A lot of veteran organizations use the phrase “the next objective” — it’s a great way of communicating to military folks about how to tackle the upcoming stages in life. You might not be storming a mountainside or creeping across Afghan rooftops, but you need something to sink your teeth into. Just as you assigned great value to the military mission, so you must assign great value to something outside of the military.
There is a pervasive idea in some parts of our western culture that tells us that nothing really matters, not in a grand sense anyway. Some claim it’s rooted in science, others that it’s a cultural thing with social media or other technology — either way, the romantic idea that one’s life has inherent value is slowly being stripped away. Perhaps it’s always been like that, I’m not sure. I know that men have wrestled with the concept of purpose for a very long time — literature makes that clear enough.
Regardless of when it started, this feeling does not exist in combat. When the bullets are flying or the explosions are rocking the earth, one’s life feels pretty damn meaningful. You begin to devote the entirety of your being to small, simple tasks — clear the malfunction in my weapon, take that hill, knock out that bunker, clear that room. This feeling even exists during intense bouts of training. When you’re at your lowest, with your body and spirit broken, your heart is filled with purpose. It might be the frantic purpose of survival; it might be the heroic purpose of saving a wounded comrade — it’s purpose, nonetheless.
So how do you carry that into the civilian world? It’s unlikely most of us will find that clarity of mission again, so why tell us to seek out “the next objective”?
First of all, it’s important to understand that if your combat days are over, you can’t expect to feel those same feelings again. You will miss the comradery, the intensity of emotion, and the simplicity of nothing else in the world mattering except for the task at hand. But it’s also important to understand that that’s not all there is in life. If you’ve been blessed to survive such occasions, you need to understand that there are countless other fulfilling facets to life besides fighting through an enemy position. Building a family, traveling, meeting people of all walks of life, falling in love, helping and serving others, creating art in all its forms — these are just a few of the pieces of life that make it worth living. The trick is to find what matters to you.
You’re in charge of the target deck now. No one is going to hand you an objective, let alone prepare you for what’s ahead. If nothing else, the civilian world is a whole lot less structured than the military. You have to find a mission that matters to you, accept that it matters and embrace that it’s your purpose, and then you have to dive headfirst into it. Sometimes it’ll break your heart, sometimes it’ll fail, and you always have to stay flexible — but that’s exactly how the military was as well. The problem is just transferring that mindset to something new.
There are things that matter outside of the battlefield, and you might even find that the most important thing you ever did was after the military.