Who are you when you’re no longer in uniform?

Are we done yet with the season of  resolutions? Our lists of what we should do, change, improve, learn, stop, start? Can we now focus on our actual identity and how we want to BE rather than just do?

Guest columnist and military veteran, CW4 (Ret.) Shaun Collins explores how to be – when you find yourself on the civilian side of life. How to be – just a stone’s throw from your quarter century of service, carrying a rucksack full of memories and making your way through the transition zone. 

  • Part 1 – Asking: Who am I now?
  •                 And, how did I get here?
  • Part 2 – Answering to: What do you do?”

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

by: Shaun Collins

Uniform2_thumbA few years ago, as I was retiring from the U.S. Army, I was asked by the Military Success Network’s leadership team to write about my preparation for the impending life change.  Although the preparation I engaged in was meaningful, I wish I had known about some of the emotional impact my retirement would have, especially on my identity. I could perhaps have better prepared for the mental and psychological perspectives  – both expected and not.

As a family, we worked to set ourselves up for success. In looking back at some of the practical elements of transition, like the financial piece, I still think we did pretty well. However, if there were people out there trying to get my attention about that emotional toll I was destined to pay, I sure missed the cues.

Over time, I discovered that I had failed to prepare in some extremely critical ways.  These “oversights” related to how my “loss of status” would manifest itself and I simply didn’t have the tools in my rucksack to pull out and put to work. I had never even contemplated that such issues would apply to me – despite having seen others struggle.

I was excited to retire. I felt I had served my nation with honor.

When all was said and done, I would not miss my days in uniform so to speak.  Well, to a great degree that was true. My aching knees, my busted up back and all of my other little physical ailments I wouldn’t miss the stress associated with serving in the military.  However, it took me a couple of years to fully realize that my behavior was now different from what it had been in the past.

It was during that attempt to figure out why, that I came fully to the stunning realization that ‘I was once again a civilian’. I didn’t have the “status” or “authority” that was conferred on me by virtue of my military roles.   At the time that I retired I felt pretty accomplished and had no regrets about my service. I thought I had given all I had to give and so stepped aside to allow the next generation to take the reins.

Together with my wife, who is also a retired veteran, I thought I had adapted to a new and acceptable routine. There was the work of the small farm we owned. We both continued as educators in our field of expertise. We aspired to be writers and took public steps towards that goal. I focused on the freedom I now had to tackle my new hobbies, but I had in fact, neglected to address some key issues.

Revisiting roles

Up to this time, we were able to dodge the multiple efforts from various entities including law enforcement agencies, to draw us back into the workforce full time. On several occasions we received requests to assist the Army in doctrine development or training opportunities. In those cases, our specific expertise was deemed to enhance the mission at hand and we did accept several of these part-time offers. Some as volunteers and others for pay.

A different kind of service

As these early projects wound down, my wife, Pamela and I found ourselves volunteering more and more of our time to efforts that met community needs. Soon, these over took our plans for our farm.

We answered the call to serve because of external circumstances like floods in our area and need that had to be met to help our neighbors. Together, we also felt a desire to assist veterans or veteran assistance groups. This combined with my feeling that there was a large void that existed for veterans and that needed to be filled.

Projects continued to unfold and those who knew me best continued to observe my interactions with others. I found myself being questioned by my wife (and a couple other friends, like Jamey Gadoury, for whom I am grateful). They loved me enough to tell me that I was off  azimuth.

Trust me as I pass along the sentiments of Gus Lee, when I say, ‘we all need people in our lives who love us enough to tell us the truth.’  In general their message came across with this question:

“Do you realize how much you are talking about yourself?”

I was, for the most part, quite oblivious and not even sure why they would think I was talking about myself more than I used to. Perhaps I had lost my bearings and stood precariously off azimuth.

Added to these newly observed changes in my behavior, came the memory of an earlier understanding with a new twist. It was that when anyone decides to serve in the Armed Forces, they essentially authorize a marker – an unlimited note that can be cashed in by our nation at anytime for any reason while we serve.

Pride and honor come with writing that check. And in earning the right to help maintain a free nation; but most of us never really read the fine print in the memo section.  It basically states, in part… “You will have to live with the things that you have to do and experience including the loss of comrades in arms. One day you will no longer possess the status of a service member – merely the burden of waking up to the memories and imagined faces of long dead friends, enemies or other people we encountered throughout our service who were harmed or killed.  No matter what experiences you may survive from your term of service – regardless of how long your term of service may have been – you will have to live with it forever.”

After that first seed had been planted in my mind about perhaps monitoring myself, I came to the next shocking revelation.

At the slightest sign of interest shown by anyone I talked to about my background, I felt compelled to summarize my entire career, resume and significant accomplishments. Yes, I had become “that guy.” The one who blurts out their unsolicited life story, no matter what the listener’s actual interest was originally.

Set on solutions

So, I developed a course of action that would help me to find the joy in who I am today and not live so much in that dimming light of how I once defined myself.

Back to the future – fixing today’s challenge of identity by finding its root in past learning

In the last stage of my military career I had the honor of being an instructor at our service school. There, I was able to teach leadership, among other topics, to predominately subordinate leaders.

Early in my career I learned the value of war stories and the “facilitated discussion” technique of instruction rather than the “lecture” type to convey important lessons.  I also discovered that an instructor who pats himself on the back incessantly quickly loses the attention and the respect of his students.  Consequently, I very deliberately shared stories that presented other leaders in the process of doing wonderful things. Even if it was something I had done, I intentionally put someone else’s name on it to prevent appearing as self-serving.

Additionally, I realized that instructors who were willing to share their own failures kept the attention of students in a far more positive way than when they only spoke about the failures of other leaders.  So it was my general practice to share “war stories” (within an appropriate lesson) to start various discussions.

I would, as noted,  attribute the positive leadership stories to other leaders and relay more of the failures as my own, even if they had happened to someone else. The only exception to this pattern was if I knew there was a person in the class who was familiar with the details of a particular situation, or if the incident had gained some notoriety in our rather small command. At times, this approach I had adopted backfired, but for the most part I found it to be an extremely effective practice.

Now comes the elephant in the room that had moved into my present situation:

 “If I could  divert recognition for my actual successes and agree to accept judgment for the mistakes of others all those years, how was it that I could not have a social conversation now without seeking validation?”

I continued to notice my interactions with new people and tried to identify what triggered this new and unflattering behavior.  The more I paid attention, the less linkage I was able to establish.

The lack of an external stimulus was glaringly apparent. It was the same case whether I engaged with veterans, law enforcement officers or school colleagues.  I was at a loss. I couldn’t figure out what these people were doing to force me to brag about myself!!!

At wit’s end, when I was sufficiently frustrated with this cycle and my inability to root out the problem, my wife lovingly and gently offered that maybe I needed to just look in the mirror.  Well that was just silly – it couldn’t be me, could it?

Granted, I’ve always had a pretty large ego, but in the past I had been confident enough in myself to introduce myself simply as a “trash collector” just to avoid in-depth conversations about military experiences.

Or I’d say that I was  the ‘dependent spouse’ and so avoid topics like what it was like to work undercover, or to investigate rape, robbery, and homicide. I eliminated the inevitable questions on whether NCIS or similar TV shows were realistic or if the horror stories about Warrant Officer School were true.

In full disclosure these discussion dropping responses were to actually protect me from the drudgery of having to listen to “that guy,” the one we all avoided, but for the fact that apparently, I was now that guy.

But of course, my wife, Pamela, was onto something.

There is no doubt that she knew what was going on the entire time.  She also knew me well enough to allow me to gradually discover the dynamics in play and to allow my own analysis to guide me to the conclusion:

I was holding onto my former status with a death grip with no plans to let it go.

WOW – that one hit me right between the eyes.  My ego could no longer feed itself, so I was “leveling”– I was engaging in all of the behaviors that I had found so annoying for my entire career and I was doing it A LOT.

Figure out, fix and move forward

It was time to figure out why my loss of status and the experiences I had endured were eating at me relentlessly. They fought so hard to be expressed. And now, it was not enough to simply discontinue the behavior. I needed to mend the broken bits within me, including the ones that cried out for excessive validation.

Bits that got stuffed down

It had long bothered me that retired senior NCOs and Officers acted as though they somehow still outranked everyone who was still serving. My impression was that they looked down their noses at those who had not yet attained their equal rank (or because they held the rank first).

I noticed how I felt when former subordinates called me by my first name rather than by my previous rank or title. I found that it generally bothered me if they assumed it was acceptable to talk to me like their brother rather than their uncle.

Consequently, I made it a new habit to respond to anyone who addressed me by my former rank with, “Please, I’m just Shaun. I retired that title the day I peeled off that uniform; I would appreciate it if you would just use my name.”

My intent in getting others to talk to me like a civilian was that I would more rapidly start to feel like one and it actually began to work.  I was feeling less insulted and less entitled to their respect just because I used to have a title.  Step one was working – but I had (and no doubt still have) a long way to go.

My next step was to change how I responded to the question “What do you do?”

…..cont’d with Part 2 ….check back later in the week or SIMPLY SUBSCRIBE and be the first to get notified when it is posted.

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

Shaun M. Collins

Read more about the early transition progress and plans for both Shaun Collins and life partner and retired veteran Pamela Collins who served in the Armed Forces for a combined 52 years

Here for Pamela’s story on resiliency in transition and in part 2 on integrating all that is important in her life. 

Here for Shaun’s story  

And catch their advice column carried on this site since winter 2013 and appearing originally as He Said She Said out of Ft. Leonard Wood for the “Guidon”.



  1. John A. Nerges says:

    The title by itself is a public service announcement. When I decided to separate from the herd, I was met with two general responses: 1) Best of Luck, 2) You suck, you dis-loyal prick.

    One and two are a synopsis of well wishers. The Luck Camp had a solid view of their world, their identity was more than DD214 deep. The traitor hater’s were usually high speed low drag, flying up the pay scale. They had no other identity. Maybe they played banjo or made wooded boat model but I had the feeling if you took away the Army, took away their MOS, the would dry up and blow away.

    So far in retirement, I have learned two things, first, it is impossible for me to be the chogey boy, I ask to many questions and I still try and get my boss promoted, second, I was in the Luck camp…..

    PS, I went to basic in Fort Leonard Wood in 1982. I am a museum.

    great piece.

    • Shaun Collins says:

      PS John – as for being a museum piece; my wife joined in 82, myself in 84. I too attended my initial training at FLWMO; where we both ended our careers and settled into as home. So if you wouldn’t mind – dust off a couple spaces on the display shelves for us!

      • Anthony Caprietta says:

        Shaun, as I read your piece I could not help but wonder about my transition and what my impending attitude toward civilian life would be. Alternatively, I reminisce on those who made a positive impact on my military career and compare those who sought to diminish my efforts to be a positive multiplier as part of a larger force. I carefully dissected my thoughts, and determined they both have a specific role in my future as a civilian. I imagine I would also have a difficult time letting go because of being so enthrenched in a culture and way of life that felt honorable. I often, like you reflect upon my personal outreach to others and am always conscious of what I say to those who do not understand the family I am a part of, but will someday depart from. Perhaps in time I will come to the realization that that part of my life does not define me, but is part of who I am and a significant influence in how I carry myself as a civilian. Thanks for the piece. It was a pleasurable read.

        • Shaun Collins says:


          I don’t know this to be the case for everyone, but for me; I’ve come to this conclusion:

          My real identity propelled me in the direction of my career choices. My character, defining qualities and core made me want to be a Soldier, Agent, Leader and Teacher … Not vice versa!

          If you start with the question who am I appart from what I do, you will hopefully avoid some of my challenges – and of those who slid into the same traps!

          Stay in touch my brother – Shaun.

      • Helena Kaufman says:

        Just a teeny weeny note: Some of Shaun’s response to John ‘seemed to have disappeared’ as Shaun wrote it… Please.. anyone wishing to comment – do so. It is not for naught.. This site is moderated so.. it’s just a short delay till we review and approve your comment. ..

    • Helena Kaufman says:

      Love your direct language, and of course for me, learning new vocabulary.
      I so appreciate your sharing your experience in this comment and in the post you permitted us to do about you just as you became a college student in your transition early years.

      All the best in 2015!
      Helena – your humble Editor on MilSuccessNet

  2. Jen O'Connor says:

    This is a very honest and thought provoking article that is very relevant for any military veteran or public service employee. So many portions of it resonated with me—the loss of status and the need for validation that came out in not so flattering ways. I went through many of the feelings that you highlighted when I separated from active duty 6 years ago. I made some poor and impulsive decisions during the two years after I left service because I wasn’t prepared for the psychological transition to civilian life and being surrounded by civilians for the first time in a decade and not being able to related to them.

    • Shaun Collins says:

      Jen – I think more of us go through this than don’t! It becomes very natural to have a sense of purpose while serving the profession of arms; but as we let go of that, nobody told us that wasn’t who we were, just what we did! I appreciate your candor and hope as others share, more people will take a moment to crack open their armor and see what is inside. Self examination is the fastest and most successful means to real personal growth! Shaun!

  3. Clif Dyer says:


    You continue to be a man I respect even in retirement. As I prepare to take that step, I feel comforted and more confident having read your article. Believe it or not, there are still those of us who look to you and other retirees for mentorship. I cannot thank you enough for being a true leader.


    • Shaun Collins says:


      I know it’s tough, but I really am just Shaun now! I deeply appreciate your extremely kind sentiments and I assure you there is s LONG list of people who raised me, influenced me and allowed me to survive mistakes!! Another list of fellow leaders; another of subordinates that I have a deeply abiding respect for and whom I would not and do not hesitate to lean on! I am always here as a resource and a friend, the bonds we have forged are forever. Having said that, I used to do a lot of things (like being a Chief, a Soldier, and an Agent) that are great memories, but do not have any connection to my real identity. Quite the reverse, my identity led me to assume those roles for a while and will guide my future – they are who I really am!

      Always here – I will honor and cherish each bond made in some wonderful and some really bad situations! As you transition, please reach out if I can ever be a sounding board!

    • Helena Kaufman says:

      Thank you for your comment…Cliff Dyer and I respectfully add for your service..

      Now.. if WE CAN BE OF SERVICE in covering a topic or securing an interview with someone you feel will help veterans pre or post transition, please let us now. Here (moderated comments) or through our contact form.

      Suggestions go to the MilSuccessNet Team through me, humbled all the time by our veterans’ grit, heart and smarts, Editor and are ALL reviewed for follow up.

  4. Shaun I’ve known you and Pam for about a lifetime and, although I know you know, thought I’d share aloud the immense amount of respect I have for you both. Thanks for sharing these insights, because much if it resonates with the experiences most of us feel, or felt. I think it is a matter of degrees for everyone, and recall vividly the last time someone referred to me as Chief. I looked at my wife and said, “that’s what I did, not who I am.” Then went about the business of bringing that statement to life.

    I must confess that for me, God had (has) a guiding hand on my life journey, and early on knew that I only created elaborate plans so He would have something to laugh about! Still, I think we all have an “I love me book” with all the awards and certificates that don’t matter to anyone, but us. I joke that I have enough challenge coins to build a bumper, but I know folks with enough to build a car!

    It wasn’t until I got my current job that I actually hung up anything permenant in my office, and they are mere emblems that remind me of my time as a “green suiter”. Like you, I’ve no regrets and proudly say it was an honor to serve. Now that I’m 8 years out of retirement I’ve become more objective and reflective. I migrated from “doing” to “teaching”, and along the way I rediscovered how much I enjoy learning! I took a page from your playbook, and created a site to try to guide transitioning military members.

    Be well my friend.

  5. John Massie says:

    great article on the retirement mindset. It spoke volumes to me and about how I have felt since retirement. I totally appreciate the support even though we are out of the Army we need mentorship. Thanks. John

  6. Shaun Collins says:

    Dr. Matthews (I get you use your title, as it’s still what you do),

    You know Pam and I think you hung the moon as well – very few people made the kind of contributions you did, without seeking fame and recognition for any of it! Your dedication to life long learning and development will no doubt serve as a motivation to all those who see your brilliance and passion. I am so honored to have worked with you for so many years and to consider you a friend! But you always were just a little more intellectually advanced than I was, so I don’t feel bad that you figured this out so much quicker than I did!!!

    Love you like a brother – your friend, Shaun.

  7. Shaun Collins says:


    I’m glad you found value in the article; it took me a long time to realize I even had a void, let alone recognized that I had anything to do with how to fill it and make it into a growth experience. We’ve all had each other’s backs all of these many years; well the good news is – that doesn’t have to stop, we just don’t have to take ourselves so seriously and try to make sure everybody knows “I’m kind of a big deal around here”! Never stop feeling like a Soldier and a leader, we just need to expect others to see us as friends – thats it!

  8. Kevin Smith Grimes says:

    Excellent article, I had the opportunity to attend both WOBC and WOAC while you were instructing. You continue to influence and lead even following retirement. Thanks!

    • Helena Kaufman says:

      Thank you Kevin Smith Grimes – I take your words as endorsement for the idea that yes! skills forged in military duty days DO transfer into civilian transition times. Attitude and personalty carries over, too. Thanks for taking time to comment, it influences all, including me as Editor to continue.

    • Shaun Collins says:

      Thank you Kevin, you too have done so much to train and develop the future force; there is no doubt that you will be a life-long influence on those you worked with! It was such an honor to work with such amazing professionals during the past few decades. I owe you all a debt I can only repay by staying engaged in new ways!


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