Battle Buddy: Helping Vets Retire From Service
“Something just switched in me and I knew it was time to hang up my combat boots” explains Lila Holley, who spent 22 years in the U.S. Army. She retired in 2012 with the distinguished rank of Chief Warrant Officer 4, having served in Korea, the Philippines, Bosnia and Iraq.
Holley said she’d planned her retirement from the army well in advance. But 18 months after moving back to her hometown to help her father with his business in upstate New York she realized she was struggling emotionally with transitioning to civilian life. “I was lucky my husband was also a retired veteran and we were able to talk honestly about what I was going through.”
Ultimately Holley and her husband decided to move to Killeen, Texas, to be near the base where they’d first set up their lives together and where there is a large military community. Once there, Holley found more of the understanding she needed to deal with her complex emotions around retiring from the military. “One of the first concepts you learn in the army is that of the ‘battle buddy.’ It’s the idea that you form a tight bond with someone you know will have your back and whom you can trust fully. While I’d left the army, I realized I still needed my battle buddies.”
Holley says she was able to find the help she needed with the emotional challenges of leaving the service by turning to other veterans who had shared experiences. She says she also found a new mission for herself: “Once I opened up I realized there were a lot of other vets going through similar struggles, and I wanted to give back.”
With that in mind she launched a website and social media campaign #battlebuddy to help veterans connect and support one another. She also began working as a life coach helping service members during their transition, and she authored and published two books she hopes can offer help and insight. Battle Buddy details her own struggle and offers advice to vets on how to cope with entering civilian life, and Camouflaged Sisters she co-authored with 13 other African American female veterans who shared their own unique perspectives and thoughts on military and post-military life.
She says she offers three prime pieces of advice for veterans transitioning to civilian life:
1. Create a support system that you trust. Whether it’s family, friends or other veterans, Holley says it is vital to have people whom you can be vulnerable with and whom you feel safe confiding in. “Asking for help with deep emotions shouldn’t be a point of shame,” she says.
2. Make yourself a priority. Consideration of your own emotional well-being is crucial for a positive transition. Holley said this can be particularly true for women, who she says tend to struggle with putting themselves first. “Too often we think it is bad to be focused on our goals and needs. We think it is selfish; but if you aren’t taking care of yourself, it is hard to be positive in the lives of our loved ones.”
3. Tap into available resources. Holley suggests finding local groups or associations that offer support specifically for veterans based on their individual needs. She also says the Bureau of Veteran Affairs is a great place to start as they can often connect you to other local groups or associations that offer support for veterans based on individual need.
Holley also recommends that anyone considering retiring from the military should begin thinking about a strategy as early as three to five years before the anticipated date of retirement just to deal with the life and financial logistics. “You may want to gain a higher rank or utilize an education benefit before retiring,” she says. “Thinking about this as early as possible can really help you prepare for the financial and practical issues of retirement and transitioning.”
While help with practical matters like benefits and employment is vital, Holley says many vets need to address their emotional concerns head on. “Sometimes we aren’t the best at putting our emotions out there or asking for help. Much of our training has taught us to tamp down our feelings” she says. “When I started talking with other vets I realized that a lot of us were struggling emotionally and I wanted to find a way to help.”
Holley says she’s grateful she had such strong support from her family and husband and that she was able to finally reach out and get the help she needed in her transition. “I couldn’t have done it without my community, without feeling like there were people around me who understood my situation and who had my back. The truth is life is a series of transitions, and you need those Battle Buddies through all of them.”