So much of life after combat is an identity crisis. Yes, there’s the emotional, mental and physical pain. The nightmares, rage, insomnia. The grief, the edginess, the isolation. Forced smiles, numbness and lack of connection. But underneath it all, there’s something else. There’s the questions: why am I still here? Who am I now?

Underneath them is the fear that you no longer have purpose.

There are two levels to purpose. The surface level — the kind of purpose that comes from what you do (your job, responsibilities, activities, etc.). And the deeper kind that comes from who you are (your personal values, the primary energy you operate from, etc.). For life to feel right, a good portion of what you do should be determined by who you are.

You get hit with changes to both of them when you separate from the military. And, unlike most civilian jobs, for warfighters, what you do and who you are, are often the same.

Nothing equals combat’s sense of purpose

I don’t need to explain to you why nothing feels as gratifying, important or as meaningful as combat. How you were trained and bonded to move as one with your team, how that trust runs so deep it cannot be compared to anything in the civilian world. How cohesiveness and unity created your sense of identity and purpose. And how the risk to your lives sealed it.

So let me just make this clear right now: there is no more engaging sense of purpose than that of protecting and defending each other’s lives in combat. Or of suffering together, not because someone forced it on you, but because you stepped up to walk among the chosen few. You will not find anything in the civilian world that will equal that feeling.

You can stop looking for it.

Lost in a civilian no-mans-land

You get out of the military and your whole life spreads before you. Wide open. You don’t know what you want to do, and you don’t know what you should be doing. There’s no one now to define what the shape of your days and nights looks like. And no threat to your existence that makes the future seem irrelevant.

You’re stranded out here with no clue what to do in this civilian world. You don’t want to be a civilian (you’ll never be one of them, don’t worry), but you DO have to live among them and find some way to make a life.

No, you can’t go back, but you don’t know how to go forward because all you long for is what you left behind. Every civilian you know assumes you’re relieved and happy to be done with the military. They don’t stop to think that you’re like a pro athlete who, at the height of his career, gets injured and will never play again. You don’t just face career choices, you face a void of purpose. It’s not that you just lost your job, it’s that you lost your whole identity. But even more important, you lost something very few people will ever experience:

What it is to be fully, deeply alive.

This isn’t about finding the right job or career path and hoping it will fulfill you. This is about the “who you are” side of purpose. And it’s spiritual, because you are an eternal spirit having an earthly experience. Until you solve the “who you are” side, nothing you do will feel like purpose.

The hidden purpose every warfighter forgets

Humanity looks to religion and meditation to find enlightenment of the soul. Well, guess what? No one knows spiritual enlightenment like a warfighter.

And you know what else? You aren’t just missing your team and your war, you’re missing feeling spiritually alive. Present. In the now. Surrendered to Life and Death, content to live now, live fully. There is no future to worry about when Death is trying to send you Home early. There is no past to regret when your buddy is taking fire and you are in a position to save him. There’s only now. And it’s beautiful, colorful and permeated with heightened awareness and simplicity.

But that feeling vanishes when you come home and before you know it, you’re reduced to bitching that civilians don’t have a fucking clue what life is all about.

Do you know why warfighters hate civilians? It’s not just that civilians have no clue about “the real world” – it’s that they are unenlightened. They spend their lives worrying over stupid shit that wouldn’t phase you. Their lives seem to have so little meaning, and they seem to waste them. It grates on your soul because you know exactly how precious and fragile life is. And they don’t give a shit what you know. So, you bitch about them and feel some sense of camaraderie in knowing that your fellow warfighters also hate civilians. It gives you something to rally around. A place to funnel the hate that you once would have directed toward your enemy. What it really does is distract you from what would be time better spent figuring out how to take your enlightenment and use it to do something productive and meaningful.

Because just because you no longer wear a uniform, doesn’t mean your obligation to live with honor and do something important is over.

All you will ever need to be happy and have purpose, you possess right now

So, what are you supposed to do? Or more accurately, what do most of you do? Whine, mope, bitch, lash out at everyone around you because they don’t understand you and you aren’t all that happy to be in these circumstances. You think you are special (and you are special), but you sure as hell aren’t acting like warfighters who were taught values. You’re not very likable this way, are you?  Yes, you say you don’t give a fuck what anyone thinks, but the reality is, you do. It hurts to be left out, to not belong, to be drowning inside, to lose your relationships, your marriage, your family. And your attitude just drives you deeper into the darkness. Alone. You know what? It’s time to man the fuck up and live for something greater than you. Yes, your life sucks right now. Yes, you are in a lot of pain. Yes, you have open wounds that burn like hell when anything gets too close. Yes, you don’t belong. I get it. I do. I ache for you. And I am here for you to help you fight your way out of this. But I am fucking tired of seeing incredibly good, strong, powerful men and women who know more than most people how beautiful life is (and are still blessed to be breathing) act as if they are powerless, choose to commit suicide instead of being willing to do anything to find wellbeing, act as if they got dealt a bad hand, or as if they didn’t sign up and step up to be the chosen few. You are better than this.

It’s time you remembered who you are.

Men and women of courage. Strong. Capable of enduring what most people won’t. Men and women who own their power, know their limits, and know that you don’t fight alone, you move and win as a team. You don’t endanger a teammate’s life by keeping your mouth shut if you’re low on resources. You put the wellbeing of your team first, and part of that means making sure you are well and supported. (If you are fighting this post-combat battle on your own right now, you are endangering a brother. You need to fuck that, reach out and rely on the support available to you. Stop believing the lie that you’re not capable of healing and rebuilding a life that feels good.) No, you don’t let someone defeat you. You own this fight. As a team. THIS is who you are.

But even more so, it’s time you remember that you have the power to be significant.

Right now, in this moment.

You don’t need the VA to tell you what you can or cannot do.

You don’t need someone else to assign you your role.

You don’t need permission to change your life for the better.

All you need to do is to remember that you — and ONLY you — can choose your attitude. That’s where your power is. That’s where it’s always been. From the day you enlisted and every day since.

Step up and matter

I look out at so many warfighters that I love so deeply and you know what I see? I see how beautiful your scars are. Scars that are earned — not by surrendering to what is easy, but by refusing to give up when it hurt. I see men and women who have lived through combat and are still here. I see men and women who want to be significant again. Because you have what only the chosen few possess. And we need you to do more than lead small, me-centered lives. We need your leadership in how to live with courage. Leadership in how to be mentally strong. Leadership in how to live each day as if it fucking matters.

Because it DOES fucking matter.

You want to know your purpose? There is only ONE purpose for human life. And that purpose is to love.

That’s it.

That’s the magic key to the rest of your life. Loving others. Not the “no one loves me so I can’t love anyone” kind of love. Hell, no.

You are here to love with a power and depth that comes from being enlightened. You are here to love others even if it requires sacrifice. You are here to love because that’s how you create a life that matters. And I’m not talking about romantic love. I’m talking about the kind of love that has you seeing the people around you as human beings who, for the most part, are scared of truly living and fear they’re inadequate. The kind of love that has you leaving a generous tip to a taxi driver, not because he “deserves it”, but because his life might be a bit harder than yours. The kind of love that has you asking how your annoying coworker’s weekend went, not because she’s nice to you, but because she’s going through a divorce and it’s tough.

Sacrificial love that demands all you have. Why? Why should you sacrifice more? Because you know what love is. And you are capable of more. If you want to argue that a warfighter’s purpose is to kill and hate, let me ask you this: what held you together in combat? What keeps you here now? What is it that has you reading this article, by this woman you don’t know, who is speaking words that sting and inspire you somewhere deep within?

Love. Not the soft, mushy, fragile, fear-based, self-protective kind. Real love. The I will die for you kind of love. The love you already know how to live.

And why should you love? Why should you put yourself out there and ask nothing in return?

Because it is where joy lives. It’s the closest you’re going to get to feeling like you did in war. And it’s your spiritual calling.

Guardians and defenders of a different kind

What if you took that kind of love and stepped up, once again? This time not to defend and protect against terrorists, but to defend and protect against the limited thinking that keeps people small, insignificant, afraid of their own Light and greatness? What if you made it your mission to stop bitching about how much war hurts you and start adding life to those who are more dead inside then you’ll ever be? What if you just made kindness and listening and helping others expand their perspective on living your purpose for today? What if you once again lived an others-centered life?

Here’s what I want you to understand. It doesn’t matter what job you do. It doesn’t matter if you turn this way or that way. It doesn’t even matter if no one else loves you first. You are a being of love and power. You are capable of choosing to be lit from within by love. And when you operate your life based on the energy of love, you feel good. You feel significant. You feel blessed. You are powerful.

It’s that simple.

There is no secret to purpose. You choose which energy you will operate from. Love empowers and nourishes you. Hate and me-centeredness does not.

Am I being flippant by making this seem simple? No. I know you have PTSD, TBIs, physical wounds, losses, you’re grieving, hell, I know this well. I know that you get moody and you don’t mean to flip out on people. And yes, there is a place for medication and counseling and various types of therapy. But in all the biggest changes and transformations in life, whether or not you end up with a life that feels good comes down to this: the perspective you choose to have. The energy you choose to live from.

You can be wounded and not be an asshole. You can be wounded and be happy. You can live from a place of gratitude and positive energy. You can choose to stop bitching, stop focusing on the negative, and start doing the work of healing and post-traumatic growth. That work means you start by humbling yourself to accept what you cannot change and that you change what you can.

You can step up and choose to live for something other and greater than yourself.

Loving others will give you back your sense of significance. It is the key to every meaningful life.

And you can start choosing to live by Love right now.

8 thoughts on “How to Find Your Purpose After Combat

  1. You are so welcome. Purpose lies in serving others, in making a difference, even if it’s just small ones to the people near you. I pray you will find a new sense of identity because your presence here matters.

  2. THANKS. SEMPER FI. Since comin back nearly 15 years ago, I haven’t yet figured out how I’m supposed to be in this world since I took off my uniform. I knew who I was then. Thanks again.

  3. Thank you, Ben. That means a lot to me! Please feel free to use any of my articles in your work with vets, if you wish. And let me know how I can be of support to you, as well.

  4. Thanks Britta. I’m a Veteran who served in combat himself. I’m a counselor now who works with Veterans returning from war.This article is truly inspirational, refreshing, & most importantly extremely accurate to the problems we face in our every day lives. It also presents practical, non-clinical ways to turn things around in a positive way. Thanks & peace be with you sister-Ben

  5. Another GREAT article.
    I come here often to read and re-read your work. Keeps me my head level when I feel my PTSD creeping up on me.

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