Veterans: Strangers in a Strange Land?

” I don’t belong here.”

“This feels weird.”

“I feel like a alien.”

These are all things I’ve heard veterans say after leaving the military or returning from combat. Something changed, and they’re not sure what. It was them, sure, but it was also the community that they came back to. For many veterans I talk to, they feel like strangers in a strange land. They seem to be visitors from somewhere else trying to make their way in a world where they don’t understand other people, they can’t figure out the rules, and sometimes don’t really want to.

The phrase “stranger in a strange land” originally comes from the book of Exodus: Exodus 2:22. Many know the story of Moses; raised by Pharaoh’s daughter, he fled Egypt for killing an Egyptian who was beating a Hebrew slave. In exile from Egypt, he named his firstborn son “Gershom,” which means, “Stranger in a Strange Land.” Moses went from a culture that he grew up in, one that he knew the rules and understood how things were done, to the wilderness. No guide, no easy transition, just one day he was surrounded by familiarity and the next he was out in the wild. Sound familiar?

Another use of the phrase, taken from the passage in Exodus, is used as the title of Robert Heinlen’s science fiction book, “Stranger in a Strange Land.” In this book, a human child, raised on Mars, is discovered and brought back to Earth. The story revolves around how he is integrated into human society, and how he changes it and is changed by it. How shocking would it be to be taken from everything you know, everything you’re comfortable with, and be dropped into a place that you know nothing about? Many…not all, but enough…veterans feel this way upon returning back to their communities.

Why is that? Why do some former service members make a smooth transition, while others experience challenges? Why do some seem to be able to fit back into their community, while others feel a tangible gulf between themselves and others? Much of it has to do with not understanding how important mental health is to the transition process. Another large part of it, in my opinion, is a lack of awareness on the part of the veteran: awareness that change needs to be made, awareness that they themselves have changed, and even awareness that they have the ability to make the transition back.

Leaving the Military is Inherently Stressful

I know it is. I’ve done it. I’ve talked about it and wrote about it. How I’m going to pay the bills and make a living are only part of it; understanding how to operate in non-military settings was also a challenge. A study published in 2017 argues that PTSD is not the primary source of discomfort for returning service members; it’s transition stress. Transition stress, among other things, is the subject we’re talking about; a veteran not feeling like they belong in their community. In this article, the authors address such subjects as the loss of the military self, service-connected nostalgia, moral injury, and the civilian-miltiary divide. Each of these demonstrate the concept that a veteran feels separated from the very society that they served to protect. Being in one place, and longing to be in another. Existing in one time, and desiring to be back at a place that made sense.

It Just Feels Weird to be Someplace Unfamiliar

I experienced this on a small scale, as have many other combat veterans. My base in Iraq, Camp Rustamiyah, was small, about a square mile or so. Big, compared to other combat outposts and smaller bases, but minuscule compared to giant military installations like Bagram or Talil. Several times during that deployment, I had an opportunity to leave my small FOB and go to these larger bases…I felt like a kid leaving a small town in the middle of Missouri and being dropped into the middle of New York City. The size, the activity, the sheer unfamiliarity of it all…it was overwhelming. I found myself wanting to get back to my small camp, where I knew where everything was, and everyone knew me…where things made sense.

Learning how NOT to be a Stranger Takes Effort

We feel like a stranger in a new place until we get comfortable there. My first duty station was Germany; new language, new culture, I was literally a foreigner. There were two things that I could have done. First, I could have kept myself separated from German culture, not tried to learn the language, and stay in the barracks…continued to be a stranger. The second thing was that I could have ventured out from what I found to be familiar, and learned about the country, the language, the people. I knew people who did the first one, and they didn’t have that great of an experience; they continued to be a stranger in a strange land. Others, admittedly, “went native” and immersed themselves in the culture completely. There’s nothing wrong with either of those, if they didn’t bother the person or impact their family.

The same way we get used to a new place is the same way a veteran stops being a stranger in their own house, their own community. We adapt, as we adapted when we were in the service. We learn the new language, embrace the new way of doing things. We deliberately choose to not set ourselves apart from others, and instead learn to integrate what we know with what they know.

By stepping into the gap, the civilian-miltiary divide is reduced, and the veteran stops feeling like a stranger in the land that they love.

The Head Space and Timing Blog is supported by the Colorado Veterans Health and Wellness Agency, a 501(c)3 Nonprofit in Colorado Springs, Colorado. The goal of the CVHWA is to provide military culturally competent mental health counseling to veterans and their spouses, regardless of characterization of discharge, time of service, or era of service. Our vision is to assist veterans to identify and remove barriers to their mental, physical, emotional, and behavioral wellness. For questions or inquiries, contact us!

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Duane France
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Duane K. L. France is a combat veteran of both Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as a mental health counselor practicing in the state of Colorado. Do you want to join the conversation regarding veteran mental health? Share, like, and comment. Read Duane's previous posts and follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn. Keep the conversation about #veteranmentalhealth going.