What was your military-to-civilian transition like?
This is a really interesting question as I think it’s only since researching, exploring and learning about my own transition that I now have a better understanding of my own and others journeys. I use the phrase journey as I believe it is a life journey that military people and their families take. I would also argue that the Armed Forces is not a job, it is a life choice and lifestyle, that requires 365 days and 24/7 hours attention and commitment. I joined the Royal Navy after seeing Sailor the documentary about HMS Ark Royal and watching Sailors having an absolutely brilliant time going round the world and playing with huge toys such as Phantom and Buccaneer jets that actually spat out fire. They saw places I could only dream of and lived I life I couldn’t image. SO being from a small village just outside Hull the writing was most definitely on the wall in bold letters. Off to the recruiting office at 16 I went. I did indeed live the life I saw on TV and more. However and very naively I forgot what I was actually being prepared for wasn’t always going to be fun and a great laugh, so in 1982 I found myself as part of the Taskforce heading South towards the Falklands as part of 800 NAS Sea Harrier Sqdrn, I was a young 19 year old air engineering mechanic.
After getting married on returning from the Falklands in 1982, I chose to leave the Royal Navy in 1986 to be with my family due to deployments getting longer and the time between them getting shorter so decided to take Pre-Voluntary Release (PVR) after 7 years or so. I remember standing in front of the Captain of HMS Heron (RNAS Yeovilton) and being absolutely terrified, how dare I leave the Royal Navy.
It’s at this point I want to point out that I joined at 16 so had no previous experience of being a working age civilian. So, fast forward a few years and I had swapped one uniform for another as a prison officer thinking, and I hasten to add here thinking that the world thought, acted and behaved just like me because that is all I knew. All my values, work ethic, team-based thinking, core beliefs and identity had been created within the Royal Navy. So, I had totally overlooked the fact that civilian life might look a bit different, in fact if I’m absolutely honest it didn’t occur to me at all, why would it? So as one of the ‘successful transition’ cohort I stepped into civilian life.
Within a short space of time, it occurred to me that something didn’t quite feel right, and I felt a little bit like a fish out of water on some occasions, not all but some, but ask me why that was, and I wouldn’t have been able to put my finger on it or how to explain it, just felt weird sometimes.
Although I had joined a uniformed service there still appeared to be a version of teamwork that did not quite align to what I was taught teamwork should look like in the RN. It was there but not quite in the version I thought it should look like in the profession I had joined. In fact, many service leavers join uniformed organisations when leaving, I think uniform can hold on to a sense of identity that is very visual within the Armed Forces of course. The version of teamwork outside of the military appeared to include the ability of some to be more self-promoting, more about themselves and less so about the team around them. This over a significant period of time, would become a great annoyance to me and affect levels of trust in people above me who I thought should lead by example and be more team orientated, I’m guessing this may resonate with others here.
Following a transfer to another Prison after 13 years in high security estate, I found myself at a lower category Prison and becoming involved with and part of substance misuse teams and offender management services. It was at this point I created the national Veterans in Custody Support services. The strange thing was when hearing stories from offenders who were veterans, I found some of their transition experiences weirdly resonated with me. How can that be? I asked myself. So began the journey in 2006 to developing the embryonic thoughts and processes that would become known as the Military Human concept years later.
What I learned was that to understand transition, there is a need to understand the way service personnel are developed into what they need you to be, and how they need to operate within the military environment. This can demystify and give an explanation to ‘feeling weird’ when transition happens and normalise some of the experience and ultimately making more sense of the transition and adjustment everyone must go through.
The explanation originates within the core values, culture, and sense of belonging service personnel experience. This is also including the definition of words like Teamwork, Selflessness, Trust, Integrity, loyalty, and leadership. When I reflect on my own transition, I wasn’t aware when I left just how deep these emotions and thoughts ran through me and certainly wasn’t aware of how deeply my personal investment was in others around to keeping each other safe, or how much I felt I’d lost part of my military family although having my own family too. Because guess what, we did not need to discuss or talk about it as it was just always there, you could feel it. But when it was not there that was the weird feeling that I could not put my finger on. I think I was complacent because I didn’t know any different and viewed it as the norm right up to not having it. And by the way, I am one of those 87% of successful normal service leavers!!!
To be frank and honest with you all, I think it took about 5 years to transition initially and accept that things were just different in the civilian world, but another number of years to totally understand what transition and adjustment was really about and that parts of it are actually normal, its just that they forgot to tell me that before I left. So, my advice is to recognise the journey you have been on, the investment in others you have made, and the emotional personal commitment required to be part of the armed forces and that its okay to feel a bit weird about transition it proves that you are a human being with feelings about people you care about and that there is going to be bit of adjusting to do. Its not soft or weak, in fact it why wouldn’t you react to such a different environment like civilian life, I could argue its perfectly normal and to be expected. Also, our families experience transition and adjustment too, now we are there all the time and not deployed so relationships may need to be nurtured and developed in different ways. Our partners and children have had to live without us for periods of time so have had to become resilient and self-sufficient.
One last note is that those ‘civvies’ I talked about, well many of them are us, our families, grandparents, aunties, uncles, partners, wives, husbands, brothers, sisters and friends. In fact, I quite like being a civvie now as I can bring all those skills we have learned to civilian life and organisations and show just how damn good we really are. The Armed Forces community is nearly 6 million people, so you are not very far from one of us, you only need to ask.
Thanks for your thoughts. What comes out of this, loud and clear, is that although you classify yourself as having had a successful transition, your “headset” was rather different to the civilian equivalent. How did you cope with the frustrations that you no doubt found with the civilian “head-set” (and the way they do things)? (I speak as a civilian, but please be brutally frank).
This is an interesting one and goes back to the what’s a successful transition look like?
Although critical, I think its more than just employment. Granted without employment the rest can’t follow but if we only track service leavers for 12 month around employment does that mean its a successful transition. Technically, I had a successful transition and I’m one of the majority but do I think my transition took longer than 12 months? Absolutely Yes.
Why do I say that and how did I deal with it, I tried to fit in, do what everyone else did at first and adjust my mindset. It worked for a few months but then I couldn’t understand why everyone didn’t look after each other the way we did in the military, why some appeared very selfish and out for themselves. Even to the point of it affecting my trust in others. The answer here is the military core values I learned at 16. Trust, Loyalty, Selfless Commitment and Loyalty. These are critical elements to keeping people alive in the military so the personal investment on a deeply emotional level is probably the most intense you will ever experience. But you don’t notice it because its the norm. In fact I thin you even become complacent with it. SO when I joined civilian life I thought everyone else thought in the same way I did, with the same values. But they didn’t but could I explain why I felt like that definitely no, because guess what we didn’t talk about that stuff. But you felt it.
Interesting perspective James Stuart (Jim) over the years, when conducting academic research not related to veterans, I frequently encountered
individuals who bemoaned the fact that they had not completed National Service and felt that they had missed out AND that they saw those who had served in the armed forces as being different in and perhaps having an edge over those who had not. This being different showing itself mostly in the ex-service person being the one who could get things done from organising the office party to getting a leak in the toilets fixed, rather than moaning about the leak and waiting for something to be done by ‘somebody else.’