Military “transition” or “recovery?”: Three basic human needs to support the process.

Caroline Walsh
5 min readApr 21, 2021
Image by Prawny from Pixabay

Caroline is a PhD student in the University of San Diego’s Leadership Studies program. She is a Coast Guard and CIA veteran with a master’s degree in Homeland Security with a focus in Public Health.

The “military transition” is when a member of the military leaves service and returns to civilian life, however, there is often more to the transition than simply finding a job or a new role. Entering the civilian world is a time when many veterans are doing more than transitioning, they are recovering and trying to integrate into a new environment. They are often recovering from years of strict regulations, being away from family frequently, not having much say over decisions about their lives, and sometimes trauma. Integration post-military service involves developing an understanding of the uniqueness of their experiences and identity, while also creating an interdependence with the world around them.

[The phrase “military transition” makes integrating into the civilian world seem like a quick phase that is over once the veteran has found an income and general stability. Although this is often an inaccurate representation of the experience, the word “transition” is rightfully used to empower veterans through the process of adapting to their new environment.]

The body keeps the score: Brain, Mind, and Body in Healing Trauma by psychiatrist, Dr. Bessel Van der Kolk, discusses the universal experience of trauma and how recovery relates to basic human needs like connectedness, safety, and play. The following article focuses on applying these concepts to support military veteran university students, however, the needs relate to the military transition/recovery process whether veterans go to a university, the job search, a new job, or stay at home with family following their service.

— Connectedness —

“Our brains are built to help us function as members of a tribe.”

According to Van der Kolk, nearly all of mental suffering comes from trouble in creating workable and satisfying relationships or difficulties in regulating ourselves enough to connect (for example, not being able to regulate becoming enraged, shut down, or defensive). Although our Western culture tends to focus on personal uniqueness, at the biological level, we hardly exist as individual organisms. For example, in our biology, we have mirror neurons that cause us to mimic those around us, this helps humans communicate non-verbally and subconsciously so we can work together. Leaving the military often means finding a new tribe and new connections.

Military lifestyle tends to wire members to connect because the environment emphasizes teamwork and often involves shared living quarters. Finding new healthy connections is part of recovery for the military veteran. Van der Kolk notes that however tempting, isolating oneself to a narrowly defined group whose outlook on others is irrelevancy or disdain can lead to further alienation. Extremist political parties, extreme religious groups, and gangs are a few unhealthy ways to find quick connections. Even focusing with other veterans on a shared history of trauma may only temporarily relieve the sense of isolation.

Universities can be a place where veterans are surrounded by others, but still feel like they are in isolation. It is important for universities to create a space for veterans to connect with others both inside and outside the classroom. In virtual classes, this might mean creating breakout rooms for small group discussions among students. In-person connectedness might look like a professor connecting a military veteran student’s response with what another student shared to demonstrate similarities in thought or facilitate a discussion. Small group activities, welcoming university clubs, and military ally programs are all ways to help military veteran students connect with their peers and the university. A veteran’s center is a common space that can be used when veterans need a “home base” after exploring connections and feel safe among veteran peers.

— Safety —

“Being able to feel safe with other people is probably the single most important aspect of mental health.”

Natural disaster response studies from around the world have shown that social support can protect people against being overwhelmed by stress and trauma. Reciprocity is important in social support because one needs to be seen and heard by the people in the shared environment. Although the natural state of mammals is to generally be on guard, in order to feel emotionally close, a person’s defense system must be temporarily reduced. The reduction leads to the ability to play and care for others. How can universities create spaces that encompass safety and encourage connection?

Veteran centers on campus are typically an office or area on campus for veterans where they can relax and let their guard down more easily than they might in a classroom. Having this space does not mean that professors are immune from creating classrooms that also support and safety. Classrooms should provide some level of social support, which will help all students in their development. It is easy for students, especially military veterans, to be on guard, however, unless the guardedness can be alleviated, it will be difficult for students to “play” and be creative in their studies and interactions.

— Play —

“If you feel safe and loved, your brain becomes specialized in exploration, play, and cooperation; if you are frightened and unwanted, it specializes in managing feelings of fear and abandonment.”

Sometimes military veterans come from a culture of “survival mode,” in which they may have been in daily danger and thus remain on guard. This mode makes it difficult to imagine, play, learn, and pay attention to others’ needs. A sense of safety can reduce defensiveness and allow a place where veterans can try new ideas, connect through humor, or listen to another’s point of view with compassion or curiosity. Play allows a person’s social-engagement system to reemerge. Van der Kolk cites that in schools, the last courses that should be cut are arts and physical education because without forms of play, children will have a harder time reducing anxiety enough to joyfully engage in their other courses.

Play with peers is a great way to learn how to get along with others. Exercise programs, sports, comedy, music, and other art forms are classes and activities that can facilitate engagement. Play can help veteran students feel physically attuned to their student peers and experience connection and joy. Van der Kolk has multiple examples of play encouraging connection among highly traumatized patients. He has seen choral singing, tango dancing, kickboxing, and aikido connect many troubled people with the world around them.

Connectedness, safety, and play are interconnected. If one is strengthened, it is likely the others are to follow. Similarly, if one is not supported, it will be difficult for the others to emerge. For military veteran students, and military veterans in general, it is important for them to feel that any danger has passed so they can live in the present and connect, play, and enjoy their new path.


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Caroline Walsh

Former CIA Analyst and Coastie. PhD Student. Author of Fairly Smooth Operator: My life occasionally at the tip of the spear, available now!