Finding Purpose After Military Service


“You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you. In company with our brave Allies and brothers-in-arms on other Fronts, you will bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over the oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world…”

img_0077General Dwight D. Eisenhower (Ike) D-Day Message, Order of the Day: 6 June 1944

Over the twenty years since I left the service, I have talked to many transitioning veterans through formal and informal networks, mentoring programs, friendships and panels.  Most vets ask some form of the question, “what is the most difficult part of the transition from military to civilian life?”

Some would expect that obtaining higher education or skill training, adapting to corporate culture, finding a job, relocating to a new area, or establishing new social relationships would be at the top of the “most difficult” transitioning issues list.  My personal observation is that the most difficult challenge is finding a higher purpose greater than yourself.

Just imagine the inspiration that the D-Day invading force must have felt when they read and heard the words of General Dwight D. Eisenhower.   Those immortal words capture the importance that every individual soldier must have felt on the morning of June 6, 1944, as they embarked on task so challenging and grand, that most were committed to achieving it even though they may lose their lives.

Many veterans departing the service struggle with this emotional issue of finding a higher purpose, long after they have settled into civilian life.  Of course, it is natural for veterans to feel this way, because most young people that volunteer to serve their country are doing so because of a selfless commitment to service, and they are willing to make the ultimate sacrifice in pursuit of a “greater-than-self” purpose.


This “higher purpose” assumption is exemplified in some famous military mottos:

  • West Point:  “Duty, Honor, Country”
  • Army: “This We’ll Defend”
  • Navy: “Non sibi sed patriae” (Not Self, but Country)
  • Marine Corps: “Semper Fidelis” (Always Faithful)
  • Coast Guard Rescue Swimmers: “So Others May Live”
  • Air Force Pararescue: “That Others May Live”
  • Army Special Forces (Green Berets): “De Opresso Liber” (To Liberate The Oppressed; To Free From Oppression)

It is remarkable how military service presents so many opportunities, early in a young life, to be a part of important endeavors:

  • Restoring order to chaotic regions.
  • Providing massive relief efforts to hurricane ravaged areas.
  • Freeing the oppressed from tyrannical regimes.
  • Delivering medicine and care to highly infectious disease outbreak areas (Ebola).
  • Establishing safe zones to prevent genocide.
  • Rescuing ship crews in distress at sea.
  • Conducting hostage rescue operations in remote regions of the world.
  • Researching and developing new technology.
  • Constructing large-scale projects like dams and water levies.
  • Participating in operations to guarantee safe shipping lanes.
  • Leading raids to bring to justice high value enemies of America.

All of these examples fill the military operators with pride and a higher purpose.

So when veterans transition out of the military into civilian life, they grasp for a purpose higher than what typically accompanies many daily routines in civilian life.

Often times, the veteran’s frustration comes out in comments:

“I used to defend the nation, now I just sit in a cubicle and look at a spreadsheet.”

“The only thing these people care about is increasing profits.”

“I can not believe I used to lead troops in combat, and now I am managing a bunch of unmotivated young retail workers.”

“I felt so good about administering medical help to the Asian Tsunami victims, but I don’t feel the same about my job at the clinic.”

“Our truck convoys delivered life saving supplies to the Haiti victims after the devastating 2010 earthquake, but I am so bored driving trucks for FedEx now.”

Although a portion of transitioning veterans will pursue a civilian role that has a higher purpose, the sobering truth is that many of us who find successful post military careers will never again have the same sense of higher purpose.  

It doesn’t matter the importance of your title, the number of subordinates, the money earned or the wealth amassed.  The bottom line is that many veterans will never again replicate the sense of higher purpose that they experienced in their early adulthood while serving our great nation in a worthy endeavor.

I certainly struggled emotionally with this issue, to the point that I regretted leaving the military life and culture that I so loved.  I left the army in 1996, but it didn’t hit me during the initial two years while pursuing my MBA at UNC Chapel-Hill.   However, in 1998, after settling into my new career at First Union as a junior Investment Banker, it hit me.   I was working 80 plus hours per week, looking at a computer screen and doing business analytical work that had no sense of purpose other than facilitating another large financial transaction.

Personally, it didn’t matter that I had obtained a higher level of education, earned significantly more money, or was considered to be in a higher socio-economic group.  I just felt very bad about my new career, when comparing it to the good tasks in pursuit of the higher purpose of serving my nation:

  • Flying medical teams to remote Honduran villages of extreme poverty, unreachable by vehicles, to administer vaccinations and hygiene education, or
  • Flying the DEA agents on drug interdiction missions in Guatemala as part of the “war on drugs”, or
  • Flying along the old Cold War Fulda Gap border, the forward edge of freedom, or
  • Flying support lifeline missions for the U.S. embassy in Beirut Lebanon, or
  • Flying air medical evacuation missions in the rural south to provide free life saving flights for neonatal patients and accident victims in poverty stricken communities.

Most veterans can identify with this transition issue.

Below are a few of my recommendations for a transitioning veteran in order to mitigate the risk of an emotional let down associated with leaving a life of service to pursue personal goals:

If possible prior to departing the service, ensure that you spend a significant amount of time conducting a thorough self-analysis with a focus on your core strengths and interests. Plenty of free resources are available to help you, such as Http://

Once you have completed a comprehensive self-assessment, research appropriate career options before deciding which one is right for you.  This will require an understanding of what a daily routine entails, the level of commitment required to be successful, and the type of person who finds self-fulfillment in this line of work.

You must talk to as many people as possible who are currently working in that capacity, so lean on the veterans networks to identify helpful and experienced veterans.   Instead of selecting a (post military) career based on income, prestige or position, pursue a career that is consistent with a worthy purpose.

If you have already entered into civilian life and are struggling with finding a higher purpose:

Recognize that this is a normal feeling that many transitioned veterans have experienced.  It may be helpful to simply accept that your military service was special, and you may not ever match an equivalent purpose in your future endeavors.

Get involved in community service. Wells Fargo, for example, encourages employees to become active in making their communities better.  Community service can be rewarding as you are giving freely without any expectation of being compensated.

Spend time creating a sincere narrative that connects your daily routine of work, with an important purpose like providing for your family, contributing to important charities, and extending emergency support to those in need.

Serving our nation in the military is a tremendous honor that often comes with early life responsibility and a sense of being part of something large and meaningful. Many transitioning vets struggle with replacing the void in civilian life.  Just know that the struggle is natural, and experienced by many veterans who came before you.

One thought on “Finding Purpose After Military Service

  1. Great post! As I quickly approach my transition date (less than 90 days now), these thoughts have crossed my mind more than a few times. I will definitely miss the sense of purpose that comes with putting on the uniform every day. I think community service is an excellent suggestion for “filling the void”. I am going to have to explore community service opportunities after I get settled.

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