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The Military Transition Theory aims to describe, explain and predict important aspects of transitions that occur throughout a service member’s military career, including: joining the military, deployments, moving from one duty station to another and leaving the military.

In this article, we describe the component of Military Transition Theory involving service members’ leaving the military. This transition entails moving from military culture to civilian culture, resulting in changes in relationships, assumptions, work context and personal and social identity. Furthermore, service members’ transitioning from military to civilian life must find new meaningful employment, build new social networks, adjust to civilian culture and often relocating to a new community.

Many veterans encounter unexpected challenges during this transition, which has tremendous implications for post-service well-being and functioning. Despite this, little has been done to conceptualize how transition occurs, identify factors that promote or impede transition, or operationalize outcomes associated with transition success. Military Transition Theory is a new theoretical framework that identifies key moments during the transition process when veterans are most likely to encounter challenges; specifically, the theory postulates three interacting and overlapping phases describing individual, interpersonal, community, and military organizational factors that impact the military transition process.

The first phase of leaving the military, referred to as Approaching the Military Transition, outlines the personal, cultural, and transitional factors that create the base of the transition trajectory. These include military cultural factors such as type of military discharge and combat history, personal characteristics (e.g., current physical and mental health), expectations and personal preparedness, and lastly factors describing the nature of the transition (e.g., predictable/unpredictable, positive/negative).

For example, it is likely that a service member who chose to leave the military willingly will have a different transition experience than a service member who did not have a choice. Also, service members who have unmet physical and/or psychological health needs may experience additional challenges during transition.
The second phase of leaving the military, referred to as Managing the Transition, refers to the factors that influence the individual progression from service member to civilian. Each individual adjustment factors, military transition management and community and civilian transition support influence this phase. Individual adjustment factors include a person’s coping styles, attitudes, and beliefs, whereas military transition management includes navigating the resources provided by the military (i.e. veteran’s affairs benefits, education benefits, and career planning).

Finally, community and civilian transition support describes those factors the civilian population can utilize in supporting transitioning service members. For example, service members who transition into communities with large systems of supportive service for veterans may have a different transition experience than those who transition into smaller communities without such support. 

The final phase of leaving the military, referred to as Assessing the Transition, describes outcomes associated with transition. These outcomes are measured through the wellness categories of work, family, health, general well-being and community. More specifically these include whether the transitioning service member secured adequate employment, the re-acclimation to family life and adjustment to new family roles, physical and psychological health, adaption of new social networks and engagement in the community. Outcomes are interconnected as they influence one another (e.g., challenges to physical health may create challenges in finding employment); however, success or failure in one outcome does not indicate success or failure in overall transition.

There is emerging empirical support for the theoretical framework outlined in Military Transition Theory. Research has shown that discharge status and health status are important determinants for a successful transition from active duty back to civilian life (Gamache, 2000). Furthermore, previous studies have employed Military Transition Theory to understand military-related suicides (Castro & Kintzle, 2014), as well as when military sexual assaults are most likely to occur amongst military personnel (Castro et al., 2015).

Finally, in studies conducted among military veterans, Military Transition Theory has shown that a successful transition back to civilian life is a function of several interrelated factors, such as having a job, health status, family support, stable housing and identity (Kintzle et al., 2013). All of these findings have important implications for how service members can be assisted as they prepare to leave the military and rejoin civilian life.

About the Authors

Carl Castro, PhD, is currently Assistant Professor and Director of the Center for Innovation and Research on Veterans and Military Families in the School of Social Work at the University of Southern California. He retired from the Army after serving for 33 years, where he obtained the rank of colonel. Dr. Castro received his PhD from the University of Colorado in 1989. He began his military career as an infantryman in 1981, and has completed two tours in Iraq, as well as serving on peacekeeping missions to Saudi Arabia, Bosnia, and Kosovo. He is currently Chair of a NATO research group on Military Veteran Transitions, a Fulbright Scholar and member of several Department of Defense advisory boards. He has authored over 150 scientific articles and reports on numerous military topics. His current research efforts focus on assessing the effects of combat and operations tempo (OPTEMPO) on soldier, family, unit readiness and evaluating the process of service members’ transition from military to civilian life.

Sara Kintzle, PhD, LMSW, is an Assistant Professor of Research in the School Of Social Work at the University of Southern California (USC). She graduated from the University of Georgia social work doctoral program and has also received a Masters and Bachelors of Social Work and a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology from the University of Iowa. Dr. Kintzle joined the USC Center for Innovation and Research on Veterans and Military Families in 2013, and has focused on military behavioral health research for the past seven years. Her research interests include the transition from military service, issues of mental health, military and veteran suicide, military sexual trauma, crisis intervention and the assessment and treatment of trauma. Dr. Kintzle has led efforts to understand the needs of veterans from a community perspective, including the Los Angeles County Veterans Study, Orange County Veterans Study, Chicagoland Veterans Study, and the San Francisco Bay Area Veterans Study. Her most recent research efforts also include a Department of Defense funded study testing the efficacy of virtual training for military behavioral health providers.


Castro, C.A., Kintzle, S., Schuyler, A. C., Lucas, C. L., Warner, C.H. (2015). Sexual assault in the military. Current Psychiatry Reports, 17(54), 1-13. doi:10.1007/s11920-015-0596-7 .

Castro, C.A., Kintzle. (2014). Suicides in the military: The post-modern combat veteran and the Hemingway effect. Current Psychiatry Reports, 16(8), 1-9. doi:10.1007/s11920-014-0460-1.

Gamache, G. (2000). Military discharge status of homeless veterans with mental illness. Military Medicine, 165(11), 803-8. Retrieved from http://libproxy.usc.edu/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/217042692?accountid=14749

Kintzle, S., Wilcox, S., Hassan, A., Ell, K. (2013). Reintegration Partnership Project: Summary of findings and key recommendations. Los Angeles, CA: Center for Innovation and Research on Veterans & Military Families.