I had seen the cliff coming for six months before I eventually fell off it, and I thought I had prepared myself well for the fall. I was wrong. Having spent the preceding 14 years in the army, the last five with special operations, I was looking forward to a slower-paced and simpler life with my young family. As a doctor, job prospects post-army were good and promised wages significantly higher than what I had been earning during my military service. We would be moving back to a newly built house in my wife’s hometown, which meant more social support for the family. I had accumulated a significant amount of leave, which would allow me to ease back into civilian life without the pressure of needing to immediately find work.

As a precaution to stave off boredom and to have a structured focus in my life following my discharge, I had enrolled in an online course to get my master of business administration. I was physically uninjured from my service, and although I had experienced a significant degree of psychological trauma during my four tours in Afghanistan with special operations, at that point I was seemingly largely unaffected by symptoms of post-traumatic stress. I had naïvely anticipated that the void that would be created in my life by leaving the army could be neatly filled by increased family time, post-graduate study, a new job, and increased income.

Within six months of transition from army to civilian life, the cracks were well and truly beginning to appear in the armor. Demons from my service, centered primarily on the memories of soldiers I couldn’t save, began to infiltrate my conscious thoughts and caused my palms to sweat and my heart to race. My sleep was regularly disturbed by vivid dreams of my family members drowning and me not being able to save them despite my best efforts. Crowded places caused me to become highly anxious and the smell of raw pork began making me gag.

As a doctor I, of course, recognized these symptoms as those of post-traumatic stress (PTS); however, as time progressed I became convinced that PTS was only a small component of what was at play. As I reintegrated into the workforce as a fly-in, fly-out doctor on a mine site, it became clear that the process tearing my life apart at the time was more a grief response than PTS. I was grieving the person I used to be and had absolutely no idea how to be the new person I had become.

I was grieving the loss of my previous army support structure, those who I had shared experiences with and who truly understood me, and I felt a cavernous divide between me and the civilians who now surrounded me. I could see no obvious way for me to traverse that divide and become one of them. Furthermore, I had absolutely no desire to become one of them. I was caught between worlds with seemingly no way back and no way forward.

This struggle continued for years and it is only now, some five years post-discharge, that I can truly reflect with clarity on the issues I faced while reintegrating into civilian life. I now realize that the root of these issues stems from well before the time I discharged, well before my tours of Afghanistan, well before my entry into special operations, and right back to the day I signed on the dotted line and entered the Australian Army.

This article uses contemporary literature to explain the psychological basis of what I experienced during my military service and then during my transition back to civilian life. I have found it hugely beneficial in understanding my personal struggles to be able to define the processes that took place, and it is my hope that doing so might help fellow veterans out there who are facing the same struggles.

In order to truly understand the issues veterans face when leaving the military, I feel it is important to first understand the factors involved in the initial transition from civilian to military life that occurs at the start of a military career. First and foremost, it needs to be appreciated that a distillation of society occurs when being selected for the military. Out of necessity, certain physical, psychological, and mental attributes or conditions will exclude a percentage of society from entry into the military. Hence, a distillation of society occurs simply by entering into service.