Transitioning from military to civilian life

For veterans, returning to civilian life can be one of the most difficult experiences they’ll ever have. In the military, service members have a clear mission and a tight-knit team with whom to pursue it. They live by a common code and share the same language, dress, and even diet.

All that disappears upon discharge. After the intensity of military life, veterans may have difficulty relating to old friends and family members. They may feel unmotivated and unsure what to do in a world with less discipline and fewer expectations than the one they knew. Sometimes saddled with the psychological impact of combat trauma, they may slip into isolation, depression or substance abuse. Suicide among veterans has been a pressing public health issue for at least two decades; an estimated 20 U.S. veterans take their own lives every day.

In April 2016, IBM participated in the BrainTrust, a Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) event that explored partnership-based solutions to the problems of traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress (PTS). On the second day of the event, IBM hosted a hackathon to explore how technology might be used to help veterans. The exercise produced a wealth of ideas — not just around brain injury and PTS, but also about how technology could help veterans adjust to civilian life more broadly.

IBM participants came away from that experience with the seeds of an idea. IBM had been developing a mental fitness platform, called THRIVE360° of Mental Fitness (THRIVE) to provide helpful tools and resources for people in periods of transition and give them a deeper understanding of themselves. In November 2016, we signed a memorandum of understanding with the VA to develop a mobile solution, powered by THRIVE, for use by service members, reservists and veterans. A series of design thinking sessions led to a minimally viable product in 2017, and in 2019 to a partnership with Total Brain, which has developed a mental health and fitness platform for mobile devices.

Today, IBM is rolling out a field test of GRIT, a VA-branded digital solution — and the first THRIVE-powered solution — that helps veterans strengthen their health and well-being from physical, mental, social and financial standpoints. Two groups of veterans will begin using GRIT in a field test that begins Aug. 28 and runs through November

IBM has always had a strong commitment to helping veterans through the transition to civilian life. With their technical and leadership skills, vets often are a perfect fit for roles at IBM and comprise an important part of our team. GRIT was born out of a desire to expand that commitment by applying our talents and technology to the obstacles veterans face in their daily lives.

GRIT, which stands for Get Results in Transition, began as a way to help veterans individually and more broadly with “social determinants of health.” These are the essentials of daily life that most of us rarely think about: housing, food, transportation, a paycheck. Having them in place can be the difference between wellness and illness.

To help vets fill these needs, GRIT includes an AI-driven chatbot that enables users to ask questions and find resources related to their transition, from behavioral health services to practical matters such as how to apply for GI Bill benefits or write a resume. One of the biggest challenges for veterans can be translating a military occupational specialty into a civilian job; it isn’t always clear how to convert one’s skills as a cavalry scout or an air and missile defense crew member from the battlefield to the office park. But using AI and other technologies, the GRIT team has developed a job matching function that helps veterans find the right employment fit and encourages them to pursue opportunities.

These types of features can be enormously helpful when veterans have some idea what they need. But sometimes, we all find ourselves in situations where we don’t know how to request help or can’t fully identify the problem we’re facing. For that reason, GRIT uses AI to get to know users and direct them to resources and utilities that might be beneficial.

GRIT also uses AI to help veterans monitor their mental health and build their mental fitness thanks to IBM’s partnership with Total Brain, which provides scientific brain assessments and personalized brain and mind training to help users consolidate mental strengths and master weaknesses. In many ways, Total Brain is like a physical fitness app for the brain.

Total Brain starts with a clinically validated assessment of a user’s 12 core capacities that power the brain’s functional areas of emotion, feeling, cognition and self-control. Then, it offers a suite of activities to help improve weaker areas and, if it detects signs of a clinical mental condition, it offers the option to connect the user with professional care. Activities may include meditation and breathing exercises to reduce stress, games to improve cognitive function or exercises that encourage positive thinking by asking users to list things they feel grateful for. Users are later encouraged to re-take the baseline assessment on a monthly basis to track their progress and adapt the fitness training program available in their personalized mind gym.

GRIT users also can create groups of friends and family, known as squads, to replace some of the functions of the support network they knew in the service. With the user’s permission, the solution detects when a veteran is having a hard time, and suggests to a few selected contacts with whom they check in, without revealing any personal information. GRIT doesn’t share personal details — every interaction with the platform is confidential and secure. Just by keeping in touch, however, squads may help prevent the isolation and depression that often precede serious behavioral health issues

Technology never will replace the human relationships we have with friends, family, counselors and clergy — but GRIT isn’t meant to do that. It’s really about helping veterans to improve understanding and awareness of themselves, enable necessary self-care, and provide pathways to connecting with resources that will help them thrive.

And that’s something we could all use. Veterans are not alone in facing difficult life transitions: addicts in recovery, inmates coming out of prison and young adults aging out of foster care, for example, can face tremendous difficulties coping with their new reality. At one time or another, everyone struggles to cope with a big transition, whether it’s marriage, divorce, college graduation, a job change, having kids or losing someone close. In the long run, digital solutions like GRIT, powered by the THRIVE, could help people in all walks of life face everyday challenges and maintain an even keel whenever their seas get rough.  

For more information about GRIT and the THRIVE platform, see IBM's news release.


Nicole Gardner, senior advisor, veteran and military health, IBM | Louis Gagnon, CEO, Total Brain