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