Steps to smoother moves out of military milieu

Uniform2_thumbShaun Collins’ personal essay explored 1st hand some changes he experienced after he retired and stepped out of his uniform. The post resonated with many service members both in transition or planning on their move from a military to civilian milieu.

In part 2 we look into the source of part 1’s title:

 “If You Are What You Do – When You Don’t – You Aren’t”

And how he found his next steps a while into retirement from his military roles.

Shaun Collins spoke of his process to the Military Success Network site’s editor, Helena Kaufman. What follows is an excerpt from a conversation that took place on the phone just prior to the publishing of part 1 and Collins’ original writing on his transition.

Shaun, and I’ll call you that as I pose questions to you, based on your gentle request of others to do so in your essay. …You said your next steps were to figure out how to answer the question “What do you do”?

 Can you tell us a bit about why that was the next step for you?

My next step was to change how I responded to the “what do you do?” question, because it appeared to be my primary trigger.

I struggled (and still do to a lesser degree), trying not to impress people with my past accomplishments. I tried to use the tools I discovered as an instructor to be honest, yet self-effacing enough answer casual inquiries without reverting back to being boastful.  I attempted to create canned dialogue and experimented with my responses to change my habits. That’s not to say there aren’t appropriate occasions to share experiences from my service, but they are and should be the exception.


Shaun Collins shares his experiences of snags in his own military to civilian transition

Shaun M. Collins

Can you give us an example of an interaction where you practiced this? Perhaps in a conversation?

Here is a brief example of questions and my responses that I believe helped me change this practice:

Them:   “Oh, you were a teacher, how did you get into that?”

Me:  “At some point, someone who didn’t know me very well, figured I was senior enough that they assigned me to our service school as an instructor.  The only thing I could do at that point was to try to pass on some of the wisdom that others passed on to me.”

Them:  “What did you teach?”

Me:  “I tried to help Soldiers to be better Soldiers and leaders – when I could manage to show up for work sober, being a retired warrant officer and all …”

Them: “What do you mean?”

ME:  “I certainly wasn’t ready to become a teacher, nor was I even the best person for the job – all I could do was try and I hope I made some small difference.  In all honesty, I learned more from my students than they probably ever learned from me.”

 So this kind of dialog helped?

This type of dialogue helped me retain the perspective that while I kind of thought I was a “big deal” for a while, the Army was able to move on without me. Indeed, it didn’t even skip a beat.

In the big scheme of things very few people individually make a major difference during their period of service.  Basically, we all just do our part, but as a collective, I do think we did make a huge difference.

Is this where the saying you used as your essay title comes in?

Yes. While teaching a Master Army Profession and Ethic Training Course, one of my co-instructors, Bob Delaney, asked the students a question about personal identity. It was a question I’d heard several times before during previous iterations of the course. This time it really resonated within me … I later looked up the quote and believe it was originally penned by William J. Byron (see video & military connection below).

“If you are what you do, when you don’t, you aren’t – so let me ask, who are you”?

Was that the point at which you also began your exploration?

That was the beginning of my search – how do I define myself?  Am I a Soldier, a Combat Veteran, a Federal Agent, a Graduate School Instructor, an Army Master Instructor, a Master Army Professional and Ethic Training instructor, a farmer, an aspiring writer, or just some old retired guy?

I finally began to understand all of these aspects of my identity were “what I did” – not who I was. Hence the problem. I had lost my identity, in kind of the same way Peter Pan lost his shadow.

So I asked my wife, who was on site teaching with me, “how do you define yourself?”

She said, “I don’t know. I’m a mother, a wife (the best one ever I might add). I’m passionate. I try to be compassionate. I am a member of the human race and I know that I must constantly reevaluate my sense of identity if I want to grow.”

He Said She Said blog posters She too was a retired, Federal Agent. A 25-year service retiree from the Army, who had earned 3 Master’s degrees to her name, yet she only used two “what you do” descriptors. She simply responded with “mother and wife.” The rest were fundamental characteristics that I began to naturally add to her understated response in my head. My wife is also extremely introspective, honest, loyal, loving and is not afraid to engage in courageous communication with a dose of love to help people grow at their own pace.

I realized I wanted to be less like my definition of me – and more like her definition of herself.  I told her that I had lost my identity and began to explain to her the things that I was discovering about my transition.

She patiently listened, then told me she was proud of me for starting to figure that out, because I was becoming pretty difficult to live with!  She gave me the room – accompanied by a nudge here and there – and she let me figure it out myself so I would not resist the idea. She knows me so well and I was grateful for her insight.

It was good to have someone to talk to about what must have surely been only a temporary loss of identity.

I could go on and on about the path to recovering my sense of self and the road to rediscovering my identity, but I will not further bore you with that.

Oh, hardly boring. It seems that many of us are struggling under the weight of multiple roles we take on for any number of our own reasons; can you share a basic outline, based on your experience, that might help light our way?

Sure. Let me set it out in a few starter points.

  • Having an accountability partner in your life is critical; someone who will tell you what you need to know, rather than what you want to hear.
  • We must understand “who we are” is separate from “what we do/did”.
  • The core of our character is our identity … in my case, I came to rediscover that I have a strong desire to help and protect others, a need to see justice/fairness, a desire to serve the greater good over my own interests and find integrity and honor to be fundamental foundations for any relationship I have.
  • Those aspects of my character drove me to choose my previous roles and titles (Soldier, Special Agent, Leader and Teacher), and will guide me to the roles and responsibilities I will assume in the future.
  • Embrace your core identity, view the titles under which you serve as mere reflections of your identity and be mindful not to confuse the two.

You’ve had many responses to what you shared last week. Do you have suggestions on next steps in the transition experience?

What I would like to do is to offer my challenges and struggles and to say directly: To those of you who are preparing to transition from military service or may be struggling with similar issues but cannot put your finger on “why,” I strongly suggest you begin your transition with the simple question.

“If I am what I do, then when I don’t – I’m not, so who am I?”

Find your real identity.

Rediscover the Mr. or Mrs. you are based on your own character … not your titles which might be CSM, CW4, COL, Special Agent, Ranger, Paratrooper, Operator, Commander, Tanker, Infantryman or  Cook – or any job, branch or rank that identified you during service.

I think you will find that as you make your transition, you will not suffer the identity crisis that I, and I shudder to think so many before me have.

Learn to define yourself by your character, values, and virtues. Look to your real roles in life as a spouse, parent, or child.

Don’t be afraid to crack open your armor. Look inside. Acknowledge where you need to grow – embrace it.

Find an accountability partner to help you retain your focus. And to tell you what you need to know, as opposed to what you want to hear.

I think it’s awesome to be proud of your service to your nation, but that is not who any of us are – it is merely something we did for a while!

It still sounds like an all consuming and awe inspiring time – that one you speak of as something for ‘a while.’.  Can you talk about what’s working for you now?

I know I will always be a Soldier in my heart, but I do not think it is healthy to define yourself by what you do – or in this case, by what you used to do.  I think the biggest thing that is working for me now is simply awareness of the issue and modifying my behavioral responses.

Sounds like another step.

If you take the time to psychologically prepare yourself for your loss of status – I think your transition from service member to civilian will be less difficult. But don’t forget about the small print on that check you signed when you joined the military.

You’ll need to prepare yourself for those memories. You can define them as “nightmares” or as “dreams and memories.” It’s my opinion that how you label them will be critical in how you learn to live with them.

In volunteering with veterans who are struggling to re-assimilate into the civilian world, I’ve found something very telling. Their lack of preparation within the mechanical sense (completing their formal education, investing wisely or having adequate savings) often plays a much smaller part in their tribulations than their failure to mentally prepare themselves.

Ooh, I think readers from outside the service could probably fall into that difficulty also.

The fact that our modern society is very respectful of service members and combat veterans is so much higher than in previous generations does not help in this regard.

Oh? Speaking as a civilian, it seemed to be a positive gesture.

Those constant accolades and “thank you for your service” comments from our civilian population is certainly well intended and greatly appreciated, but when it comes time to shed the uniform, tends to contribute to the void – a loss of status if you will.

I strongly suspect most veterans struggle with their sense of identity; but few of us prepare for this aspect of the transition.  My advice is not to wait until you are “that guy” – do everything you can to develop a true sense of identity that supersedes what you do or did; who are you really?  Foster that sense of identity. Embrace your new path in life and don’t fall into the trap of clinging to a title!  I hope your transition is smoother than it was for those of us who didn’t understand this until it became an impediment to our next chapter in our book of life.

Shaun. I know you and your wife, Pamela have been writing an advice column in Ft. Leonard Wood’s publication, The Guidon. In “He Said She Said” which we feature on this site also, you respond to questions you get on military and everyday life. I’d like to end the privilege of this interview with you by asking if you have anything more to share with our community of readers at this time.

Thank you for your service, no matter how long you served – your nation can never repay the debt owed to you; but hang your uniform up with pride and look to the future with excitement rather than to the past with all-consuming nostalgia.  Good luck my brothers and sisters in arms, you are all my heroes, but you have another life to live now – the sooner you get after it, the more enriching it will be.

I would also like to extend a special “Thank You” to my friend and brother Jason Beighley. I asked for so much of his time to help me better articulate my experience. I struggled in many ways to get this from my head into a coherent and meaningful state of print, most likely because it was so personal.  Your effort helped me work through my emotion and it is my sincere hope that our efforts to generate a meaningful message will help at least one of our brothers or sisters as they join us in our roles as civilians who formerly served with pride.

Stand by for more from Shaun, as well as from Pamela in future posts on MilSuccessNet.  

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Another deal breaker question from former army member, Jesuit and author who as at Scranton when opening their doors to GI Bill students turned that campus around:


  1. Bruce Tyler says:

    Great article brother, keep them coming!

    • Helena Kaufman says:

      Thanks for your support – in reading this post by Shaun Collins on this site and your encouragement which flows automatically to all readers!
      MilSuccessNet Editor

  2. Jen O'Connor says:

    I also wanted to add a note of encouragement to veterans to consider seeking help, either through support groups or individual therapy, to assist them during the transition period. Even though there is a culture that belittles seeking counseling within the military community, it takes great personal strength and courage to ask for help.

    • Helena Kaufman says:

      Thank you for your comments on this story.
      We feel privileged to have first person accounts of trials and successes of veterans.
      The stories AND the comments, I believe, help us all to understand ourselves and others, and to progress.


  3. Shem Rivera says:

    Thanks Shaun, for providing clarity to a very muddled issue for many retirees, especcially in our field. Always have enjoyed your company, and the welath of knowleddge and guidance you provide. Keep on keeping on my brother.


  4. Jeff Capehart says:

    Great article Shaun, your view is spot on. This also is an issue for many Agents who leave Active duty and start working at other Law Enforcement Agencies. I have found them trying to impress people with their past accomplishments, and not focusing on learning their new Job. The valuable training and Skills provided by CID, sometimes results in a: ONLY ONE WAY TO SKIN A CAT THOUGHT PROCESS. I’ve watched as very qualified and skilled Agents, isolating themselves from co-workers because of their reluctances to adapt to the more relaxed, flexible and independent environments found in most Civilian Law Enforcement Agencies. Often they can’t admit they haven’t experienced something and they have not seen and done it all. They’ve closed their lessons learned tool box; shunning new procedures, techniques and learning from more experienced Investigators. The comfort zone they were accustomed to is gone, and with it their identity.

  5. Mike Redmond says:

    Great article Shaun. The transition is more difficult for some than others. I truly believe that it is the hardest for those who get their identity out of “who they were”. My feeling is that everything in life is a transition. I was who I was, I am now who I am, but neither define me. In another seven years when I retire from this gig, I will be who I am at that point (hopefully a crappy nature photographer who doesn’t give a crap if he sells anything). The article hit it, your past life does not define who you are now, but the lessons and knowledge learned previously make the next part seem easier.

    • Shaun collins says:

      Thank you Mike – you’ve always been such a wise man. My experience in writing this piece was anyone who too strongly tires their sense of identity to what they do/did find themselves lost at some point. I agree that the sum of our life’s expeririene are the same things that equip us for tomorrow; but being a father, husband, aspiring writer and farmer supercede my once was status of being a CW4, Federal Agent with way too much education. We cannot take ourselves too seriously, yet we must find a balance of community and purpose in our lives that do not revolve around some title we used to be called!!!

      Hope things are well my brother; always great to hear from you!

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