Veterans: What’s in a job?

This post picks up on the themes established in my previous What makes leaving the armed forces different? and Military stoicism, stigma and culture shock: A Narrative bridge? articles.

Here, I explore the positives and pitfalls of post-military employment for veterans, and hint at how the positives can be accentuated.

As I have covered in a previous article, a focus on post-military job finding is fundamental to the UK Ministry of Defence’s (MOD) approach to preparing Service leavers for transition to civilian life. It is also likely to be an issue of survival for many Service leavers and veterans (Lent and Brown, 2013).

However, beyond a crucial means of survival for most, work may also be ‘a way to structure one’s time and construct personal meaning’ (Lent and Brown, 2013, p. 5), and a means of avoiding ‘existential boredom’ (Danish and Antonides, 2013, p. 552). This might particularly be the case after what many regard as the challenging and rewarding professional environment of the armed forces.

It can therefore provide more than just an income, no matter how important that is. Thus, its significance can spill over into how far work becomes a source of social support, which is often a significant issue for military veterans, and greatly missed upon leaving their previous armed forces roles.

Future employment can also have an impact on how happy, fulfilled, valued and worthwhile veterans feel (or not) in their developing civilian lives. As Ruth Jolly explains in relation to her own research among veterans, the mere ‘achievement of employment, even settled employment, is not the same as the achievement of satisfying employment — and civilian work is only a part of civilian life‘ (1996, p. 105).

The UK MOD’s ‘Transition to Civilian Life: Information Sheet 2 ‘The emotional pathway’ suggests the UK armed forces are alive to this. However, at only four pages long, and with what I regard as only a superficial acknowledgment of some of the emotional challenges that those transitioning might encounter, it seems to offer only a few coping strategies. This is certainly better than nothing, and indicative of an acknowledgement of the issues I highlight in a previous article. It is therefore promising in my view, and it does recognise that when leaving the cocoon of military life, Service leavers and veterans may experience:

  • anxiety
  • feelings of loss (bereavement) and not being valued
  • a potential sense of inadequacy
  • loss of identity, status, sense of purpose and camaraderie

And acknowledges that this is all ‘quite natural’ (p. 1). Importantly, it also concedes that this can have an impact on the family of the Service leaver/veteran, which will be the subject of a future article.

It additionally presents a model covering what it deems the ‘Stages of Change’ that a Service leaver/veteran might go through, as replicated below:


Adapted from ‘ “3 Stages of Change” showing the requirements for a smooth emotional transition from the military to civilian life’

This model appears to draw on others I have come across while developing my doctoral thesis on these matters. These relate to career and life transitions more broadly, which, again, suggests to me that the UK MOD has at least developed and/or drawn on broader research and theory relating to career/life transition. This is similarly encouraging.

What does concern me, however, is that based on my own experience of leaving the UK armed forces (albeit seven years ago), I was never made aware of this ‘information’. I accept that it may have been produced since I left, but given more recent research found the same lack of awareness, it continues to appear that this information is either not widely disseminated, and/or is too superficial to be of broad and effective use. Therefore, I agree with others that something needs to be done about this.

However, I also feel the transition process is more complex than the simple three-stage MOD process (albeit no doubt simplified for presentational reasons), particularly if Service leavers are dealing with additional stressors such as illness and injury at the same time.

In my mind, Adler produced a much more pertinent model as long ago as 1975. This includes phases of ‘disintegration’, ‘reintegration’, ‘autonomy’ and ‘independence’. In the first phase, Adler (1975) talks of ‘confusion’, ‘disorientation’, ‘loss’, ‘apathy’, ‘isolation’, ‘loneliness’ and ‘inadequacy’ (p. 19). While some in the UK MOD may balk at using the term ‘disintegration’ to describe this phase, I suggest they might be well advised to do so in the spirit of being honest with Service leavers and veterans, and in treating them like the adults we all are.  Again, as I have indicated, my experience indicates that most (if not all) Service leavers and veterans would expect this, be able to cope with it, and respond well to this honesty. This is not to suggest that all Service leavers will ‘disintegrate’, far from it (as I have been at pains to point out). However, some do find the transition more challenging than others, and it is this group that deserves better support. Forewarned is forearmed.

In identifying the ‘worst news’ first, Adler (1975) moves on from ‘disintegration’ to a subsequent phase characterised by feelings of ‘anger’, ‘rage’, ‘nervousness’, ‘anxiety’ and ‘frustration’ (p. 19), which to me is reminiscent of Kübler-Ross and Kessler’s (2005) bereavement/grief model. The better news is that this leads to a seemingly more positive phase of ‘autonomy’, bringing with it a more ‘self-assured’, ‘relaxed’, ‘warm’ and ‘empathetic’ state. This then yields a final stage of ‘independence’, where ‘trust’, and ‘humour’ (Adler, 1975, p. 19) can prevail (among other emotions), and perhaps this is when ‘successful’* transition has been achieved.

As with any of the models offered, and as no doubt their creators would emphasise, passage through these phases is not likely to be linear and sequential. Indeed, individuals can pass from one stage to another (and backwards again) at different rates, and can potentially feel many of the emotions identified across them—and even more dispiritingly—experience them all at once. Even seven years on, I still experience feelings of disappointment at how my military career ended, frustration at my rate of progress beyond that, and I still experience anxiety. However, I do also feel much more relaxed about these emotions now that my research into these matters has taught me that they are ‘normal’.

That I have arrived at this stage, albeit after almost five years’ work to do so, suggests to me that if the MOD instituted some form of programme that enabled its leavers to begin this as part of the resettlement process, then this may do much to alleviate some of the challenges and obstacles they might encounter during this transitional experience. Indeed, this was recommended as long ago as 1996 by Ruth Jolly. And like Jolly, I suggest that some form of learning about oneself (and others in the ‘civilian’ world) is crucial to that. This is more than traditional careers guidance.

Having established that a job provides for a sense of being both valued and valuable, as well as for self-esteem and self-worth (which can be derived from more than just what that job pays), then a move from a military role (with its status implications, uniforms, loyalty-ties etc) can also imply a sense of losing an identity. If that is the case, then ‘having an idea of the kind of work that would inspire the reconstruction process is invaluable’ (Jolly, 1996, p. 100). This may not mean that the first job a Service leaver lands in the civilian sector is the means to do that, but it can be part of the process, even if it is just taken as a means of financial security. The point is that it is a means to an end; an end that can only be achieved if that Service leaver has a clear idea of what that ‘end’ might be.

If the end is a means to achieve a renewed sense of personal vigour and satisfaction after a military career, then that may not be a job at all (it could, for example, equally be derived from being focused an childcare, or to be involved in the voluntary sector). But again, the ‘end’ needs to be defined, even if some way down the line it is modified.

However, despite best efforts, research suggests that ‘it is the rare individual who is possessed of such self-knowledge’ (Jolly, 1996, p. 100). Furthermore, prolonged periods of self-reflection my be uncomfortable for a Service leaver steeped in the traditions of an institution that is focused on the practical endeavour of armed defence (Jolly, 1996). In being trained to act decisively and quickly (success in armed conflict often depends on this after all), Service leavers might consequently be inclined to rush in to whatever role first presents itself in ‘civvy street’, and thence get ‘stuck’ in it due to necessity (or fear of stepping outside it), while deriving no satisfaction from it (Jolly, 1996). While there is no guarantee that a long term plan will avoid that, even if built on the foundations of a period of introspective examination, it is contended that the chances are increased if decisions can be made on that basis.

Without this ‘self-knowledge’ and plan (and to bring all this back to the topic of transitional issues surrounding a perceived loss of military identity), it is argued that ‘undertaking work which is personally unrewarding, will encourage the individual to cling to his [sic] old persona […] in order to maintain a self image with which he feels comfortable’ (Jolly, 1996, p. 109). Thus the individual might fail to ‘reconceptualise’ her/himself as a civilian (Jolly, 1996). The ‘dissonance’ that can result from this, can be a further barrier to ‘successful’* transition from military into civilian life, and this potentially presents a vicious circle of ‘liminality’. This is defined as a place/time in which a veteran is neither in the military, nor feeling like a civilian, and thus uncomfortably situated in a ‘contact zone’ between the two.

However, it is argued that this risk is lessened if a Service leaver/veteran can find the time and space for some ‘identity work‘ and planning based on that. While not everyone has the resources or inclination to undertake prolonged academic study (such as I am) in order to ‘find themselves’, neither is this introspective work the preserve of the ‘chattering classes’ (Jolly, 1996, p. 164) or indeed academia. More importantly, neither is it a

a slippery slope towards aimless drifting. On the contrary, it is essential to the clarification of a sense of direction, which in itself is essential to the re-establishment of life’s momentum.

(Jolly, 1996, p. 101)

Reassuringly, Jolly also tells us that this work :

may profitably begin as soon as the leaver has confronted the reality of the end of his or her military career, but this pace is not essential. Indeed, there can be no progress until the leaver is ready, and this may not be for months or even years after discharge [However,] looking backwards, putting things into perspective, trying to make sense of it all [is] what the ‘common sense brigade’ would deem to unhealthily introspective and a pointless squandering of time which could be spent in ‘getting on with life’. But here, the common sense brigade is, categorically, wrong.

(Jolly, 1996, pp. 158-159)

It will come as no surprise that I agree with all of this. The conduct of this crucial (in my opinion/experience) ‘introspective reconceptualisation’ will be the subject of a forthcoming article. In the meantime, if this resonates with your own experience, then please be further reassured that:

few, if any, leavers can simply shrug off the institutionalising effects of their years of service. They have been, expensively, painstakingly conditioned by the military, for the military, and reconditioning doesn’t just ‘come’ as a matter of course.

(Jolly, 1996, p. 166)

With a bit of work it can be done though, and I will discuss how soon.

© Graham Cable

In the meantime, if anyone has experience of and/or views on the above (both in support of or countering the above arguments), then please do respond.  Please also consider passing on to anyone else who might be interested.

Also, this research and website is entirely self-funded.  If you think you might be able to help support that, please do click here.

*A value judgement as to what constitutes ‘success’ in terms of transition is highly subjective. This will be the subject of a forthcoming article too.

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