Military Life

5 more signs you are institutionalized by your military service

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military institutionalized
U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Dylan Chagnon.

It’s been noted that your military service made lasting impact on both your identity and behavior. Some might even say you’ve been institutionalized by the experience. You may not recognize the signs but it’s likely others do. To be honest you may not want to change, but you should at least have the self-awareness to come to terms with the perception others have of you as veteran. Then you can decide if you want to modify your behavior or maintain the status quo.

Listed below are 5 more signs you are institutionalized

When it rains you go outside to train. Military folks love to use the phrase “embrace the suck”. It is a bumper sticker (or more likely a morale patch) that conveys a certain attitude. You are going to be in austere locations, in extreme conditions, and highly uncomfortable. In short, it’s going to suck. When it is hot/cold/wet and extremely long days are filled with physically demanding tasks, attitude is everything. Hence embrace the suck. It seems more often than not when you go to the field for a training exercise, it rains. Inevitably someone in the ranks gives voice to another age-old phrase “if it ain’t raining, we ain’t training”. This becomes so ingrained in the veterans psyche they absolutely expect it to rain every time they go to the field. In advanced stages they then feel compelled to go outside when it rains. You’re no longer in uniform, but when it rains you naturally walk outside, light a smoke, and stand around waiting for someone to tell you what to do. When someone asks you what you are doing you simply reply “Good training, is it not?”

You wake up at night and feel for your rifle.

Everyone has something they are scared of, something that strikes ice cold fear in their hearts. It could be snakes, flying, or THE GUNNY. The universal fear for a certain class of veterans (like grunts), is waking up and not feeling your rifle beside you. While on active duty whether you were in combat or training, your rifle was always within arm’s reach. At night it was by your slide. You learned to sleep lightly and in half-wakened moments you grip your rifle and ensure it was still there. Years later when your time in uniform is well into the rear view mirror you occasionally wake at night. Before you orient to your home and bedroom, for a moment you think you are back over there. You reach for the familiar feel of your weapon and fail to make contact with steel. Your heart rate increases and you sit up fully alert, yet bewildered where your rifle may be. Once you see the curtains, the alarm clock, and a sleepy pet staring strangely back at you, you realize “Oh yeah, I’m home. Good to go” and immediately fall back asleep.

institutionalized at parris island
Recruits of Platoon 4018, Oscar Company, 4th Recruit Training Battalion, lay in their beds at the end of the day May 1, 2014, on Parris Island, S.C., before a drill instructor gives the command to turn out the lights, signaling the end of the training day. (Photo by Lance Cpl. Vaniah Temple)

You are fifteen minutes early for EVERYTHING.

Your Drill Instructors and NCO’s, with their knife hands, left such an impression on you that it is not feasible for you to be late. The old adage “five minutes early is ten minutes late” is something you believe is as fundamental as the law of gravity. It cannot be defied. You know the doctor won’t call you from the waiting area until forty-five minutes after your appointment time, yet there you are sitting in the lobby fifteen minutes before the appointment thereby orchestrating you own one hour wait. Being institutionalized means you are early for your dinner reservations and have zero patience if your table isn’t ready. Sometimes you even set your clock and watch fifteen minutes ahead of time as a buffer to never run the risk of being late, much to the chagrin of family members. When you arrive to an event with your children at precisely the time prescribed for the occasion, you ashamedly look around and feel anxiety about having been “late”.

Who’s on watch?

While you were in the military someone was always on watch. ALWAYS. Officer of the Day, Duty NCO, sentries, roving patrols, etc. This served more than simply to provide a layer of security in the event of a threat. It also served to preserve order and discipline. It meant there was someone in place to prevent a mishap and to competently provide and immediate response when they did occur. A Marine leader walking into a barracks or company area, sees something amiss, and barks out “Who’s on duty?!” Likewise, the institutionalized veteran comes home and sees the dog got in the trash or the cat knocked over a vase and his first response is “Who’s on duty?!”

Living the dream!

In the Marine Corps you will occasionally hear pseudo-motivational phrases. Among these include “The Marine Corps! Every meal a feast, every paycheck a fortune, every formation a family reunion!” Rather than communicating genuine perspectives, phrases like this reflect a measure of cynicism, playfulness, and dark humor that belie a begrudging affection for the Corps. In similar fashion when a leader asks a Marine how they are doing the inevitable response is “Living the dream Sir!” even when the conditions are obviously undesirable. This is another indicator of embracing the suck. Veterans experiencing symptoms of institutionalization will instinctively respond “Living the dream” each time the casual “how are you doing” is rendered.

Be proud of your service, others are and will thank you for it. However, in the spirit of holistic wellness, do a little self-check to see if you are showing long lasting effects of your time in uniform. The 5 signs listed above will indicate if you indeed have been institutionalized.