Transitioning Between Military and Civilian Life

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A civilian is a person who is not a member of the armed forces. Civilians are employed in many different fields, such as law enforcement, health care, education, business and finance, and the arts. The majority of civilians work in the United States government, with approximately 2 million people working within the 15 executive departments or independent agencies. The most prominent federal departments include the Department of Defense, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Agriculture.

Often, military personnel transitioning into civilian life will feel as though they are being pulled in several different directions. This is a normal feeling and the disconnects between military lifestyle and civilian society will take time to work out. From friends to family, the relationships will all need to be reestablished and new bonds formed.

In the pre-trial brief in the Tadic case at ICTY in 1996, the Prosecutor argued that common Article 3 of the 1949 Geneva Conventions on the Treatment of Civilians covers all non-combatants and that it is customary international law. The Defence, in its response to the Prosecutor’s brief, argued that the term civilian is not easily delineated and that the concept is not clear cut when it comes to groups that are not under the control of a central authority (as was the case with the alleged Bosnian armed group).

It is important to remember that there will be differences between your military life and the civilian world. The expectations of strict schedules, tone of voice and responses to commands, and a general level of professionalism are not typically found in civilian life.

The ICRC guidelines on the distinction between civilian and combatant imply that a person who takes part directly in hostilities loses his or her civilian status and therefore loses protection against attack under international humanitarian law (see the Bagilishema judgment of 7 June 2001, p. 104). However, state practice in non-international armed conflict has never reflected this view and it is not reconcilable with the principle of distinction which is generally recognized as customary international law.

Moreover, the ICRC holds that members of militias or volunteer corps which are a part of the armed forces of a party to an armed conflict cannot claim civilian status and neither can persons placed hors de combat. This view is consistent with the overall humanitarian purpose of the laws of war and reflects state reluctance to recognize or grant legal status to non-state armed groups.

Despite the challenges, there are many reasons to make the civilian workforce a vital part of the nation’s national security policy. Bringing in civilian expertise, experience and perspectives can help ensure the proper development of policy for the benefit of the entire country. This is especially true when it comes to areas like counterterrorism and homeland security, which must incorporate the needs and concerns of all Americans. The vast range of backgrounds that civilians can bring to these critical policymaking positions is one of the reasons why their contributions are so valuable.