The Challenges of Returning to Civilian Life

When he separated from the Marine Corps, Daniel, like so many other combat Veterans, struggled with the transition to civilian life.

In the Corps, Daniel fought, and was willing to die, for his fellow Marines. Mere weeks later, he was on his own, feeling ostracized from both the Corps and from the people he now encountered on a daily basis — people who couldn’t possibly understand what he was dealing with.

He was coming to terms with the memories of standing watch over his fellow Marine’s body in Iraq, and attempting to translate his Marine Corps experiences into a resume that a civilian employer would understand. He avoided the mental health counseling that was available to him, the kind that made him feel broken, weak, and useless.

Daniel attempted to commit suicide and almost became one more casualty.  His transition from the military wasn’t the only reason for that decision, but his story, and the stories of countless Veterans struggling to reintegrate back into Civilian life, has motivated and inspired us to make the process better. We are a small group of Harvard students that, in partnership with the VA and U.S. Digital Service, are looking for technical solutions to problems in the way that military members transition to civilian life.

Our progress:

Following the principles of user research, we have drawn on the insight and experiences of Veterans. We have interviewed and heard stories from Veterans and service members from across the Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps.  We visited local military installations and Veterans Centers — a big thank you to our friends at Hanscom Air Force Base, their Transition Assistance Program class, the USS Constitution Museum, and the New England Center for Homeless Veterans in Boston. We also engaged with private companies helping Veterans, like Three Wire Systems. We have mapped the journey of Veterans as they transition and built “user profiles” for the kinds of Veterans with whom we have interacted.

 A Map of a Veteran’s Experience Leaving the Military

A Map of a Veteran’s Experience Leaving the Military

Next Steps:

As we continue to conduct research, we are focusing on specific places where the transition process is particularly difficult, confusing, or painful. Exercises like this collaborative brainstorming “KJ” (pictured below) helped narrow our focus.

 Team Members Mapping Problems with the transition Process in an Exercise Called a “KJ”

Team Members Mapping Problems with the transition Process in an Exercise Called a “KJ”

We have identified three areas where we will focus more attention in the days to come:

  1. Process and Contact Problems

  2. Health and Psychiatric Issues

  3. Loneliness and Stigma

These broad areas reflect our continued commitment to leaving ourselves open to discover where we can make the greatest impact in our work.

We are excited by our progress thus far. More importantly, we are energized to refine these insights and turn them into actions. Inspired by Veterans like Daniel, we are looking forward to turning our ideas into real solutions.

Chris Dylewski, Ifedayo Famojuro, Simon Jones, Rebecca Schwartz, Irene Solaiman

Beyond the Uniform: Understanding the Transition From Military to Civilian Life

Introduction. At the Harvard Kennedy School, we have classmates who served in uniform in Iraq, Afghanistan, and conflict zones across the globe. Each has their own story of service: stories of pride, difficulty, companionship, and heartbreak.

Outside the Harvard University campus, approximately 200,000 service members transition from active duty to join the population of over 20 million Veterans on an annual basis.

More than a transition, this is a transformation. The U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) aims to help transitioning service members through this process, part of its larger mission: "to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan."

Enter a student team intent on furthering that mission. As students of the Harvard Kennedy School and Harvard College taking in DPI-663, a Harvard Kennedy School field class on Technology and Innovation in Government, our team is working with VA to focus on the transition process. Our team members are:

  • Chris Dylewski (HKS MPP 2018) is an Air Force officer who will report for pilot training in mid-2018. He has worked with a number of Veterans’ organizations, from Blue Star Families to the Wounded Warrior Project and The Mission Continues. Chris is co-chair of the 2018 Harvard Veterans Impact Day, and Founder & President of Rise, a non-profit organization focused on developing community-oriented leadership skills in young people.  

  • Ifedayo Famojuro (College 2018) is a Junior at Harvard College, studying Computer Science and Government. He has served on the Board of Directors of the non-profit The Rockaway Youth Task Force, and acted as a Budget Delegate on New York City’s Participatory Budgeting Initiative. He is also a Teaching Fellow for Harvard’s Introductory Programming Class (CS50), and the Director of Internal Relations of the Harvard Computer Society.

  • Simon Jones (HKS MC/MPA 2018) from the UK, served as Campaign Manager for the Liberal Democrats in South-West Surrey in the 2010 General Election. He then joined the British Ministry of Defence, where his projects included monitoring submarine and nuclear projects; acting as the UK programme lead for a UK-US programme to build a UK communications facility on Cyprus; and acting as the Head of NATO and Conventional Arms Control Policy. Simon has set up an environmental charity and established a scheme to recognise the contribution of British Veterans of the Korean War.

  • Irene Solaiman (HKS MPP 2019) has interned and studied with the U.S. Department of State since 2012 in their U.S. Foreign Service and Critical Language Scholarship programs. There, she contributed to the Human Rights and Trafficking in Persons Reports. She served U.S. Senators’ press and media needs in the Senate Republican Conference. Irene has also consulted startup companies in the Washington, D.C. area on marketing and programming. 

Meeting the team from the United States Digital Services. On February 2, we met  with the team from the U.S. Digital Service (USDS). We dove into discussion, listening to their stories about how their user-centered design builds products that saves lives on a regular basis. One of the USDS core values, to design with users and not for them, will be particularly important to our efforts going forward.

  From left to right:  Paris Martin, Rebecca Schwartz, Anne Kainic, Natalie Moore, Simon Jones, Ife Famojuro, Chris Dylewski, Irene Solaiman, Lacey Higley

From left to right: Paris Martin, Rebecca Schwartz, Anne Kainic, Natalie Moore, Simon Jones, Ife Famojuro, Chris Dylewski, Irene Solaiman, Lacey Higley

Getting Down to Work! 

Reading, listening, and understanding this community. In an effort to know and learn from our users, we have begun research and interviews. We are looking to develop a deeper understanding of the process: what’s working and what isn’t for Veterans and families. The graphic below, from a VA report on a Veteran-centered VA, has given us a taste of our challenge.

We are eager to innovate and “hack” this challenge. Thank you to Professor Sinai, the teaching team, and our collaborators at USDS and VA!

Chris Dylewski, Ifedayo Famojuro, Simon Jones, Rebecca Schwartz, Irene Solaiman