This blog post has been written by Dr Jim McDermott, a social scientist whose research is concerned with the post-transition experiences of British Soldiers on their return to civilian life.
For some time, I have struggled with the notion in the press, and especially in a lot of academic research, that the term ‘veteran’ automatically equals need or is problematic in some way.
In 2007, when I penned my doctoral thesis, I wrote that it was no surprise to find that a large amount of research into veterans focused on those who had experienced adverse social outcomes or suffered mental health problems. I also leaned heavily on a remark by Amy Iverson and others in 2005 that the majority of service leavers do well after leaving and are in full time employment and that only a minority of veteran’s fare badly after service. This remark led me to ponder, what is it that enables the majority to transition successfully to civilian life and work? I held in depth interviews with 51 veterans, all of whom had completed at least 22 years’ service in the army, and concluded that for this cohort a successful transition relied on early acceptance that a well-loved career was coming to an end and that planning to become a civilian needed to take place well in advance of the day of discharge including identifying job options, identifying civilian equivalence of military qualifications, finding a house, sorting and schooling for the kids and most importantly coming to terms with the fact that once the barrack gates finally closed with a clang there was no going back. Post-transition these veterans were successful in their different employments because they demonstrated initiative, the ability to work on their own and as part of a team, could problem solve and worked on to get a task completed regardless of ‘knocking-off’ time. In other words, they adapted many of the attributes acquired in the military to civilian life. However, it was not all rosy, many expressed sadness at having to give up a career they loved, of missing their mates, the camaraderie of service life and for some the excitement of operations in foreign lands.
Ten years later in 2017, I conducted a piece of research specifically aimed at identifying why Armed Forces and Veterans Breakfast Clubs (Breakfast Clubs) are so successful when other, long established charitable ex service organisations are struggling to maintain members. This time I gained a wealth of information from 216 veterans from all three branches of the armed forces. Questions to enable me to build a profile for each individual in order to relate their experiences to their choosing to attend Breakfast Clubs revealed that the vast majority of the 216 were in employment and had suitable living accommodation. Those who were retired from work had enjoyed a good second career in civilian life. With few exceptions most thought of their military careers as being rewarding and beneficial to them as individuals and that they had been able to bring something positive to the wide range of organisations and employments this cohort of 216 veterans had taken up. The minority who had and do suffer as a result of their service used Breakfast Clubs as a way of keeping in touch with their comrades and for some a link to professional organisations providing help and support, particularly for those suffering from PTSD. Interestingly, almost without exception and regardless of length of service, expressions of missing their mates were heard again. So, in the space of 20 years most veterans do appear to do well and my remark from my 2007 research “…they demonstrated, initiative, the ability to work on their own and as part of a team, could problem solve…” is equally applicable in 2021. Indeed, major employer Jaguar Land Rover in the by OVA observed that:
“Armed Forces leavers offer an exceptional work ethic, commitment,
and ability to work in some of the most challenging conditions possible. With
an unrivalled approach to team working and leadership as well as a multitude
of skills, experiences and knowledge; they are an asset to any company.”
Jaguar Land Rover
Amy Iverson et al’s 2005 remark that most do well is clearly borne out in the Office of Veterans Affairs, Veterans Fact Sheet which shows amongst other data that 86% of service leavers are employed within 6 months of leaving, 70% of veterans are employed and are as likely to be employed as non-veterans. 92% of veterans have a qualification, 76% own their own home (or have a mortgage) and 75% are healthy.
So, despite the vast amount of research dedicated to those who sadly suffer as a result of military service, it seems to me that the veteran population of the UK, some 2.1 million individuals, should be thought of very much as a tremendous asset to the nation and that the word veteran should not conjure up the notion of someone in need but rather a potential asset.
Iversen, A. Nikolaou, V. Greenberg, N. Unwin, C. Hull, L. Hotpot, M. Dandeker, C. Ross, J. and Wessely, S. (2005) What happens to British veterans when they leave the armed forces? The European Journal of Public Health Vol.. 15(2), pp.175-184.
McDermott, J., (2007) Old soldiers never die: they adapt their military skills and become successful civilians. What factors contribute to the successful transition of army veterans to civilian life and work? Doctoral Thesis, University of Leicester. Available at: http://hdl.handle.net/2381/3366
McDermott (2020) ‘It’s like therapy but more fun’ – Armed Forces and Veterans Breakfast Clubs – A Study of their emergence as Veterans self-help Communities. Sociological Review Online (SRO) p1-18. Available at https://doi.org/10.1177/1360780420905845
OVA (2020) Veterans Fact Sheet 2020. Office of Veterans Affairs. Available at
Veterans Factsheet 2020 (publishing.service.gov.uk)