This article is the second in a series of articles discussing the difficulties faced by service members transitioning out of the military. The first, titled “Abandoning the tribe: The psychology behind why veterans struggle to transition to civilian life,” covered some of the psychological theories at play as a military member becomes indoctrinated into their unit and can eventually become so bonded with their fellow soldiers that they would literally die for them, and so integrated into their role that their entire self-worth becomes contingent on their job performance. This “identity fusion” and “contingent self-worth” can serve the soldier well while they remain within the military environment and continue to perform well in their role; however, this can be the basis for significant psychological struggle upon discharge from the military.

This article will elaborate on the first, using another few well-established theories to analyze the psychological processes that occur upon discharge from the military and lead to the struggles faced by many veterans.

Many will be aware of Maslow’s triangle, or, more technically termed, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. There are a range of other psychological theories that consider what constitutes a fulfilled life, but I feel that Maslow’s fits best in describing the life changes that occur when an individual discharges from the military, and in doing so offers a basis for understanding what is required to transition successfully into civilian life.

As the name suggests, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is exactly that, a hierarchical list of human needs that, if all are met, can ultimately result in what Maslow termed self-actualization (Maslow, 1943). Maslow’s hierarchy is often represented diagrammatically as a pyramid, with the base block being the basic physiological needs of man, such as air, water, food, shelter, clothing, sleep etc. Once those basic needs are met, the considerations that form the next block of the pyramid are the safety needs, including personal safety and security, health, employment, and other basic resources.

These first two building blocks that form the base of the pyramid are considered the basic needs of a human and are the primary motivators for human behavior. Once they are fulfilled, which is the case for the majority of contemporary First-World society, the next series of needs are belongingness and love needs, which are met through relationships with intimate partners and friends. Once these are established, the individual will be motivated by esteem needs, being the desire for prestige and feelings of accomplishment. Coupled together, the belongingness, love, and esteem needs are referred to as the psychological needs of an individual, and if met can lead to a fulfilled life in those who don’t crave what Maslow referred to as “self-actualization.”

When you stop to think about it, most people reading will, at minimum, be at this level of Maslow’s hierarchy, with all their basic physiological needs covered. They will likely have a job, as well as a decent social circle and some intimate relationships to satisfy their psychological and esteem needs to some degree or another. Maslow hypothesized that even if all these needs are satisfied that a new restlessness will develop in most individuals unless they are doing what they are fitted for (Maslow, 1943). Maslow referred to this as the need for self-actualization, which is characterized by becoming the best version of oneself and reaching one’s full potential. Maslow suggested that self-actualizers are typically creative, autonomous, objective individuals who are concerned about humanity and accepting of themselves and others (Maslow, 1943). 

Maslow’s theory of self-actualization falls into the category of what are known as “eudemonic” philosophies, which can be traced back to Aristotle’s (384-322 BCE) notion of eudemonia, or being true to one’s inner demon (Peterson, 2005). Common among these philosophies is the premise that people should develop what’s best within themselves and then use those skills and talents for a greater good, in particular the welfare of other people or mankind as a whole (Peterson, 2005). Military, law enforcement, fire services, paramedics, and other first-response services are all organizations that promote individual excellence and exist to a large degree for the greater good of society, as captured by mottos such as “Be all you can be” and “To Protect and To Serve.” Taken to yet another level of self-actualization and service are the special operations elements of military and police units, once again with this emphasis on serving the greater good captured in mottos such as that of the U.S. Air Force’s Pararescuemen, “That Others May Live,” or the U.S. Army SF motto, “De Oppresso Liber,” roughly translated as “to liberate the oppressed.” It therefore figures that many individuals who enter into the military are those who crave self-actualization as defined by Maslow.

Once indoctrinated into a military unit and established in a specific trade it can be seen that the military structure can potentially provide the entirety of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. The individual may live on base and have their basic needs met by the military, eating out of the mess hall and living in the lines. If they live off base, the wage and relative security of a military job would also ensure these basic needs are met. Belongingness and esteem needs can be met by the professional satisfaction and respect earned from being a high-functioning military team member. Military members will often develop intimate relationships with others at their unit or base, potentially completing the psychological needs of the individual without looking outside of the military construct at all.