Skip to main content

The Missing Ritual

·4 mins

Bottom Line Up Front: There is a large gap in the separation process from the military which makes adjusting to civilian life harder and puts Veterans at risk of not successfully adjusting to a new set of challenges.

Rites of passage are a process that people undergo in order to transition from a state of being to a new one. A ritual usually consists of separation from the current identity, transitioning to the new one, and then incorporating the new identity.

One example of an initiation rite that many people experienced is joining the military. The separation starts as soon as you start to show an interest, with indoctrination into the military culture and then becoming a “poolee”. The separation increases when the poolees ship out to boot camp. Upon arriving at boot camp, all possessions from civilian life are placed in a box and taken away. The transition begins with being given new clothes to wear and a shaved head. The transition continues for the next 13 weeks of tough training and constantly being taught to speak, act, and think differently. Over 10 years later, I still remember that Marine’s leadership traits and other values ingrained into us during that rigorous process. The challenges are intense but there is measurable progress and a sense of personal pride - I remember watching “Phase 3” Recruits aggressively cut past “Phase 1” recruits while yelling “Gangway, phase 3!” and the newer recruits looked on with envious hunger to attain what they saw the others had.

The climactic ceremony of being handed an Eagle Globe and Anchor on top of a mountain you climbed with little food and sleep cements this new identity and gives a dangerous sense of superiority. After graduation, there is a reprieve from military culture when the new graduates go home but it almost increases the sense of “other” and distance from others since not much has changed in the few months that boot camp took and there is a sense of being in the fast lane

The process is incredible in the changes that it brings about with the people’s identity and sense of self that is discovered during the process. Rituals have an amazing ability to give meaning and clearly define who we are without any doubts and are vital to establishing one’s identity. When I joined the Marines I learned the cultural values of honor, courage, and commitment, how to think differently, and to be ready to fight for my country. The rituals also taught each person that they are part of a team and forced every person to stop thinking as an individual and to start thinking as a team member. This is especially important since in the infantry, missions must always take priority - otherwise people’s lives may be put at risk. Ultimately, the ritual is very effective at separating these people from the population and training them to serve their country

The more I thought about how we spend months changing people to serve in the military, the more that I realized that there aren’t any similar focused rituals to transition warriors back to society. This is the missing ritual, these men and women are given some PowerPoint classes about benefits and various opportunities and then they are made to go through a check-out process that is designed to ensure they don’t take any equipment with them and all access is revoked. This out-processing is for the military’s benefit, not the service member.

Months are spent setting these people apart so that they could adopt the mindset needed to serve their country and I believe that a similar approach needs to be taken with the transition back to civilian life. Veterans need to have their unique experiences validated but also shown how to apply them to civilian life. This is a responsibility that the military should fulfill - if they focused for the last 30 days of service on helping service members craft new identities and consciously work through this difficult transition, I believe that it would greatly improve the transition process although admittedly it will likely never be seamless.

Learning how to adjust to a new set of challenges doesn’t happen overnight and while many veterans have a support system, there are also those who don’t get the help that they need. The system needs to be redesigned to facilitate successful transitions and take care of those who volunteered to serve their country