The transition to civilian life: personal experience and opinion

I learned, recently, that Lord Ashcroft is undertaking a review of how soldiers are rehabilitated into civilian life.  The review’s website, typical of Ashcroft’s others, is devoid of contact information although it does invite people with relevant views to submit a document that answers the question

how can we improve the transition from the Forces to civilian life?

The following text is my submission.

It took me about five years to become a civilian.  I was at home watching the news, a crowd of people throwing roses into the path of a hearse, when my Sister-in-Law asked me if I still missed it, if I still hankered after the camaraderie and excitement.  I must have answered such questions in those terms before.  This time was different.  This time I said no, I didn’t miss it and in fact the memory of it was appalling to me.  I shuddered to think of the stultifying bureaucracy of the system, the arrogance of my leaders, and my own self-deceit.  At that moment, I saw my military career as something of an embarrassment, as though I had been too dim-witted to grow up and get a proper job.  Later, I realised that I had turned a significant corner.  I was no longer a soldier and, crucially, no longer an ex-soldier.  I was a civilian.

A few years later, turning forty, I found myself being immensely proud of what I’d done in the army.  My life was half way through, more or less, and I was keen for the second half to be as exhilarating as the first.  There would be differences of course – I would be less physical and perhaps less reckless – but the excitement, the sense of purpose, and the feeling of being socially and morally important, I wanted to retain.  I also recognised that my previous dismay was nothing more than a stage in the journey, a necessary step to enable me to progress.  By this time, eight years after leaving, I was a happy civilian.

That same year I had started to train as a counsellor and undertaken an exercise that had been horrifically insightful.  It showed me how deeply scarred I was by leaving the army.  The exercise is simple:  draw a horizontal line across the centre of a page, a timeline, running from left to right.  Then draw vertical lines in chronological order that represent the losses one has experienced.  Where the impact of the loss is positive, the vertical line should be above the horizontal and where negative, below it.  Some losses have both positive and negative impacts and in these cases the vertical line should cross the horizontal and reflect both outcomes.  The length and weight of the vertical line (positive or negative) should represent the level of one’s emotional response; the longer and heavier it is, the deeper the pain or the greater the joy.

Following these rules, one quickly sees that not all loss is negative.  The loss of virginity, for example, opens up a whole new landscape of experience.  The death of my Great Aunt was sad, yet I benefitted from her will and was able to get a mortgage.  My Grandmother’s passing removed a key reference point in my life but ended her painful battle with cancer.  The deaths of my colleagues, if I was honest, generated short, heavy lines.  I still thought of them often, but I did not allow their passing to disrupt the flow of my life.  The greatest sense of loss, by a country mile, was leaving the army.  The line for this was heavy, deep and weighted strongly below the horizontal.

Reflecting on this, I realised that it took me a lot longer than five years to become a civilian.  It actually took more like ten, counting from when I first considered leaving.  My military career started at the age of six when I was totally certain I wanted to join the army.  There was never any doubt or alternative.  Public school, prefectship, and sporting prowess encouraged my ambition and after A Levels I joined as a soldier on what was then called an ‘O-Type engagement,’ a vehicle to give potential officers experience of the ranks.  I went to university as an army bursar (they paid me some money each year) and I scraped through with a mediocre degree.  I went to Sandhurst and passed regimental selection.  I was then 22 years old and already realising my life’s principal ambition.  I formed a sense of absolute moral rectitude.   I served in an organisation that was a global force for good.  I was there, in Sierra Leone, when women were too afraid to come out of the cellars for fear of being raped by the RUF and I watched them appear, day by day and one by one, until the markets were buzzing and the streets ablaze with colour.  I was there, in Kosovo, when the first elections were held and one got a sense that lasting Balkan peace was not just a pipedream, it was a possibility.  I was there, at HMP Maze, when the IRA declared a ceasefire in 1997.  And during the gulf war it was my job to knock on doors and tell the mothers and wives of the deceased that we would care for them, always.

The sense of purpose one feels on operations is immense and all-encompassing.  Being married and having children are the only things that can come remotely close.

Despite my enthusiasm for operational deployments, I started to realise (as a captain in my late twenties) that my personal view of my ability and potential was not being reciprocated by my commanders’.  Others got promoted or good postings and I did not.  I passed my exams, quite well in fact, but this did not seem to matter.  I became side-lined and my career slowed.  Since it became clear I would never be selected for Staff College, the gateway that separates out high flying officers from the chaff, I took my life into my own hands.  I enrolled with the Open University and completed an MBA.  I resigned my commission but chickened out of leaving because a slipped disc, the result of numerous parachuting and climbing accidents, had absolutely crippled me.  I wanted the army to fix what it had broken, and it did.  I was found a job that allowed me to complete my physiotherapy and provided some administrative purpose to my regiment.

Why did I sign back on after my initial resignation?  Simply, I was terrified.  There was the injury as an excuse, but I now think it psycho-somatic. Even with a Master’s degree and a Major’s CV, I was afraid.  The civilian world was full of people who ripped you off.  You had to do annual returns or the tax man would fine you.  You had to queue for two days to see a doctor.  I couldn’t read a balance sheet any more than I could Greek, even with an MBA.  Civvy managers were devoid of moral courage.  Civvy workers were lazy; hiding behind their trade unions and health and safety legislation.  Nobody could be trusted, not in the ways I was used to.  Job descriptions were so narrow.  They didn’t understand that I had done all that basic, basic stuff years ago, as a lieutenant – why could they not understand?

The trial separation, the time between signing off and signing back on again, had failed, but I learned from the experience.  The MBA gave me the language and the courage to face my demons.  I started to civilianise my experience and understand the world not in terms of morale and aims but in terms of cost and benefit.  I resigned again (successfully) two years later and finally left in the autumn after the second Gulf War.

The immediate transition was easy.  I went travelling for some months with my girlfriend.  We got engaged and were later married.  I branded myself as a leadership development specialist.  I found a boutique consultancy that employed me, and for a few years had a perfect balance between my military experience, my educational qualifications and my employment; helping middle managers in retail organisations run their businesses better.  At this stage in life I was not a civilian, I was an ex-soldier.  Three years after leaving I had built up enough of a story to be able to knock on the door of one of the big consultancies.  My role here was to enable cumbersome, inadequately led organisations through a process of transition – adopting new working practices or IT systems.  Being employed to help them change, enabled me make the next leap myself.  I learned other ways of tackling problems and new ways of expressing myself.  I learned to trust people who had no military background.  I saw the military as a behemoth of a public sector body; respected and celebrated (this was at a time when Wootton Bassett was seizing the public imagination) but equally lethargic and inefficient.   It was at this stage that I spent Christmas with my Sister-in-Law.

In summary my career can be encapsulated like this: the army was all I ever wanted.  I joined and was magnificently fulfilled for the first few years and then through operational service.  As I got older, career frustration tarnished my opinions and I started to look across the fence.  My first attempt to leave ended in failure because I was afraid.  My second succeeded and though the experience was painful, I never look back.

My view of my transition is this: realising that the army was not everything I wanted it to be, I took my personal development into my own hands.  I discovered life-long learning.  I learned from failure, quickly.  Put next to many civilians, I considered myself the better man, even if my thinking could be a little rigid (something I had to work on) and arrogant.  At one time I hated what I had done and the glacial stupidity of it all.  At another, I acknowledged it for what it was and how it made me what I am today. Being badly bullied at school made me a tough teenager.  Being a soldier has now made me adaptable, self-aware and entrepreneurial.

What lessons can be extracted from this experience to apply to policy development?  I would say the following four things:

Everyone must own their own development from the start.  The army encourages the individual to surrender their needs in favour of the needs of the wider team and the task at hand.  This is an essential requirement for the fighting unit.  But the transition to civilian life requires the individual to assert their wishes and a balance between these two contradictory forces needs to be found.  A few years ago the military adopted (for officers) a career management process called the OJAR.  It was meant to be an appraisal process, enabling staff to have conversations with their managers that help them shape their development in a mutually agreeable manner.  In reality it is being used as an authoritarian assessment, where senior staff control and constrain the wishes of their juniors in much the same way as the original annual confidential report (ACR) system used to do.  Though the OJAR was a laudable attempt, its implementation does not address the question of how the military supports its people to shape their lives as well as their careers.  The only person that can do that is the individual themselves.  This must be recognised.

Transition starts long before the run out date (ROD), when a soldier leaves the army.  The military must recognise this and remove any stigma it imposes (even inadvertently) on those who are thinking of leaving.  It must accept that if it cannot fulfil the needs of its entire staff, they should be encouraged to try their luck elsewhere.  For example, I have a page on a professional networking web site called ‘Linked-in.’  I suggested to a friend who is still serving that he also set one up.  He replied that if he did so, everyone would think he was about to sign off.  He would not then be considered favourably at the next promotion board.  By contrast, high grade civilian organisations do not rely on exit barriers to retain their staff.  They are imaginative and consultative in keeping people engaged and recognise that if someone has to move on, they do so carrying a little of their values on their journey.  Networking is an integral part of working life.  It is not what you know, but whom.  The army must embrace this.

Involvement of the family is crucial.  I was not married when I left the army but the ups and downs of transition had a direct and immediate impact on my relationship.  In fact, since I married shortly after leaving the army, the story of my marriage and the story of my transition are pretty much the same.

It hurts.  The exit barriers to the military are high, and rightfully so.  The pride one has as a soldier is a function of how difficult it is to become one.  But despite all the resettlement courses and career transition support I was given, I was unprepared for the personal journey and the sense of loss I would experience.   There were times when I was overjoyed (as a civilian) to have a computer system that worked and that I did not have to buy my own equipment.  There were times when I hated the commanders who (so I thought) had ruined my career.  There were times, most days in fact, when I thought fondly of men I served with, their laughter and their stories.  There were times when I doubted my life had any purpose at all, since going to war was no longer an option.  The pain ebbs and flows and changes shape, but it is pain none-the-less.  We must prepare for this.  There is a cycle to any change programme and this one was no exception.  For me, it ran like this: soldier, resigned soldier, ex-soldier, civilian, happy civilian.

And a final word, if I may.  The question asks what we can do to improve the experience of those who transition out of the military.  I fear that this question may soon become irrelevant.

It is my personal view that since 1997 the British government has abused its responsibility of stewardship of the military through overuse, underfunding and misemployment.  The recent forced redundancies and changes to the pension policy are the latest in a long series of decisions that will have a retrograde effect on the fighting man.  For the soldier to fight with confidence and tenacity, he must know that the objective is important and that the team will support him if he should stumble.  If these two tenets are not securely communicated, his will to fight and effectiveness on the battlefield will degrade as his eye becomes drawn by self-interest.  His perception of risk and his willingness to embrace it will change.  The esprit de corps that simultaneously sustains and retains him, will start to erode.   He will not so much transition out of the Forces as transition through it.

How can we improve a soldier’s transition from the forces to civilian life?  We can correctly employ, fund, and equip him during his tenure with the Colours.   If we do not, we may not need to ask ourselves this question.


Note: The Veterans’ Transition Review:

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