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Military Identity, Psychological Flexibility, and Reintegration Experiences of Post 9/11 Service Members and Veterans


Since 2001, approximately 2.6 million U.S. Service Members have deployed the Middle East in support of Operations Enduring Freedom (OEF), Iraqi Freedom (OIF), New Dawn (OND), Inherent Resolve (OIR), and Freedom's Sentinel (OFS). Nearly 40% of those individuals deployed more than once (Institute of Medicine, 2014). Although most of these individuals reintegrate into civilian life without persistent difficulties, a significant portion experience an ongoing struggle to adjust because of physical injury, mental health concerns, or other functional problems (Sayer, Carlson, & Fraizer, 2014). Existing research on reintegration is primarily problem-focused, describing relationships between symptoms, diagnoses, traumatic experiences, and reintegration difficulty, without presenting possible solutions. The purpose of the present study was to explore how psychological flexibility, military identity, and identity conflict influence both positive and negative reintegration experiences for Veterans and Service Members.

Method. The study was conducted using a sample of 189 post 9/11 combat Veterans (N = 115) and active-duty Service Members (N = 74). Participants were recruited to complete an online survey about their reintegration experiences via Facebook and Amazon Mechanical Turk. The proposed model for Veterans hypothesized identity conflict would mediate the effects of psychological flexibility and military identity on reintegration experiences. The model for Service Members hypothesized identity conflict would mediate the effect of psychological flexibility on reintegration experiences. Military identity was included as a covariate for positive reintegration experiences. The mediation models were evaluated using PROCESS v3.0 (Hayes, 2018).

Results. The mediational hypotheses were supported in three of the Veteran models, as significant indirect effects were identified for work negative, family negative, and personal negative reintegration experiences. Findings indicate psychological flexibility and military identity transmit a significant effect to these outcome variables through the mediator, identity conflict. The hypothesized mediation models for active-duty Service Members were not supported. For both groups, psychological flexibility was significantly and positively associated with better reintegration outcomes (lower scores on measures of negative reintegration experiences and higher scores on measures of positive reintegration experiences). Increases in identity conflict were associated with increases in negative reintegration experiences in both samples. For Veterans and Service Members, stronger military identity was associated with increases on measures of positive reintegration experiences, as well as higher levels of identity conflict. Within the Service Member sample, stronger military identity was also associated with increases in reintegration difficulty and negative work experiences.

Discussion. Results from the present study indicate the relationships between military identity, psychological flexibility, and identity conflict influence the reintegration process for Service Members and Veterans. These findings can be used to guide the development of an intervention to improve reintegration outcomes. An intervention capable of increasing psychological flexibility and decreasing identity conflict would theoretically result in more positive reintegration experiences and less reintegration difficulty for both Service Members and Veterans. Results also imply that targeting military identity as a point of intervention in the reintegration process may be ineffective, as it is linked to increases in both positive and negative outcomes.

This study adds to the current understanding of reintegration by examining the process through a cultural lens. Previous research has conceptualized reintegration in terms of the difficulties experienced by military personnel following separation from service or return from a deployment. Post 9/11 reintegration experiences are often portrayed in relation to combat exposure, trauma history, negative psychological symptoms, and mental health diagnoses. This study examined the reintegration process through a less stigmatizing lens by exploring both positive and negative experiences in relation to personality, military culture, and psychological flexibility. In doing so, the present study normalizes reintegration as a cultural transition and establishes a foundation on which future interventions can be built.

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