Mary Elliott Raynor shared her experiences of adjustment from military to civilian life with us recently. She and her husband Glenn have been retired from the military and active in civilian life for 20 years studying in colleges, living and working in several different cities and raising their two boys.
In her own blog, she writes about military life as a spouse, which began for her at age 18. She and Glenn are starting another round of experiences as military parents as their now grown sons are serving in the Air Force. Both will be home for Christmas in 2012 in South Dakota.
Here are Mary’s top 5 tips to help families adjust to living in civilian communities after leaving the military lifestyle and locations.
(You’ll find some excellent common sense suggestions within each tip category that are suitable for settling in and managing change for anyone!)
1) Don’t panic at the thought that you are stuck in one place. Civilians move too, for better jobs or lifestyles or climates.
Houses sell, and moving vans can get rented to get you and your household goods to the next place, even if it isn’t a military move with all its support and organization.
2) Get involved in your new community to ease transition into your civilian life and environment, whether it is a large city or a small town. There are MANY to do this:
Take college, craft, or night classes……Volunteer at nursing homes or hospitals…..Join a bowling league…..Attend local school events like sports matches…..Frequent your local library…..Get to know your neighbors and learn about their families.
Go slowly is Mary’s cautionary tip, with more on this topic below the tips section: Asking too many questions, the way we military people do in order to get to know each other quickly will arouses suspicion (“What do they want to know that for?”).
Be alert for opportunities to do small favors for neighbors. Are you able to rake leaves or shovel snow from a walkway for an elderly neighbor?
Brush up on the history of your city or town…..Subscribe to a local paper so you know what’s going on…..Keep your place looking as nice as possible. It can be as simple as hiring someone local to wash your home’s windows — people will appreciate the fact that you’re not letting the neighborhood go downhill.
Find out what is legal or not legal in your community, such as dog-leash and license or leaf-burning laws and abide by them.
Frequent local restaurants and cafes if you can afford to so you can see the people in your community and they can see you.
Try shopping in local stores and check out other service providers such as the local doctor, mechanic, lawyer. You’ll find favor with local townspeople and reinforce your presence in your new location…..Finding a local place of worship also increases your local sense of belonging while exposing you to new friends with similar values.
Explore your new city or town either on foot, by car, or by bus.
Everybody likes to talk about where they’re from, so please your neighbors by asking them to tell you all about the area — really, they will like this and you’ll benefit with the orientation and local insights.
As much as possible, dress like the people around you and try not to stick out like a sore thumb, looking like a foreigner — weird-looking ill-groomed people attract few friends. Not only is it important to have people nearby on whom you can call in an emergency (let them know that they may call on you, too, in a time of need), it is frankly miserable to be lonely.
If you can afford it, take frequent trips. This helps to break up the monotony of living in one place for an extended period of time…..Keep up with old friends, which is easier than ever with today’s communications…..Visit a base occasionally if you still have privileges, as continuity is important — remember, the military is one of the things that has made you who you are.
3) Don’t be too pushy with civilians. Civilians are used to doing pretty much as they please, and there is no “chain of command” to go up in order to make them do what you want, or behave they way you’d like.
We once bought a house, only to have the former owners refuse to move out on the day we were to take possession of it, because they “had no place to go.” They were former military and should have made better provision for themselves, but they had become totally civilianized. The realtor had to practically pry them out with a crowbar while we languished in a motel at our own expense. Finally, they went to stay with grandma.
Another time, we discovered that a large shack on a property we had bought, had been chosen by the local plumber to keep his extra tools and equipment. We wanted to tear down the shack, but not even a certified letter informing the plumber that he need to get his stuff out or the threat of getting a lawyer would make him budge.
He moved his stuff when he got around to it, and we had to have our double-wide mobile home put in a different spot on our property than where I wanted it. What a shock!
Sometimes, the more you try to push civilians, the more they will dig in their heels. You can stand your ground legally on stuff like this, but be prepared for a delay and possibly a fight.
4) Be safe. Civilians generally don’t live in gated communities with a guard at the gate as do military families who live on base. Find out as much as possible about your new neighborhood before you move there, taking care not to seem too nosy. You will not be able to find out everything, though.
We once had the experience of finding out that our next-door neighbor was somewhat psychotic and abusive to those around him; the previous owners of our house sold it to get away from him, but you can’t poll a neighborhood before you buy a house asking about potential problems like this. You just have to take your chances.
Again, go slowly until you know who to trust. We military people make friends fast, getting thick with each other right away, telling our whole life’s story within the first fifteen minutes of meeting somebody. We must get to know each other quickly, because our time with each other is short.
We also have a built-in fail-safe: within a few years, we will move or our neighbor will move. Not so with civilians. Many of them are located for life. Civilians make friends slowly and are not quick to spill the beans about family or even neighborhood secrets. They’re wary of getting too involved with people they can’t dump if they don’t get along.
Never leave your children with people you don’t know very well. In the military people do this a lot, because you must sometimes have a background check to even get into the military, and we trust each other with our lives. Ask around to be sure your neighborhood is safe for walking and biking, or for children to play in. Take your children to the new school yourself at first, if possible, to become aware of any possible dangers. Always lock your doors at home, whether you are there or away. Lock your car.
5) Try to stay physically healthy. Finding a sport that you can do, joining a gym, or even walking around your neighborhood if it is safe to do so, goes a long way in boosting your mood and your morale as you adjust to your new locale.
You’ll be better able to perform your job and take care of your new home. And, if you decide your family’s new town or city isn’t for you, you’ll be strong and fit enough to load that moving van and high-tail it out of there to the next place.
Post script by MilSuccessNet editor:
As a writer, I rely on questions a lot to get at a story, understand a person and organize my intended sharing of information.
In our first conversation on the transition from military to civilian life, Mary’s comments led me to see that the spheres as distinct cultures. While the military population is drawn from general population, naturally, and therefore reflects all the types of people, their biases, interests and ambitions representing all that general national population, it’s still different. At least at first try to transitions!
“It is so different,” said Mary.
“So much harder to make friends. In the military, the way you’d make friends is to ask questions: What squadron is your husband in? How long have you been in the military? Do you have kids? Do they go to school on base? What part of the housing area do you live in? Etc. This was also a round-about way of establishing the person’s status. If they said, “Oh, my husband was commissioned on (fill in the date),” you would know he was an officer — same with finding out what section of housing they lived in.
In civilian life, playing “20 Questions” makes you look suspicious, like maybe you were sent out by the IRS. They get cagey right away and give non-specific answers, like the woman whose kids went to a private school downtown with mine (we were still military). She mentioned work, and I asked her where she worked. She got real still, and then said tersely, “I work with my husband.” I knew not to push it. When I found out later that her husband was a dentist, I thought, “What’s the big deal?” But I learned a lesson.
Many lessons, are exactly like those every day civilians must learn. Mostly, they are about communication and instant evaluations of actions or statements. You might find some interesting posts on interpersonal communications and tips at my blog on messages.