The Few. The Proud. The... Students?
February 10, 2009 4:57 AM   Subscribe

Help me write a realistic transition to civilian life for my US Marine. (longer, clearer explanation inside)

I'm writing a story in which the main character is a captain in the USMC, an OIF vet. She spent three years in Iraq, and now she's back in the US getting her law degree at UCLA under the military's Legal Education Program.

All my research on transition throws up tips on coping *professionally*- how to hunt for a job, how to write a resume, that sort of thing. My question is, what are the challenges she's going to face personally after moving to LA? Like, having issues adjusting to interaction that isn't between her and her CO/subordinates, or feeling 'naked' without her weapon because AFAIK UCLA doesn't allow students to carry guns even if they're active-duty servicememembers.

She does have kind of a support system (her brother also lives in LA, and her roommate is an FBI agent) but there's nothing like the 'military family' feel I'm told is common in the bases.

I'd love both general suggestions and more specific anecdotes- as a non-military non-American, I'm thoroughly lost. Thanks in advance!
posted by Tamanna to Society & Culture (8 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Agh, forgot to add. If it matters, she was in the Aviation Command, an assault helicopter pilot. She has some PTSD, but nothing severe enough to impact everyday functioning. Can't tell you the last time she's had a nightmare-free night of sleep, though.
posted by Tamanna at 5:02 AM on February 10, 2009

There are lots of websites dedicated to helping soldiers transition back to military life.

The "naked without her gun" thing sounds more PTSD than "military mentality". Anyway, she wasn't patrolling with the grunts, so it's unlikely she'd spend her civilian days scanning the treeline.

One thing I'd caution you in regard to "interaction": everything you've seen on television about the military is wrong, wrong, wrong. Generally speaking, there's no "permission to speak freely" and constant rigidity and shouting-as-general-communication.

The military is more like a typical bureaucracy, the post office or a giant corporation. Lots of first names, lots of relationships, lots of teasing and goofing off. Even in the combat zone. Do you work in an office? Okay, picture that, and add uniforms. Your protagonist is a captain. To the enlisted Marines serving under her, she's fairly accessible, and they do the same things with her you'd do with your boss. (Politely joke around, talk about the weather, etc.) As an officer, she might be fairly professional, like a well-organized and disciplined businesswoman. A bit more demanding, perhaps. But she would NEVER shout at, discipline or demean her enlisted subordinates in any way. Her sergeants wouldn't stand for it. She might have stronger interactions with her lieutenants, but I doubt she'd have enough lieutenants for it to be an issue, and anyway, she'd shoot herself in the foot to create such a tense working relationship.

If anything, civilian life would be an adjustment because she'll receive a great deal less of sexism and overt flirting.

My point is that as former military, I'm not constantly itching to drop civilian peers for pushups, and tell them what maggots they are. It's not how the military is, and it's not how real life is.
posted by dbgrady at 5:24 AM on February 10, 2009 [3 favorites]

All of the female aviators I knew were tough as nails, but funny as hell. Dark sense of humor. Typical pilot's arrogance. I've flown in a lot of helicopters; they love their job.
posted by dbgrady at 5:29 AM on February 10, 2009

Tammy Duckworth's life might be a source.
posted by Carol Anne at 5:38 AM on February 10, 2009

Seconding what dbgrady said about TV shows getting it wrong. Laughably wrong.

I don't really see that there's going to be a particular difficulty "adjusting to interaction that isn't between her and her CO/subordinates"... For one, she would have peers in the military who are not her superiors or subordinates, and for another, the interactions with people of higher or lower rank are not that weird.

In any case, I'm not an officer or pilot so I'm not familiar with their culture and particular baggage, but I've fairly recently transitioned from the military to civilian college life.

My biggest issue has been waking up in the morning and remembering that I'm actually a college student and remembering to take it seriously. Transitioning from a high stakes job to Psych 101 is kind of a letdown. Everything just felt more boring and less important. Yeah, it's made my day-to-day life a lot less stressful, but I felt kind of 'meh' about college. And while my friends here know that I'm an Iraq vet, I don't really talk about it much. I'll share funny stories and things like that, but there's a very clear division in my mind regarding what I do and don't share with civilians. That can be an isolating feeling, sometimes.

Oh, and I (kind of oddly, I think) get this question quite a bit so I suppose I'll add -- I am not bothered by anti-war demonstrations, or vocally anti-war students, or anything like that. I don't feel any inclination to defend OIF, or to defend what I did in the military, and I don't get aggressive about it with civilians even if I think someone sounds a little clueless. I usually just don't want to get involved.

To address some of the things you wrote in your post:

I don't feel 'naked' without my rifle -- that's just a habit that, for me, goes away within a month. I've never felt a desire to actually carry a gun in civilian life to make that feeling go away... that probably would've been a pretty bad idea. If your character is a pilot, I imagine this is even less of an issue.

On the subject of nightmares, or PTSD, I don't know what you specifically mean by "impact everyday functioning" but once upon a time I had war-related nightmares very frequently and it was extremely wearing... It would be on my mind all day, which wasn't so productive to whatever I had to do that day, and would affect my daily life. But I'm a medic, so guilt is kind of my forte... ymmv.

And being a girl is easier in the civilian world. Just - easier.

Also, kind of a side point: She spent three years in Iraq, and now she's back in the US getting her law degree at UCLA under the military's Legal Education Program.

This is unclear to me... She spent "three years in Iraq"? Helicopter squadrons rotate in and out of combat zones, they don't stay there continuously. A Marine Corps helicopter squadron would probably deploy to Iraq for ~6 months at a time.

I guess it seems strange to think about what a 'realistic transition' is because most people I know have had different experiences returning to civilian life. I feel like what I wrote doesn't sound very helpful. You can take a look at the DoD's "transition portal" website, though... they have some stuff on more than just finding a civilian job.
posted by lullaby at 9:54 AM on February 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

@ lullaby: Thanks for the information! You've really helped clear some things up.

I take most of my information from accounts of the Indian military, which apparently is a lot more bound up in rules and hierarchal BS than its American counterpart. Much more glued to their weapons, too, which is where that particular question came from.

And being a girl is easier in the civilian world. Just - easier.
If it's not too much trouble, could you give me a couple of examples? Like I said in my post, I'm a civilian from a pretty screwy part of the world WRT women's rights, so I'm honestly clueless about this.

As for the PTSD, I guess what I wasn't making clear is that it's off and on- not on her mind 24/7, but enough to pop up when she doesn't expect it and completely throw her off whatever it is she's doing.

And that would be three tours of duty, not three years. My bad.

Again, thanks for your help- it's much appreciated!
posted by Tamanna at 7:40 PM on February 10, 2009

If you'd like more information about UCLA Law specifically (and things like whether UCLA allows students to conceal carry), memail me.
posted by librarylis at 11:19 PM on February 10, 2009

Much more glued to their weapons, too, which is where that particular question came from.

Don't get me wrong, I had my rifle (and/or pistol) with me constantly while I was deployed, and it felt weird whenever I got back... but I just associate it with the other habits I accumulated while deployed, and once I got back to 'the world' that stuff would eventually fall away as I got used to being in the US again.

Re: women in the military...

As a whole, women make up less than 20% of the US armed forces. The military is a very male-dominated culture, which I had to get used to. Comments or flirting or sexism is more of a 'when' than an 'if'. And if nothing else, I developed much thicker skin in the Army.

Stereotypes abound, for example that all women in the military are giant sluts, or lesbians. Annoying but persistent. Doesn't help when there are females who are willing to sleep their way out of trouble. There are also some lower physical standards for women, and I think I was particularly sensitive to the suggestion that women can't hack it. I always felt the need to prove myself, and show that I was just as capable as anyone else. That also meant I was easily annoyed by female soldiers I perceived to be taking advantage of it to skate by.

I didn't really feel like I was particularly discriminated against, or that I wasn't getting promoted or something like that, because I'm female. It was more that I felt a certain level of defensiveness that I don't really feel in the civilian world. I was more conscious (however rationally or irrationally) of how I thought my actions reflected on women in the military and how they are perceived.

Basically, for me, being a woman in the civilian world has less baggage. Meh - I feel like I'm making my specific experience sound general again. This is just me. And I should note that the perspective is likely different from the lower enlisted ranks (me) vs senior NCOs vs officers, and so forth.

(And that's not to say that this was on my mind constantly either. I mean, at one point I was deployed as a line medic with a male unit. More "give me lifesaving treatment" and less "whoa you have a vagina" ya know?)
posted by lullaby at 1:55 AM on February 11, 2009

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