Longitudinal Qualitative Study on the Health and Well-being of Military Veterans during Military to Civilian Transition

Longitudinal Qualitative Study on the Health and Well-being of Military Veterans during Military to Civilian Transition

Year published

Contracted through the Canadian Institute for Military and Veteran Health Research

The transition from military to civilian life is an important event. Understanding the experiences of Veterans and what supports a healthy transition helps inform programs and supports for those releasing from service.

What is this Research About?

This study examines the well-being of Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) members and Veterans during the military to civilian transition (MCT) and the supports available to them during this time. 

What did the Researchers Do?

CAF members who were about to release were recruited for the study. They were interviewed at two points in time: 0-6 months prior to release and again 6-12 months after release. Previous MCT research mainly used quantitative methods which allows findings to be generalized to the broader population. However, this study used qualitative research methods which, while not generalizable to the general population of CAF members and Veterans, allows for an in-depth exploring of experiences.

Findings Snapshot

Pre-Release Interviews: 0-6 Months Prior to Release from the Military (80 participants)

  • 91% served in Regular Force and 9% in Reserve Force
  • Household income in the last year: $59,999 or less (9%); $60,000 - $99,999 (46%); $100,000 or more (44%)
  • 55% were releasing for medical reasons (all of whom indicated this was not the path they had hoped to take when they started their careers using words like “disappointment”, “bittersweet” and feeling “like a commodity”)
  • 44% released due to retirement or voluntarily for reasons such as workplace issues or family reasons
  • 53% were already receiving services from Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC) prior to release
  • Most reported strong emotions about their upcoming release whether positive, negative or mixed – those releasing voluntarily felt a sense of control over their process and were more likely to feel positive
  • Developing and implementing post-release plans helped many members envision a smooth transition and reduced related anxiety as did financial planning – many participants noted the organizational skills learned in the military helped them plan well for their release
  • Concerns about pensions, financial stability, and maintaining current levels of quality of life were commonly reported as “probably the biggest stressor”
  • Many said employment was a crucial part of the future noting the sense of purpose it provided (some already had their next career lined up)
  • Some worried about making new social connections after leaving the military and/or trying to maintain close ties with their military contacts
  • Health-related issues were concern for many, influencing the timing and type of release – it was common for members to report a variety of mental and physical health issues. Some believed releasing from the military would relieve a lot of physical and mental stress, yet accessing healthcare services—especially a family physician—in the civilian system was a major concern
  • Frustrations with bureaucracy and paperwork were often cited (e,g,  pension, moving services, VAC benefits)
  • Most were accessing support through formal and informal channels (e.g., VAC, Military Family Resource Centres, peer support, Facebook groups)
  • Overall satisfaction with the available supports was high, but participants had recommendations for improvement such as greater communication and coordination from VAC & CAF, as well as help navigating the “system”  and with transition-related tasks like relocation and accessing civilian healthcare

Post-release Interviews: 6-12 Months After Release from the Military (72 participants)

  • Many participants did not release as expected– some had changes in their release type or release date, while others were unexpectedly retained or transferred to the Reserves
  • 37% were engaged in some form of volunteer activity
  • 72% were accessing support from VAC
  • 18% reported a new mental health diagnosis since release
  • Negative feelings about unwanted medical releases lingered  - having “no choice” was a central theme
  • Transition was considered a significant life event and most had strong emotions – both positive and negative
  • Many reported “mixed emotions” with “ups and downs” but overall sentiment was positive – “about 75% good”
  • Negative emotions related to missing the military, dissatisfaction with new employment, personal issues, trying to process things that happened during their careers, health concerns and challenges with continuity of care
  • Positive emotions related to the end of work stress, better work-family balance and the opportunity to focus on hobbies or new pursuits
  • Strategies noted for a successful transition included planning/being proactive, having the right mindset, strong social support, maintaining some form of routine, making use of available resources and self care. Those who had planned for their transition well in advance felt that work paid off.  Some cited lack of time to prepare prior to release due to personal and work reasons and so were still working on transition plans after release
  • Administrative issues were often cited as a key challenge including navigating the process of where to find information and who provides what service, processing delays, and gaps in healthcare services
  • While some were finding meaning and enjoying a change of pace with their new careers, others cited difficulties “getting hired as expected” or issues such as language barriers, limited job opportunities, military skills not translating into civilian work and competing with younger adults for the jobs
  • Some said their health-related issues were interfering with their vision for the future and permeating other areas of their lives including family relationships, employment and social interactions. Others said their health has improved since release due to no work stress and more time to devote to treatment, exercise, diet, meditation, etc
  • Many described a favourable financial situation – particularly those who released at a time of their choosing, whereas those who had an unexpected early medical release reported negative impacts to their planned pensions and unexpected medical costs. Situations varied by family size and composition as well
  • Many described a loss of identity after leaving the service and struggled with the impacts of “taking off the uniform” and handing in their military ID card. Some could not view themselves as a “Veteran” or “civilians”

In Summary, this study found:

  • MCT is experienced as a major life event and characterized by a range of emotions, including mixed and ambiguous feelings which were not necessarily tied to administrative reasons for release
  • There is no single factor affecting participants’ well-being during MCT. Rather, multiple factors such as finances, health, family, housing, access to healthcare  and engagement in purposeful patterns of activities were highly interdependent and ranged across a broad spectrum of possibilities
  • CAF members/Veterans with a more positive outlook are those who have the time and supports to be pro-active in their preparation for MCT – they  see benefit in expanding the MCT timeframe
  • Phases of transition overlapped and were multidimensional. Participants called for smoother transitions between phases of MCT
  • Shifting away from the military has complex implications for sense of identity and social connections
  • Family considerations play a key role in how CAF members/Veterans’ MCT unfolds
  • CAF members/Veterans renegotiate social connections as part of MCT
  • A wide range of services were being accessed. Most reported that enough supports were in place but help navigating and/or personalizing supports was needed

GBA Analysis:

28% of the study participants were women. About half of these females released medically which is a similar proportion as the males, however fewer women accessed services through VAC. The female participants were more likely than the males to report being single and less likely to be married. This pattern has consequences for servicewomen as they may be less likely to have the financial and emotional support of a spouse or partner during their transition to civilian life. Some female study participants were themselves supporting a military or transitioning spouse.

Women prioritized their health, both physical and mental, during MCT. Some reported health improvements after leaving what they called a toxic work environment. Others encountered new health challenges post-release.

Women in the study were less likely to have a high family income and more likely to have a lower family income, which relates to the considerably higher proportion of women who reported to be single.


Funded by: Veterans Affairs Canada
Report Prepared by: Maya Eichler, Heidi Cramm, Linna Tam-Seto, Kimberley Smith-Evans, & Kimberly Ritchie
Contributors: Deborah Norris, Ashley Williams, Shannon Hill, Alyson Mahar, Megan Edgelow, Dave Blackburn, & Fanny Robichaud