list of adjustments that former service members have to make when they return to civilian life goes on.

For panelist Steven Brokob, who served in the Marine Corps for five years, getting transfer credits acknowledged was difficult when he started at VCU.

"I had to go back a year later and show them again," Brokob said. "I got like 20 credits after that and it was amazing. It just saved me so much time, because of some of the courses that I've taken in my time in the Marines."

Brokob, who graduates in May with a psychology degree, hoped the panel discussion would "increase mindfulness in understanding the adversities that we face as veterans and how difficult it is to mesh into being a student in today's society."

Bethann Vealey knows all too well the difficulties of balancing civilian and military roles. The second-year doctoral student in the School of Social Work is on active duty with 12 years of continuous service as a Naval officer. She previously served four years as an active Marine. 

"I've noticed that when I try to do things that typically are rewarded in uniform — like taking initiative, being the leader of the group, it's all about the team kind of a concept — it's not seen as favorably," she said. "It's usually seen as being aggressive instead of assertive, as speaking out of tune or as not respecting the process."

Vealey's balancing act is made even more difficult by her additional role of military spouse.

"My husband is still on active duty, he just got orders to Japan," Vealey said. "I'm going to stay here in my program and I'm also going to be dealing with that, with not living with my spouse because I chose to come to a tour of duty to better myself.

"It's difficult to share those experiences with other people. Especially when you're older. … I don't have the same confidence as when I'm in uniform and I'm leading people."

Janette Hamilton rounded out the panel. A spouse of an active duty Army serviceman, Hamilton has been married for three years. 

"It's important for us in the academic environment – students, faculty, staff, everyone – to recognize, not only contributions that can be made by veterans, but unique contributions from family members. I think that there's room to grow and awareness is the first piece."

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