“Transition from military service is inevitable, yet we do little to prepare women and men for this emotional experience, for what’s coming — the sense of loss and uncertainty — and that sense of loss and uncertainty is normal.”
Our Make Your Mark series, powered by the NFL, showcases the global impact of the Tillman Scholars who are writing the story of a better future. In these videos, they share their works of humble leadership and service across both public and private sectors.
In her talk “The Game Will End,” Tillman Scholar Karen Gallagher describes the feeling of transitioning from military service to civilian life and how she had to adapt to a new identity – one that wasn’t that of soldier.
What struck Karen most was how little was done to prepare servicemen and women for the emotional experience and uncertainty of leaving the military. She compares leaving the military to how an elite athlete might feel upon retiring from their sport. In her research, Karen found that though these two pathways seem very different, they intersect strongly in how they affect identity, and in how they end.
Karen’s work focuses on developing measures to better understand the impact of uncertainty and loss of identity, and variables that can impact growth and wellness in veterans and transitioning athletes. For example, she found that in both of these populations, higher tolerance for uncertainty predicts some really important things, like grade point average, better decision making, less anxiety, higher wellness scores.
Watch Karen’s Make Your Mark talk and read the transcript below.
No one prepared me or Brett Favre for leaving the game. Now I know what you’re thinking — what does a five-foot one-inch woman have in common with a Hall of Fame quarterback? My foreclosed identity, of course. When I left my all-girls Catholic high school and ran away to join the Army, I didn’t just leave my life behind. In a lot of ways, I left myself, my civilian self. I took on a new identity, one that was necessary for my success, my survival. Yes, I was still a short girl from SoCal with a sardonic sense of humor, but that’s a description, not an identity. My identity became soldier, paratrooper. Like many of you, I underwent intense training to transform every facet of myself into a soldier. Deploying further invested me and further bonded me to my Army sisters and brothers. Whether you served three years or 30 years, your entire adult identity becomes this military identity. But military service ends. It always ends, and it’s always hard.
Some of us didn’t want to leave the military, but had to for one reason or another. Some of us couldn’t wait to ETS, counting down the days with a short timer’s attitude to the sheer annoyance of anyone within earshot. “18 days in a wake up.” Yet almost none of us found this so-called freedom easy, or resembling anything we had imagined. I call this the “Trauma of Freedom.” I’ll explain. I lived this struggle in my own transition. I went from frontline to front door and enrolled in college, where I promptly got lost. I spoke to no one, I didn’t relate to them. I wasn’t one of them, I didn’t feel like I belonged. The traumas that we experience during military service can be buffered by the strong bonds of sisterhood and brotherhood, and the high degree of structure that provides some predictability. Once removed from these intense relationships and meaningful service, veterans can often face delayed consequences affecting their health, their cognition, their overall wellness. Instead of preparing these veterans for inevitable feelings of loss and uncertainty, we wait for the consequences and then attempt to treat those consequences. Now don’t get me wrong, I am grateful for the strides we’re making in mental health treatments — that work needs to continue.
But the trauma of freedom is also real. Transition from military service is inevitable, yet we do little to prepare women and men for this emotional experience, for what’s coming — the sense of loss and uncertainty — and that sense of loss and uncertainty is normal. So, what does all of this have to do with Brett Favre? I mean the fame and monetary gain obtained from high level athletic achievement seems like a far cry from the modest nature and modest income of military service. However, my research has shown that, though these two pathways seem very different, they intersect strongly in how they affect identity, and in how they end.
Elite athletes typically take on their identities as athletes at a very young age and that identity follows them throughout their lifetime, and it forecloses their thinking to life after the game ends. I have heard professional athletes and coaches talk about needing the athlete to remain exclusively invested in their identity as an athlete as a necessary component of winning. How can we have them think about leaving the game in the very moment we need them invested in believing that they will continue to win and succeed? This fusion of who they are with what they do does not prepare them for life after the game. And the game will end. It always ends, and it’s always hard.
When “it” ends, either military service or elite athletic careers, there’s a sense of loss: loss of bonds of sisterhood and brotherhood, loss of purpose, and ultimately, loss of identity. Yet preparation for leaving the military or elite-level athletics is focused on more concrete components like accessing benefits, financial management, or vocational pursuits. There’s little to no preparation for the social emotional elements. See, I would never send somebody to a totally unfamiliar place, wait for them to get lost and only then send help. So why don’t we prepare military service members and athletes for this foreseeable, inevitable transition experience? What if we gave them the map upfront? What if we normalized it?
My work focuses on developing measures to better understand the impact of uncertainty and loss of identity, and variables that can impact growth and wellness in veterans and transitioning athletes. For example, I have found that in both of these populations, higher tolerance for uncertainty predicts some really important things, like grade point average, better decision making, less anxiety, higher wellness scores. If we understand which factors promote resilience and which predict poor outcomes in transition, we can develop structured, pre-transition programs that prepare individuals and normalize the transition experience. In medicine, we talk about how discharge starts at admission, right? We start preparing patients and planning for their next level of care as soon as they’re admitted. The British Army does this, they prepare for discharge on admission.
We need to advocate for planning our civilian futures as soon as we start becoming our military selves. See, you may not know when the game will end. You may not even know it has ended after it has ended, but you do know that it will end. But you won’t end. Let’s start handing out the maps.