Latino Veterans’ Transition to Civilian Life in the US


Transitioning periods are particularly challenging for diverse populations, which makes them important for social work. Among the groups that experience transition, veterans and migrants are noteworthy. Their concerns are similar in many regards, including, for instance, employment and healthcare. However, there are also significant differences that may be connected to different levels of societal integration and various forms of cultural change (Alarcón et al., 2016; Blackburn, 2016; Kelly, 2016). For migrant veterans, all these factors interact in ways that have not been researched properly.

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Nowadays, veteran migrants (VMs) are not very common in the US, but this group is societally important. Migrant military members have been contributing their skills and knowledge to the benefit of US citizens for many decades (Chishti, Rose, & Yale-Loehr, 2019). However, little is known about the experiences that they have after retiring and attempting to integrate into their new society. Here, it is proposed to investigate the dual transitioning of first-generation Latino migrants who are also former US military members.

This paper will present the problem, explain its significance, and frame it with the help of three theoretical frameworks that are cited by Robbins, Chatterjee, and Canda (2011). Specifically, phenomenology, the bidimensional model of acculturation (BMA), and the empowerment theory (ET) will be described and applied to the problem of the dual transitioning of first-generation Latino veterans. The paper will show that these theories have already been applied to the topic, and it will critically evaluate their usefulness for the investigation of Latino veteran experiences. Eventually, a conclusion will be drawn to demonstrate the utility of individual theories, as well as their integration.

Statement of the Social Problem

Being a military or an immigrant poses various threats to a person’s acculturation. However, if a person is both a veteran and an immigrant, the situation becomes even more complicated. According to recent studies, the challenges of migrants and veterans consist of many interconnected parts, including communication difficulties, financial insecurity, healthcare issues, and acculturation concerns (Alarcón et al., 2016; Benton & Embiricos, 2019; Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe [OSCE], 2018).

The successful resolution of these problems is supposed to mark a successful transition, but since these challenges compound one another, this complex journey calls for the introduction of veteran services (US Department of Veterans Affairs [DVA], 2018). Given that the unique experiences of the different groups of migrants and veterans may affect their transitioning, it is also reasonable to ensure that such services are tailored to the needs of VMs. However, although some studies look at the military-civilian transition (Blackburn, 2016), as well as migrant acculturation and integration (Alarcón et al., 2016; Kelly, 2016), no studies were found that look at this transition for first-generation Latino VMs in the US.

As of 2019, the active military personnel in the United States included 1,282,000 individuals (“Total available active military manpower,” 2019). Of this number, 3% (approximately 40,000) were men and women born outside of the US (“Total available active military manpower,” 2019). It can be assumed that of those born outside the US, a large category is represented by first-generation Latinos; after all, Latinos are generally well-represented in the US military (Atuel, Hollander, & Castro, 2018).

However, a more specific number is difficult to find in publicly available information. Military naturalization is also a relatively rare event; according to the records that have been preserved over the past century, around 760,000 instances of this type of migration occurred (Chishti et al., 2019). Chishti et al. (2019) found that spikes in military naturalization rates were observed at the time of wars; given the current war on terror, current rates demonstrate a slight increase. Thus, the problem is not very widespread, but it is becoming more topical, and, in fact, its significance is not limited to the related numbers.

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Significance of the Problem

The available data demonstrates that the number of non-US-born military members is not very large, especially when viewed from the perspective of the total US military workforce. However, the number of first-generation Latino veterans in the US is still likely to amount to thousands of people, and since military naturalization remains a migration method (Chishti et al., 2019), more VMs are going to require veteran services in the future. Therefore, this group is relevant for social work, and efforts to understand its needs must be made.

Furthermore, the problem is uniquely important because of the challenges that are experienced by this group. Given that many of their concerns and difficulties are associated with migrant and veteran transitioning (Alarcón et al., 2016; Blackburn, 2016; Kelly, 2016), it is reasonable to assume that the intersection of the two experiences is worth investigating. The resulting findings would provide social workers with a better understanding of the ways in which they should approach this population, and the fact that this topic does not appear to have been studied increases the importance of investigating this problem.

In addition, while the experiences of first-generation VMs are unique, their individual aspects are likely to be similar to those of other migrants and other veterans, including veterans who are non-migrants or VMs who are not Latino. As a result, the investigation of the intersections of the two types of experiences (migrant and veteran) will probably yield some findings for each of them individually as well. Therefore, researching the experiences of VMs is important for improving the services provided to this group and other groups and for advancing the study of veteran and migrant transitioning.

Theoretical Perspective

In this section, the three theories that have been described by Robbins et al. (2011) will be considered. VMs are not studied very much, and recent articles do not seem to contain attempts to apply different theories to their transitioning. As a result, the theories that have been used with migrants or veterans will be investigated. Their concepts and key ideas will be listed, and their use in migrant or veteran studies will be analyzed to determine if they might be suitable for the study of VMs.


Key assumptions and concepts

Phenomenology was historically created in response to the positivist approach to inquiry and its limitations (Robbins et al., 2011). Consequently, it focuses on subjectivity and the importance of that subjectivity for constructing reality and phenomena that would be considered objective by a positivist. From this perspective, as reported by Robbins et al. (2011), social phenomena, including various norms, values, and groups, do not exist in any objective manner; rather, they are subjectively constructed by individual humans and groups of humans. Furthermore, phenomenology implies that subjective perspectives are valuable because they affect human behavior and cognition (Nicola, 2017).

According to this theory, being aware of different perspectives helps humans to understand how they develop such constructs and introduces different views into the discourse, preventing one of them from dominating and silencing the rest (Robbins et al., 2011; Nicola, 2017). Thus, phenomenology presupposes a critical approach to social phenomena, as well as humanity’s methods of approaching and studying them, and an acknowledgment of the variety of human experiences and perspectives and their value.


Directly and indirectly, phenomenology has been applied to the topics of migrants (including Latino migrants) and veterans. For example, Ballysingh (2019) did not mention the term but used narrative analysis to investigate “the lived experiences of participants” (p. 3), which amounts to phenomenology. This article was dedicated to a study of Latino students, although only one of them was a first-generation migrant.

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Furthermore, DeRose (2018) directly described phenomenology as a framework for an inquiry into the experiences of Latino migrants with obtaining a specific healthcare service (vaccination for children). Similarly, Nicola (2017) discussed the experiences of undocumented Latino immigrants, also viewing phenomenology as the approach to the project. As for veterans, a recent dissertation by Daniels (2017) used phenomenology to investigate military-to-life transitioning. While it is not a peer-reviewed source, it still demonstrates that this approach is possible.

From the perspective of the above-named sources, phenomenology enables the development of their methodologies and provides a framework for the analysis of their data. The articles show that if phenomenology is used, the experiences of veterans and migrants should be studied to understand the different aspects of their lives as they are lived and framed by the two groups. In turn, an interpretation of such experiences can be utilized to propose practice implications for different types of situations, including social work; all of the described sources incorporated different attempts to do that.

The same principle can be applied to VMs; their individual experiences can be collected and analyzed to uncover similar patterns, which may then be used to propose recommendations for social workers. Phenomenology’s focus on and attention to human experiences provide a framework for engaging the studied group and empowering its members to provide the data about the reality of their transitioning.

Thus, the value of phenomenology consists of its ability to incorporate the perspectives of the studied population and, therefore, gain insights into their experiences and needs that are, indeed, crucial for social work. Regarding its criticisms, individual approaches to phenomenological thought can have drawbacks, including, for instance, moral relativism, which would not be helpful for social work (Robbins et al., 2011). However, the presented examples demonstrate that the framework of phenomenology can be applied to topics that are relevant for social workers. It can also be argued that phenomenology is broad and non-specific; it cannot be used, for instance, to categorize the experiences that are analyzed within it. However, more specific models can be used to that end, and an example of such a model is BMA.

Acculturation Theories: The Bidimensional Model

Key assumptions and concepts

BMA is a form of acculturation model that was developed by Berry (1997) to describe the different ways in which migrants interact with their own and receiving culture, as well as the outcomes that these interactions can have. It is a relatively nuanced approach to acculturation as compared to the initial views on it (Robbins et al., 2011). The model incorporates four specific categories that are created by the two dimensions of interaction with one’s heritage culture (its retention or rejection) and receiving culture (its rejection or reception) (Berry, 1997; Meca et al., 2017).

The specific terms include integration (the retention of cultures), marginalization (the rejection of both of them), separation (the focus on the heritage culture and the rejection of the new one), and assimilation (the opposite situation with the focus on the receiving culture) (see Appendix A, Figure 1). These four categories are the key BMA concepts, along with culture and culture change (Robbins et al., 2011). According to Robbins et al. (2011), BMA is important for social work when cultural and ethnic minorities are concerned, which is the case for VMs.


For migrants, the applicability of the theory is apparent; there are many sources that consider the ways in which migrants, including Latino migrants, undergo cultural change. As an example, Meca et al. (2017) used Berry’s BMA to frame the methods that undocumented Latino immigrants employed during their transition, and the authors found all of the categories with the exception of assimilation. In addition, the authors attempted to determine the effects of such acculturation patterns on the sample’s well-being; the findings indicated that biculturalism might be the most beneficial outcome.

This way, Meca et al. (2017) validated Betty’s BMA and explored the experiences of Latino migrants, proposing social work-related implications for facilitating acculturation. The model functioned within the article as a guide for data analysis and interpretation.

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The concept of veteran transitioning has also been framed in terms of cultural change in multiple sources. Daniels’ (2017) dissertation is one of such sources, but there are also peer-reviewed ones, including those by Cathcart (2017), Cooper, Caddick, Godier, Cooper, and Fossey (2018), Pease et al. (2015), Pedlar, Thompson, and Castro (2019), and Truusa and Castro (2019). It is noteworthy that while these articles frame transitioning in terms of cultural change, only Daniels (2017) directly named an acculturation theory. In other words, not all presented sources actually use the BMA theory in their inquiry, even though they might employ some of its concepts.

Based on the mentioned articles, there exists a military culture, which has its sets of values and modes of interactions. Therefore, when a veteran attempts to reintegrate into civilian society, they should undergo a culture change. From this perspective, a veteran can either choose to focus on one of the cultures (civilian or military), reject them, or find a means to integrate them (Daniels, 2017). As with other theories, first-generation Latino veterans do not seem to be represented in research enough to involve the direct application of BMA. As a result, it is not clear how the simultaneous processes of dual cultural change can be performed by them.

BMA is a very specific model that is applicable to a particular fraction of the experiences of VMs. This fact is simultaneously a benefit and a drawback. Thus, unlike phenomenology, BMA provides specific categories that can be used to analyze a particular aspect of transitioning, and these categories can be applied to both migrant and veteran populations. However, BMA is also not intended for any other aspect of transitioning, which are numerous (Alarcón et al., 2016; Blackburn, 2016). In addition, the model does not incorporate multiple cultures and does not track acculturation as a process; rather, it simply investigates its outcomes. Therefore, it is not sufficient for a study of the general experience of Latino veterans, although it can be applied to some of its parts.

Empowerment Theory

Key assumptions and concepts

ET was developed for the purpose of conceptualizing power dynamics in human societies. Its key concepts include stratification, disparity, discrimination, and inequality; in addition to that, oppression is often mentioned as well (Robbins et al., 2011). These concepts are united into the central observation that as human societies become stratified, hierarchies are formed, in which higher levels are characterized by increased access to resources and opportunities, as well as greater amounts of power and social capital (Alarcón et al., 2016; Ballysingh, 2019; Robbins et al., 2011). People within one class are similar with respect to specific demographics; different classes exhibit different levels of access to power and resources, which results in inequality and disparities.

An important aspect of ET is the intersections of oppression. As an individual can belong to different groups (based on race, gender, sexuality, and other ones), the statuses of those groups interact in a rather complex manner, forming one’s socioeconomic status (Robbins et al., 2011).

From this perspective, ET is especially suitable for VMs. Furthermore, ET posits that inequality is systemic and difficult to overcome on an individual level; it is enforced by the hurdles in upwards mobility, which prevent people from lower classes from achieving a higher status (Ballysingh, 2019; Robbins et al., 2011). Discrimination also contributes to inequality, and it is typically reflective of the same stratified hierarchies and related stereotypes (Robbins et al., 2011). By operating these terms, ET can be used to pinpoint and critique power dynamics and hierarchies in human societies.

Robbins et al. (2011) note that ET is practice- rather than theory-oriented; it is meant to combat social injustice rather than predict human behaviors. Furthermore, ET is an umbrella term; for example, queer theory is an ET, although it will not be applied here. A more fitting version that is discussed by Robbins et al. (2011) would be the cultural perspective on ET, but since the concerns of Latino veterans are more complex than those related to culture, this option would be restrictive (and too similar to the previous one). Rather, following the example of Robbins et al. (2011), the paper will use the general ET terms and assumptions in the context of VMs’ experiences.


ET is suitable for the chosen topic, especially due to its attention to the intersecting factors of inequality. For example, Ballysingh (2019) applied a form of ET (a specific empowerment framework) to Latino college students in the US, and one of them was a first-generation migrant. True to ET’s focus on practice, Ballysingh (2019) introduced a practice-oriented education-specific framework, which incorporated some elements of feminist and multicultural theories. According to Ballysingh (2019), this framework was meant to address power imbalances and increase the power of disempowered minority students.

Ballysingh (2019) used an ET framework to uncover the factors that empowered 34 Latino students and commented on the practical implications of the collected information. As a result, ET was guiding the inquiry by specifying the factors that the author needed to investigate and providing a framework for data analysis.

Based on this example, it can be suggested that ET is applicable to the migrant aspect of the study. First-generation Latino VMs are likely to be involved in the power dynamics that occur between the majority and minorities. In fact, research supports the idea; for example, Latinos, including first-generation ones, are more likely to lack health insurance and have difficulties with attaining higher education (Alarcón et al., 2016; Ballysingh, 2019). In other words, systemic inequalities are a factor that is likely to impact the lives and transition experiences of VMs.

As a problem in using ET, no article that would directly apply ET to veterans was found. This issue does not imply that ET is inapplicable, however. The empowerment of veterans is a term that veteran affairs specialists are using, and there are some systemic inequalities between veteran and non-veteran populations, including, for instance, the higher unemployment rate among the former (DVA, 2018). Therefore, the veterans’ access to power and resources can indeed be limited. Admittedly, ET was not developed for veterans, and it might not be best suited for describing the mechanisms of veteran transitioning.

However, ET can emphasize veteran disparities and direct the findings toward the improvement of social services for veterans. In summary, the use of ET in VM studies would presuppose focusing on the disparities and inequalities that are related to the two transition factors (migrant status and veteran status) and checking their interrelationships and implications for transitioning.

The application of ET to the topic may also be complicated by the fact that the umbrella ET is not very specific, and no ET model that would be designed for first-generation Latino veterans appears to exist. However, this fact can be considered an advantage in that ET is very comprehensive and inclusive of different aspects of inequality and oppression that tend to intersect (Robbins et al., 2011). Furthermore, the theory’s practical orientation is strongly in line with the social work aspects of this inquiry; the ultimate purpose of the proposed research is to produce knowledge that can be used to advance the ability of social services to work with Latino veterans. Therefore, there are notable advantages to using ET in the context of the proposed study, but the idea has its drawbacks and limitations as well.

Theory Combination

The described theories not mutually exclusive; they can be utilized together, and, possibly, their combination holds more merit than their use in isolation. Indeed, Robbins et al. (2011) directly connected acculturation theories (including BMA) with ET, implying that acculturation is a part of transitioning that happens in a minority group. Similarly, without explicitly mentioning ET, Nicola (2017) combined the ideas of ET with phenomenology.

Specifically, Nicola (2017) highlighted the exclusion of undocumented migrants’ perspectives from the discussion of undocumented migration, implying that phenomenological inquiry can help to rectify this problem by empowering migrants to frame their own experiences. From this perspective, phenomenology itself is empowering since it gives voice to unheard populations. Therefore, the three theories are capable of interaction (see Appendix A, Figures 2-4).

In addition, the theories can mitigate each other’s limitations. In particular, BMA, which is a model and not a grand theory, is the most specific theory studied in this paper. This feature enables it to provide a structure for the analysis of a particular aspect of the experiences of VMs but prevents it from framing the multiple factors that are important for VMs in the US.

On the other hand, phenomenology and ET provide a broader justification for studying those experiences in the first place, and ET introduces a perspective that can help to analyze the challenges of the studied population which are attributable to inequalities, but the two models cannot provide the framework for different aspects of VM transitioning. Therefore, it is possible to use a combination of ET and phenomenology, which also incorporates BMA for advanced analysis of the cultural aspect of transitioning, for studying VMs’ transitions.


This paper is considering a theoretical framework for a study that will investigate the experiences of first-generation Latino VMs. The statement of the problem demonstrated that first-generation Latino veterans are a vulnerable group and that the process of dual transitioning (into the new country and into the civilian society) is challenging. Consequently, from the perspective of social work, the complexities of the needs of VMs require investigation. While no theories have been applied to this topic because it is not studied very well, ET, MBA, and phenomenology have been used to direct inquiries into the experiences of migrants or veterans, which justifies their consideration for the proposed study.

All these theories are not specific to the studied topic, which is a limitation. Furthermore, they have certain individual problems, including either limited (BMA) or too broad (phenomenology and ET) scope. However, these limitations can also be viewed as advantages since smaller scope presupposes greater attention to detail, and greater scope results in the ability to capture more aspects of the studied groups’ experience.

The articles that use these theories are typically intended to structure the inquiry and direct its processes, including data analysis. In addition, practice-oriented frameworks are utilized to produce recommendations for practice, and at least one article used its findings to validate a theory itself (BMA). These patterns prove the usability of selected theories and the potential for the theoretical contribution of the proposed study.

The limited coverage of VMs meant that few sources could be cited in this paper. However, the examples and the analysis of the theories’ advantages and disadvantages show that they can be used to guide inquiries into the experiences of migrants, veterans, and VMs. Specifically, the broad framework of phenomenology can be used to justify the approach to inquiry (its focus on experiences), ET can help to appraise inequalities in those experiences, and BMA would specifically assist in understanding the dual cultural change processes. A combined application of the theories may be preferable since their limitations are mutually exclusive, but their content is not. Rather, the three theories can complement each other’s content and expand it.

The presented theories still do not cover all the aspects of migrant integration and veteran transitioning. In fact, research shows that a model which would combine the two does not exist yet. There are some models of veteran transitioning (Blackburn, 2016; DVA, 2018; Pedlar, Thompson, & Castro, 2019), and some information about the factors that are viewed as important for migrant integration can be gleaned from other sources (OSCE, 2018). However, no established theory can be found for VMs. Therefore, it is reasonable to combine different theories and models, augment them with the information that they fail to encapsulate and employ Latino veterans’ perspectives to create a model of transitioning that is Latino VM-specific.

As a limitation of this research, it should be noted that some of the presented articles did not name the models directly while still using their concepts. Given that the search for this project involved using the keywords for the theories, this issue implies that the theories (or their elements) might be used more extensively than is shown by this paper. However, since the literature that would directly consider VMs is scarce, it can be reasonably assumed that theoretical frameworks have not been applied specifically to this group. Therefore, it is especially important to fill this research gap and investigate VM transitioning through the application of different theories.


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