Making Peace with the Warrior Next Door: Rituals in Identity, Wellness, and Transition in Veteran Communities
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The nature of conflict requires service members to set aside peacetime roles and perhaps even disengage from closely-held self and worldviews. The transformation from civilian to service member is effectively addressed through the total experience of indoctrination, training, and, for some, combat experience itself. While a tremendous amount of energy is spent creating service members and fostering warrior ethos, little institutional work is done to aid combatants when they return from combat deployments or service members after they separate from service. Throughout one’s experience and lifetime, how does one maintain identity and engage in the performance of roles between such vitally opposing and total situations as “warrior” and patient, partner or parent? This study began with the experiences of members of infantry, special operations, and combat rescue units in the US military who had repeatedly deployed for combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan following September 11, 2001. As the project got underway, it expanded to included veterans who were separating from service and entering into new civilian roles as students, household members, and new professions. This, in turn, expanded the focus to include the experiences of veterans of earlier eras of conflict, including the Gulf War, Cold War, Vietnam, Korea, and World War II. Informants include not only veterans, but also those closest to them in the lifelong process of transitioning. Widows, orphans, practitioners, and communities of shared vital interests are represented in this ethnography. Utilizing interviews, participant observation and comparative case studies based on interdisciplinary theoretical perspectives, this study focuses on the effects and challenges of transitions between stages of military and civilian life on the identities, self perceptions, family and professional lives, and wellbeing of former service members in the US. More directly, this is an accounting of the processes of becoming, being, and undoing roles including “warrior” and whatever else comes after. Particular emphasis is placed on the experiences of transitioning in education, household, and aging. From this study’s informants come lessons showing that challenges to veteran wellbeing are reflections of broader societal health, stigma, and access to economic, cultural, and social capital in transition.