The Sandbox

GWOT hot wash, straight from the wire

Welcome to The Sandbox, a forum for service members who have served or are currently serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, returned vets, spouses and caregivers. The Sandbox's focus is not on policy and partisanship (go to our Blowback page for that), but on the unclassified details of deployment -- the everyday, the extraordinary, the wonderful, the messed-up, the absurd. All correspondence is read, and as much as possible is posted, lightly edited. If you know someone who is deployed who might have something to say, please tell them about us. To submit a post click here.

LIFE AFTER IRAQ: 10 LESSONS ON TRANSITIONING OUT OF THE MILITARY |

May 19, 2011

Name: Don Gomez
Returned from: Iraq   
Milblog: Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America
Twitter: http://twitter.com/#!/dongomezjr

Framed Don Gomez 10 LESSONS Ten years ago this April, I enlisted in the U.S. Army. Since that time, I jumped out of airplanes, crawled, marched and ran thousands of miles, blew stuff up, met some of the most amazing people on Earth and served two tours in Iraq with the 82nd Airborne.

Five years ago this week, I got out. Since then, my life has changed dramatically. I've gone back to college on the Post-9/11 GI Bill, worked and interned in the private and non-profit sectors, earned a Truman scholarship, studied abroad in Egypt, advocated for fellow veterans on Capitol Hill, married the woman of my dreams and graduated from the City College of New York with a degree in International Studies. Now, six years removed from combat patrols in Iraq, I'm attending graduate school in London.

People say I've made a "successful transition" out of the military, given the range of problems new veterans are facing as they leave service in Iraq and Afghanistan. As a veteran, however, I don't like this label. It suggests that once the transition is made, that's it. All problems are solved. Instead, I would say that I'm "successfully adjusting" to life after military service. And to borrow the title of a couple of good books, this adjustment is a Forever War. I'm still doing it every day.

Looking back, there are key things I've learned that every veteran now making the adjustment, or planning to soon, should consider. This is the quick and dirty. The bottomline up front. The things to know and do that can make the adjustment a lot less painful. They may not work for every veteran, but they worked for me.

1. Your military service will define you, whether you like it or not. With less than 1% of the population serving, you are part of a tiny minority who have shouldered incredible responsibility. If you served overseas, to many, you are exotic. People around you will find out you served (trust me) and will define you by your service. When you raise your hand in class, people will refer to you as the "military guy" or gal.

2. Adjusting successfully depends on a strong support network. In the military, we succeeded and failed in teams. It's no different on the outside. Family, friends, and peers will not let you fail if you put your trust in them. I put my trust in IAVA and CCNY's veterans group. You can do the same joining a veterans organization to learn from your buddies who are on the same journey.

3. Have a plan. This is critical. My senior NCOs used to laugh at anyone who said they were going to get out and "go to college." They knew how easy it is to say that, but how it's a whole separate matter to put the work behind that statement and make it happen. Don't just get out of the military and take time off. It's tempting, especially after multiple, yearlong deployments. Strike while the iron is hot. Start applying for school or work before you get out of the service. Plan to minimize "dwell" time to maximize immediate available resources.

4. The little things you learned in the military will make you successful on the outside. Class starts at 0900? Show up at 0850. Iron your clothes. Be respectful to the people around you. These little things will set you apart and lead to success. The most important thing I learned from my service was how to negotiate a bureaucracy. You would be surprised by how many qualifying students won't apply for financial aid simply because of the paperwork involved. If you served in the military, you have earned a PhD in Bureaucracy Negotiation. Put it to work!

5. Seek out the things that make you uncomfortable. There is a civilian-military divide that exists in this country. What are you going to do about it? Often, veterans come out of their military bubble only to rush into the veteran bubble. Talk to people who share different and opposing views. Dispel stereotypes of veterans by being a respectful, model citizen. Join a club or society. Do the things that give your stomach butterflies.

6. Now more than ever, be humble. Don't be obnoxious about the fact that you served in Iraq and Afghanistan. No one likes it. Not the military, not veterans, not civilians. Just don't do it. Don't be "that guy."

7. No one is going to do the work for you. Whether it is filing a claim for an injury at the VA or getting your Post-9/11 GI Bill started, there are a host of benefits which you earned waiting to be unlocked. The system for getting them isn't always easy to navigate, and it can be frustrating and infuriating to wait for answers. In the end though, it's your benefit. Get a cup of coffee, block off an hour or two, and knock out the paperwork and applications.

8. Know when you are taking on too much. Many of us have big plans and, after serving in a combat zone, it's easy to feel like we can take on the world. Ambition and drive are great, but so are setting realistic expectations and maintaining sanity. If you're going to school full-time and have a full-time job, maybe you should wait until after you graduate to start that business or non-profit you've been thinking about. No one can do everything all the time. Know your limit.

9. Know when to ask for help. At some point or another, you're going to need someone to talk to. Whether it is about money, health, family, or your service, know it's okay to open up. The network you have around you wants to help. Let them know when you need it. They will go through hell to help you, but they can't do it if you don't let them.

10. Never forget where you came from. Whether you loved serving or hated it, for most of us it was a life-altering experience. Take it, embrace it, and use it to help you get to where you want to go next in life.

After I returned from Iraq, I learned these ten lessons the hard way -- but they continue to work for me on a daily basis. Of course, there are countless other great lessons that I've left out and I have plenty more to learn in the years ahead. But whether you are a veteran, a military family or a friend, pass them along. We're all in this adjustment together.

Don Gomez is an Iraq war veteran and member of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. He served two tours in Iraq with the 82nd Airborne Division in 2003 and 2005. You can follow him on Twitter @dongomezjr.

 

Comments

Great advice.

I'm a Vietnam vet (twice) but I don't fully understand the adjustment problems our vets from Iraq/Afganistown are having. Millions of soldiers came home from WWII, Korea and Vietnam and started a new life without too many problems. Many of them faced horrific combat situations in Europe and Asia.

I don't mean to be cruel on this - I just don't understand it. I know there were shell-shocked soldiers in WWII but most returnees seemed to adjust quickly and off to college many of them went (on the GI Bill).

Is there something more that can be done?

Another kudo for the column. VN vet and I felt and basically followed the same precepts. My uncle from WWII was one of those many who walked the streets after midnight because he could not sleep. There were many of them after WWII because there were many more veterans. I was lucky and did not have their traumatic experiences. I thank God every day for my upbringing -giving me a lot of self-discipline -and my luck in life.

Fern,
Don't think for a minute that Don Gomez was whining. He was giving a well constructed roadmap for doing things better. My Grandfathers were WWII vets, father was a Vietnam vet and I've been on multiple deployments (OIF/OEF etc)... whats the difference? We've learned as a society. Every vet harbors something and we've learned as a group to handle it together and more open. I'm sure my Grandfathers' would have wished to have the support and advice that is so prevalent now. Just because they managed to bottle it up and "deal with it", doesn't mean it was right or is the best way for us to treat a new generation of vets. After 19 years in the service, I'll be retiring next year. Don, your advice is greatly appreciated as I'll be in your shoes soon. Thanks!

Military life is really rocking life. Even i was having an aim to enter Defense but situation didn't permits me to do that.

I like ANMJ on FB & just subscribed to the email feed! :)

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