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Transitioning from the Battlefield to the Office

“That was a memorable day to me, for it made great changes in me. But it is the same with any life. Imagine one selected day struck out of it, and think how different its course would have been. Pause you who read this, and think for a moment of the long chain of iron or gold, of thorns or flowers, that would never have bound you, but for the formation of the first link on one memorable day.” - Charles Dickens, Great Expectations

I remember it vividly. Around eight o’clock in the morning on May 8, 2012 on a small Afghan outpost in Paktika province, I was awakened by my fellow intelligence analyst, Chance. “Man, I am so sorry.” he said. “You have to go out on a mission.” I had just drifted into sleep after a 24-hour shift, nestled in my sleeping bag, positioned on a four-by-eight sheet of plywood delivered to me by a recent dust storm whose purpose was to provide a barrier between me and the jagged surface below. 24-hour shifts were uncommon, done on an as-needed basis, but I was asked to provide nighttime surveillance because there had just been an attack on the nearest Afghan forward operating base. The understanding between the company commander and I was that, because I had been working all day and was set to begin an impromptu night shift, I would not have to go out on a mission the next day; due to a new rule created by the battalion commander, twelve other soldiers would have to stay back as well.

A week prior, I had woken up after a night shift to discover I was by myself with the Afghan troops. The rest of the company had gone out on a patrol and either forgot about me or thought I would be fine by myself. Tensions were high due to recently discovered Qurans in the burn pit at Bagram Airfield and retaliatory insider attacks involving Afghan and US soldiers were on the rise. I wandered the outpost in disbelief with no radio or translator; all I carried was my M16, loaded and ready. Two hours passed when, to my relief, the battalion commander and command sergeant major made a surprise visit to the little outpost. Unannounced, they descended upon the base in their Blackhawks and were surprised to see me in my predicament. They contacted the company commander and ordered him to end his patrol and return to the outpost at once. When the company arrived, the battalion commander reprimanded the company commander, after which he announced that from hence forth, if any number of soldiers stayed behind on the base during a mission, there must be at least thirteen.

On the morning of the eighth, for reasons unknown to me, the company commander decided to strike our agreement and bring me out on mission, despite my being awake for 24 hours. I clumsily put on my gear, idling in some drunken phase between sleep and consciousness, and loaded up in the lead vehicle.

The convoy hurriedly departed from the base, skipping the routine pre-mission test-fire of the vehicle-mounted weaponry. Intelligence had suggested an insurgent safe-haven was located about ten kilometers north, and so we headed in that direction to conduct interrogations. As we neared closer, vehicle passageways narrowed, increasing the risk for improvised explosive devices (IEDs). The convoy slowed to a snail’s pace as explosive ordinance disposal crews (EOD) combed the path ahead with hand-held metal detectors. We approached a dry river bed with a single point of traversal when suddenly one of the metal detectors indicated detection of an IED. EOD gently wiped away the top layer of sand and dirt to expose approximately 50 pounds of homemade explosives with a low-metallic pressure plate trigger.

EOD began the process of safely detonating the IED. While positioning a block of c4 plastic explosive on top of the pressure plate, the crackle of ak47s began piercing the air. The enemy rate of fire quickened and soldiers began yelling out directions, distances, and descriptions as they were trained. “twelve o’clock, approximately four-hundred meters, Kalashnikov!”, one soldier exclaimed. 7.62 rounds ricocheted off the ballistic armor of our vehicles and rocket-propelled grenades skipped along the desert floor, indicating that the enemy was firing from trenches. One shell-shocked gunner fired his 60-caliber machinegun with his eyes closed, screaming, hitting the ground a mere 100 meters away. Another gunner laid over his Mk 19, working frantically to pry loose a jammed shell. The platoon leader could be heard over the radio, screaming “fall back, fall back!”, to which the platoon sergeant replied “shut up, you idiot! Second platoon, keep firing!” The trigger system of the new remote-control M240 mounted onto my vehicle had malfunctioned and so our squad leader laid on top of the vehicle, fully exposed, manually squeezing the trigger while a squad member controlled the movement of the gun from inside. I opened the back air-hatch of the vehicle and began providing suppressive fire with my M16. Platoon members in other vehicles followed suit and Apache helicopters were called in for air support. Upon the helicopters’ arrival, the enemy fire ceased, and we made our way to their position on foot.

The enemy location was scoured for evidence and interrogations of the locals ensued. After concluding investigations, we made our way back towards the outpost, moving slowly as EOD searched for IEDs, when a frantic call came over the radio. An Afghan police vehicle had hit an IED a few kilometers away. The passenger of the vehicle sustained fatal injuries and the driver was in need of immediate assistance. EOD crews quickly loaded into their respective vehicles and the convoy raced towards our Afghan counterpart. We were making our way through a narrow alleyway when, all of a sudden, I was overcome by complete darkness. The front passenger-side tire of my vehicle flattened a crush-foam pressure plate trigger. Ball-bearings made contact with the upper and lower plates, closing the circuit and sending a current to a blast cap inserted into 80 pounds of home-made explosives. The front end of the fifteen-ton vehicle lifted into the air. The fiber glass hood disintegrated, and parts of the right tire and rim were launched nearly a hundred meters away. The vehicle violently crashed down, landing in a charred, newly created crater. The other occupants and I lost consciousness.

I woke up to the driver calling out my name. “Sergeant Liddle are you ok?”, he asked. I looked over myself, checking for signs of injury. “I don’t know”, I responded incoherently. I was severely disoriented, numb and nauseous. My left arm was bloodied and swollen at the elbow from what I assume was an unconscious fight with the radio mount next to me. Vision in my right eye was blurred and a constant ringing flooded my right ear. The rest of the platoon established a security perimeter and we began making our way out of the vehicle. The frame was twisted by the force of the explosion, making it impossible to open any of the doors. One by one we climbed out through the air hatch and were

examined by the combat medic. The driver of the vehicle suffered the worst injuries and required an immediate medevac. The rest of us were deemed ambulatory and remained under the supervision of the medic until a convoy could arrive at the outpost to transport us to the brigade clinic. The next morning, we were transported to the clinic to be examined by a doctor. We were each diagnosed with mild traumatic brain injuries (mTBI). I also suffered a torn retina in my right eye. We were transported to a clinic specialized in treating brain injuries. The time we spent there varied from one soldier to the next. I spent a week in the clinic. Each day I would undergo mental and physical tests. Balance exercises, brain teasers, and common vital readings were used to determine the extent of my injury and whether not I was healing as expected. After a week I had grown tired of the clinic. In order to return to duty, I was informed I would have to complete a stress test, which involved riding a stationary bicycle, increasing and decreasing tension according to the medical supervisor’s instructions, and relaying any mental or physical symptoms I experience to them. I decided I would opt for the stress test and lie about any mental or physical symptoms I experienced. Seven days after my arrival to the clinic, I was released and deemed fit for duty.

Time passed and we returned home from our deployment. My physical and mental state worsened. I was having difficulty driving, suffering from panic attacks, wondering if I might hit an IED. My wife told me I was telling her the same story repeatedly throughout the day, as if I had not already told her. Any amount of physical exertion would cause blood to leave my head; my face turned white, lips blue, and I experienced extreme light-headedness. It was not until the brigade commander, who regularly attended the same church as my wife and I, came across me walking while the rest of my platoon vigorously exercised during our daily physical training session. He asked me how I was feeling and, sensing that I was not disclosing the worst of my symptoms to him, he ordered my battalion sergeant major to get me help at once. My battalion sergeant major, who also suffered an IED-inflicted injury during our deployment, guided me through the medical treatment process. He took me to see all the same doctors he had seen, regularly checked in on me, and became a great source of encouragement. Eventually my wife and I received orders to a new base. Though the people were new, and places were different, I still received the same assistance getting the medical attention I needed. General guidance is one of the things I miss the most about the military. Although it exists in the civilian world, finding it can be a difficult task.

Consequently, the process of transitioning out of the military can be rather daunting, but it is not impossible.

Making the Transition

The process of transitioning from the military to the civilian world is a trivialized, and perhaps underrepresented task that veterans must undertake, especially because it entails reversing a great deal of militarized socialization. The military spends a large amount of time and money purging fresh recruits of their civilian customs and ideologies. I remember my first day of basic combat training. Comparable to a child’s first day of preschool, although not quite as pleasant, drill instructors welcomed me into military society, teaching me how to eat, drink, and sleep (among other things). I was given room and board, free health-care, and specialized training all-the-while receiving a steady paycheck. Night and day, during basic training, the instructors guided me in my day-to-day activities, anticipating and preparing me for every possible scenario I might encounter. Though the reins were loosened after I graduated from basic combat training, I continued to receive guidance; whether it was in the form of a checklist or a set of step-by-step instructions, I was given direction on virtually any task to which I was assigned.

The process of transitioning back into the civilian world was not as organized as its counterpart. Whereas the militarized socialization phase can last anywhere from three months to two years, the civilian re-socialization phase is much, much shorter; mine was one week. Known as out-processing in the US Army, it consisted of a series of presentations on things such as how to write a resume and how to translate your military skills into civilian terminology. Although some of the presentations were informative, they were rushed and lacked the reinforcement training that accompanied important military skills such as rifle marksmanship. After completing out-processing, I was thrust into the civilian world with neither the equivalent of a drill instructor nor a checklist to guide me. By this point, though, I finally knew what I wanted to do with my life.

Know Your Interests

In late 2012, I began seeing a behavior health specialist to help me deal with residual symptoms of the mTBI that I had suffered during my deployment to Afghanistan that same year. It became apparent to him that I was feeling lost and in need of direction. I was nearing the end of my military contract and I had to start planning for life after the Army. I knew I would go to college, but I did not know what I wanted to major in. The Army clinic had been given a set of prepaid licenses for a personality test known as the Strong Interest Inventory, of which I was given one. I had taken personality tests before, but this 365-question behemoth was by far the most comprehensive. The results told me a lot about myself, such as why I do things a certain way or how I am likely to perform in certain situations. It then compared my results to a vast database of professionals in the workforce who had taken the same test, in addition to rating their satisfaction with their current professions. This comparison indicated that I would most likely strive in and enjoy a career in the fields of engineering, science, and information technology. I took the results into great consideration and six years later, after changing my major from civil engineering to physics and from physics to computational physics, I graduated from the University of Texas in Austin with a Bachelor of Science. I now work in the Innovation Center at RSI, where I am currently developing complex machine learning algorithms to perform tasks such as classification and predictive analytics. I love what I get to do for a living, and I cannot imagine doing anything else. Knowing my interests aided in the quick and simple transition from soldier to student.

Ask for Help

I worked in the Army as a cryptologic linguist and intelligence analyst, a noncombat military occupational specialty (MOS). Soldiers with a noncombat MOS are statistically less likely to be injured during a deployment because, for most of them, their jobs do not require them to be on the front line. So, when one of these soldiers gets injured, taking them away from their job to seek medical or behavioral treatment is not entirely disruptive to the ground mission. Soldiers in combat positions, however, are more frequently injured. With the rise of IEDs, an entire squad can often be taken out in one instance. Losing an entire squad is incredibly disruptive to the ground mission. This disruption is likely one source of the stigma associated with seeking medical or behavioral help. Soldiers feel ashamed, whether it is because of how their absence will affect their company, or because one of their peers had previously suffered a similar injury and did not seek medical attention. This stigma was so prevalent that, when I was in Afghanistan, combat soldiers who experienced their third IED blast within six consecutive months were forced to leave their company and stay in a mTBI clinic until the medical officer deemed them fit for return to duty.

I did not experience any sort of stigma, so, during my last two years in the military, I went to a neurologist monthly and a behavioral health specialist weekly, receiving a regiment of counseling and medication to aide in my recovery. By the time I exited the service in 2014, my mental and physical health were in a suitable condition for me to begin attending college. During college, I continued receiving medical treatment for symptoms associated with my combat injury. I have since graduated and, though I still require routine care, I am in much better health now and I continue to show improvement. My continued medical treatment played an important role in my smooth transition from soldier to civilian.

There is no shame in asking for help. You have served honorably, now let others serve you.

Congregate with Like Minds

One of the hardest parts about leaving the military is losing the comradery you had with your fellow soldiers. Luckily, there are all sorts of organizations in existence that facilitate continued networking between veterans, such as the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) and the American Legion. If you need a less diverse organization, there are some with focused purposes, such as the Student Veteran Association (SVA). When I started the process of applying to and attending college, the SVA at the University of Texas in Austin guided me through the orientation process and connected me with like-minded student veterans at the school. They also sent me alerts whenever veteran specific grants and scholarships were available, two of which I applied for and won. My involvement with the SVA led to my successful completion of the Bachelor of Science program and facilitated my transition from student to professional.

Key Steps to a Successful Transition

The key steps to a successful transition out of the military and into the civilian workforce are not one-size-fits-all, however, I do believe that the key points in this post (know your interests, ask for help, congregate with like minds) will play an integral part in the successful transition of any military veteran into the civilian world.

Alex Liddle

RSI Director of Innovation

US Army Veteran & Purple Heart Recipient