The military and ‘narrative repair’. Can the UK learn from Canada?

This article follows on from previous posts exploring the notion that some Service leavers experience reverse culture shock upon transitioning from military to civilian life (particularly if also dealing with additional trauma), and that an ingrained  ‘military’ stigma acts against seeking help when needed.

In this article, the potential power of ‘narrative’ approaches to combatting this are explored, drawing on the work conducted in the Canadian context.


What is ‘narrative’?

Narrative is story, and the military world is no stranger to either.

Indeed narrative storying is an integral part of official military business. It is used to describe the operational ‘situation’ as part of the orders process, and in recounting official unit histories.

And then there are a multitude of military ‘stories’ provided by directly by those involved, or by biographers, historians and film makers via prose, poetry, plays, movies and song.

Stories tell us about our lives. They can help repair them

When we are sure about our place in the world, we hardly stop to reflect to see if our life ‘story’ makes sense. But when that is challenged—when something disrupts what we thought was our how our life was supposed to pan out, this ‘disruption’ can weigh heavily on us. An instinctive reaction, often, is to try and fill in the blanks and review our story so it makes sense to us again, and this can manifest itself in blogs such as this, or in books, poetry, plays, film and song, just as mentioned above.

In the military world, such disruption might come about due to traumatic events, including injury and illness, or witnessing the same. It might also come about as a veteran encounters the ‘reverse culture shock‘ of becoming a civilian again.

Moreover, if you have been exposed to military culture which is not prone to displays of emotion, you can find it difficult to be open about this ‘disruption’, particularly if you fear that this will have negative career consequences.

Stories have practical application

However, to try and make sense of our lives after such disruption is a natural human trait. What’s more, it is ‘firmly based on our practical orientation in the world’ (Crossley, 2000, p. 536).

The military is focused on the ‘practical‘. Its personnel are practical people.

It should be entirely within their comfort zone, then, to attend to ‘narrative revision’ in the face of challenge.

Indeed, it turns out they are quite good at this once they get the hang of it.

The Canadians seem to get this

And this is why I find the Canadian approach veterans’ transition makes sense.

Judging by research, the Canadian Veterans Transition Program (VTP) (now run under the auspices of the Veterans Transition Network I understand) is focused on guiding participants (who have experienced ‘disruption’) through a revision of their ‘stories’, with an emphasis on the issues that appear to be troubling them most.

What’s more, according to this research, this programme is conducted:

  • among other veterans, including trained veteran facilitators;
  • with professional clinicians (psychologists, physicians and counsellors) on hand in case of emotional and physical issues requiring clinical support, and where ‘certain interventions may be contraindicated’ (Westwood et al., 2002, p. 227);
  • with some veterans’ families‘ sessions where applicable;
  • under the guise of a ‘course’ (which, it is argued, sounds more ‘military’, less stigmatising and therefore more appealing than a ‘therapy’ session); and
  • with additional modules on interpersonal communication skills, careers counselling, recognition of transferable skills, interviewing techniques, networking tactics and job search skills (Westwood et al., 2002).

As a result, this research demonstrated, that:

  • in reviewing their stories and discussing them with others, this ‘can help [Service personnel/veterans] normalize difficult feelings such as anger, guilt and shame‘ (Westwood et al., 2010, p. 49);
  • doing so with former military personnel creates a safe, understanding and normalising environment—identified as ‘the single most important factor for their experience of change’ (Westwood et al.,  2010, p. 58);
  • the involvement of families is positive;
  • the VTP reduces a sense of vigilance and isolation, increasing optimism, well-being, life enjoyment, self-esteem and quality of sleep;
  • coping skills are increased; and
  • relationships with others, such as family, are improved (Westwood et al., 2010).

This leaves me wondering that if I had undergone such a ‘holistic’ course when transitioning out of the British Army some seven years ago, perhaps I would not have had to spend those years effectively designing and delivering this course to myself.

Indeed, as I have alluded to in previous articles, it seems the UK Ministry of Defence is now alive to the potential for such approaches.

What about the UK context?

recent report on the support provided to military personnel and veterans in the UK asked the following questions:

  • Should ‘dependents and partners’ be involved?
  • Should mental health professionals be provided with ‘some element of military cultural training’?
  • Should other veterans be employed ‘as guides to help others’?
  • What might ‘be the best way to implement such a strategy’?
  • What might constitute more effective help, rather than the ‘scripted questions’ many Service personnel found unhelpful?

And the ‘Defence People Mental Health and Wellbeing Strategy 2017-2022’ talks of the need for ‘resilience training’.

It seems to me that the answer to the questions and needs might just lie in this Canadian model.

It is a model that seems to enable its participants to tackle the disruption they are experiencing and remove the ‘threat’ (Burnell et al., 2009) this presents in their lives. In turn, the aim (as I see it) is to provide the means to make their experiences ‘hang together, to make sense, to have some sense of connection’, thereby providing them with an ability to answer and act on the fundamental questions that might have been plaguing them, such as ‘Why am I doing this?’, ‘Where will it take me?, and ‘Where do I go from here?’ (Crossley, 2000, p. 536).

These were the very questions I had been asking myself over the last seven years since leaving the UK armed forces. It is only now, by undertaking the sort of narrative biographical review the Canadian approach offers, that I have been able to answer them. In so doing, this has provided me with the coherent story I needed to be able to make sense of (and reconcile) my experience of illness and career loss, but also the ability to confidently take this forward into the future, thereby providing a degree of resilience I believe.

What I do not know, in not being Canadian or undergoing its VTP, is how this is viewed by Canadian Service personnel and veterans that have undergone it, other than what I have gleaned from the research discussed above.

Neither do I know whether there are any programmes in the UK that approximate the Canadian VTP and its apparent success. So far, however, my experience and research suggest not.

To that end, I would be delighted if any Canadian and UK readers with any comments and/or experience (or anyone with any views on this, including from other countries) could feedback below, as this would help inform my research.

Equally, if I am on to something that requires further research, and any individuals or organisations can support and/or include me in this, I would be very keen to hear from you. I am prepared to travel!

Meanwhile, thank you for reading this, and for your help if you are able to do so. You might also care to read the articles listed below, as they will help contextualise what I have written above.

Previous supporting articles:

© Graham Cable

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