Veterans’ Identities and Well-being in Transition to Civilian Life – A Resource for Policy Analysts, Program Designers, Service Providers and Researchers

Report of the Veterans’ Identities Research Theme Working Group, Canadian Institute for Military and Veteran Health Research Forum 2016

Citation: Thompson JM, Lockhart W, Roach MB, Atuel H, Bélanger S, Black T, Cox D, Cooper A, de Boer C, Dentry S, Hamner K, Shields D, Truusa, TT. Veterans’ Identities and Well-being in Transition to Civilian Life – A Resource for Policy Analysts, Program Designers, Service Providers and Researchers. Report of the Veterans’ Identities Research Theme Working Group, Canadian Institute for Military and Veteran Health Research Forum 2016. Charlottetown PE: Research Directorate, Veterans Affairs Canada. Research Directorate Technical Report. 01 June 2017.

Plain Language Summary

Transition from military life to civilian life is challenging for all military personnel to some degree. Although most do well, the changes are quite difficult for some. In the wake of the Second World War, researchers began to understand the importance of “identity” in transitioning successfully to civilian life from military service. Since then, researchers have been working hard to understand what happens to serving members’ sense of who and what they are and how they relate to society after they leave the military. The goal of their work is to support the well-being of Veterans (former military members) and their families.

Identity theories have been standing the tests of time for over a century. They are increasingly relevant in today’s complex social world. However, most identity research has been done in populations other than Veterans, such as immigrants, racial/ethnic minorities, students, civilian employees and people of various gender preferences and sexual orientations. We were not able to find any summaries of identity research in Veterans. So, Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC) partnered with the Canadian Institute for Military and Veteran Health Research (CIMVHR) and Health Canada to form a Research Working Group of ten experts from four nations. This report summarizes their findings.

People form social identities based on their memberships in various social groups and the value that they attach to those memberships. People draw their values and sense of what is normal from the groups they identify with, their “in-groups.” Their identities make them predictable to others and enable them to get along in society. Their identities impact their well-being in terms of employment, finances, health, life skills, social integration, their homes and the society in which they live.

Identity researchers are helping us to understand why some Veterans are more successful than others in adjusting to life after military service. Researchers believe that identity challenges can explain much of the distress people feel during major life transitions. Military personnel tend to identify strongly with the military, adopting the norms and values of military life during shared experiences in training and on operations. When they leave military service, they lose their intimate connections to the military world. This loss of in-group status leaves them seeking new preferred in-groups. They do better when they are accepted by civilian social groups and identify with them. Transitioning Veterans who also have minority identities can have added challenges, like female Veterans, Veterans released involuntarily and Veterans with chronic physical or health problems. Identities can be injured or nurtured during military-civilian transition. Reactions to identity challenges in transitions are normal, but sometimes they can contribute to health problems and even play roles in suicide.

This Technical Report highlights important implications for policy and program development, service delivery, communications, commemoration and societal recognition. Transitioning Veterans can have a more difficult time adjusting if they do not form identities with groups outside the military and integrate them into their military identity. During participation in the Invictus Games, Veterans with chronic health problems identified as athletes rather than ill or injured. Identity research explains why Veterans helping Veterans (peer support) is important in helping Veterans deal with identity challenges as they adapt to civilian life. The research shows how civilians can become sensitive to Veterans’ identities. It is important, for example, to ask Veterans what works for them in recognition, rather than making assumptions about how best to recognize and commemorate them. Finally, the report suggests priorities for research needed to answer remaining important questions about Veterans’ identities and well-being.

Executive Summary

It is important to understand “Veteran identity” and to understand how and why identity issues are implicated in the work done by Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC) and other public and private agencies that support the well-being of Veterans and their families. Although there is a rich, complex research literature on identities and its connection to well-being, we could not find easy-to-understand explanations of (1) the concept of “Veteran identity”, (2) the ways that Veterans’ identities relate to well-being in military-civilian transition (MCT) or later life; and (3) most importantly, ways to influence good well-being in Veterans through an understanding of how Veteran identity works.

To address this important knowledge transfer gap, VAC partnered with the Canadian Institute for Military and Veteran Health Research (CIMVHR) to establish a Research Theme Working Group for the November 2016 CIMVHR Forum, with funding from Health Canada. The 2016 workshop at the Forum brought together academic clinical experts from Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom and Estonia. These Working Group members met with the VAC team in the months leading up to the Forum workshop and were engaged in developing this report.

This Technical Report was prepared following the November 2016 workshop based on notes taken during teleconferences with the experts, the Forum 2016 presentations and a review of the published scientific literature. The objectives are to:

  1. synthesize basic knowledge about Veterans’ identities;
  2. synthesize knowledge about the connection between identities and well-being.
  3. demonstrate practical real-world applications of knowledge about identities in supporting adaptation to civilian life, service delivery, policy and program development, communications, commemoration and measuring outcomes; and
  4. engage researchers in studying Veterans’ identities.

Identity theory has been developed and tested for over a century in a rapidly evolving body of complex scientific literature. Although the first theories were developed by researchers working with civilians, some work was done with Second World War and Vietnam War Veterans. Most of the research since then has been conducted in larger civilian subpopulations, including adolescents, immigrants, employees of civilian businesses and minority gender and sexual identities groups. Identity researchers are now increasingly turning their attention to military Veterans. A worldwide community of identity researchers and clinicians is beginning to network to inform support for transitioning military personnel and their families.

Humans are social creatures. People form social identities based on (1) their memberships in various social groups and (2) the value that they attach to those memberships. Major life transitions like MCT challenge people’s identities because they must interact with new social groups that have different norms, values and beliefs. A person’s ability to manage his or her identities during major life transitions like MCT is crucial to sense of self, functioning in society and achieving good well-being in the domains of employment or other activity, finances, health, life skills, social integration, housing/physical environment and cultural/social environment. Successful transition requires learning to identify in a positive way with civilian social groups and integrating those identities so they become an integral part of the self.

Development of post-military identities that allow Veterans to have good well-being is viewed as a key issue in supporting military personnel through military-civilian transition. Military training and service life promote powerful military identities that serve military personnel well during service. Managing the inevitable shifts in their identities as they adjust to life after service during MCT can be challenging, with potential consequences for their well-being both psychologically and more globally across multiple well-being domains. Leaving military services leads to challenging decisions like: “Where will I find work?”, “What is my purpose?”, “Where do I get health care?”, “Who will help me?” and “Where will I live?”

The recent resurgence of military Veteran identity research provides useful directions for policy analysts, program designers, communicators and service providers. Identity researchers view major life transitions like MCT as shifts in identity, hence managing identities in transition is crucial. There is evidence that Veteran identity formation is a determinant of well-being in all domains. Reactions to identity challenges in transitions are considered to be normal, but can be complicated by pathological reactions. Some identity researchers conceptualize mental health problems like depression as reactions to identity challenges.

The findings in this report inform ways to support and communicate with Veterans and shape civilian societal attitudes toward them. It is important for out-group helpers to ask transitioning members about language and forms of recognition that work for them, rather than make assumptions that could inadvertently harm. Community-based peer support (Veterans helping Veterans) leverages the benefits of in-group identity sensitivity.

There are a host of opportunities for further research into Veterans’ identities including identity formation; identity changes during major life transitions; relationships between identities and the domains of well-being; personal and societal factors influencing identities; the role of recognition in fostering healthy identities; and ways to measure program, service and research outcomes in terms of sense of self and identity. More research is required to understand the roles of commemoration and recognition activities in promoting recruitment and retention and fostering the well-being of serving military personnel and Veterans across MCT.

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