Beyond being the best: educating for narrative repair from British Army to ‘Civvy Street’

What follows is an extract from the current version of my intro to my doctorate in education (EdD) thesis.  Its aim is to provide a flavour of what the now frenzied writing-up entails:

Beyond being the best: educating for narrative repair in transition from British Army to ‘Civvy Street’

Extract from introduction:

I joined the British Army’s Educational and Training Services Branch for many reasons.  However, I emphasise that one crucial motivator for that, as well as for this thesis, is that I fundamentally believe that anyone that serves in the British Army should leave it demonstrably better qualified than the day they started.  Since beginning my research for this study though, what has also become apparent is such qualifications do not in themselves guarantee an easy and swift journey back onto ‘Civvy Street’.  It is this aspect of transition from a military career that concerns me most, and this is what I explore here.

I have personal reasons for doing so, for apart from other core duties during my military career lasting from the early 1990s to 2011, my role included provision of advice and guidance to those preparing to leave the British Army in readiness for their return to civilian roles.  While this involved pointing them towards appropriate courses and information aimed at supporting this transition, when it came to my own turn to leave, I believe I was wholly unprepared.  As my thesis explores, it seems that significant difficulty stemmed from an unexpected parting, and from not being ready for this.

My army career­ was, barring illness or other complications, contractually due to end on my 55thbirthday.  However, I was diagnosed with cancer aged 38, and this led to the early termination of my tenure just over two years later—well before I arrived at the otherwise prescribed retirement age of 55.

This ‘traumatic’ (Cooper et al., 2016) and premature departure created huge personal and professional challenges in my experience.  What is more, literature I considered in detail suggests that I am not alone in encountering such challenges in the context of leaving the UK’s armed forces.  The British Army is, as Goffman (1961) suggests, an organisation that bears the hallmarks of a ‘total institution’, and thus one that ‘is typically different from civilian life’ (Cox et al., 2018, p. 59).  While the British Army and the two other UK armed forces are not entirely homogenous (Strom et al., 2012), there are similarities in terms of ethos, focus on armed defence, and joint training, educational and operational activities.  The same could be said of the armed forces of other nations (Castro and Carreiras, 2013), and thus while this thesis is founded my experience of transition out of the British Army, much of the contextual detail is drawn from the wider panorama of other UK and international armed forces, and the experiences of their personnel.

Recent decades have seen much UK governmental and international academic interest into aspects of military to civilian transition, including, in 2018, a UK parliamentary inquiry suggesting that more research is necessary in order to better understand how this transition is experienced.  The purpose of this parliamentary call for research, ostensibly, is to provide a basis upon which more appropriate governmental and non-governmental support in respect of this can be founded (House of Commons, 2018).

Accordingly, I set out to respond to this call in my thesis, and do so by focusing on an examination of my own military to civilian transition experience.  As I embarked on this study, I developed an impression that the crux of my struggle centred on a crisis of identity.  Consequently, I sought to explore this emerging idea, which included reflecting upon how military institutions aim to inculcate both an individual and an organisational ‘military’ identity in the first instance. This then led to consideration of this military identity and its impact when transitioning out of the armed forces, and particularly if that process is accompanied by additional ‘trauma’ (Cooper et al., 2016).  In confirming and strengthening my initial ideas, it further emerged that an often complex sense of loss might is at the heart of this identity crisis.  Moreover, it is contended that this potentially multiple sense of loss, perhaps complicated by additional trauma and guilt, can be exacerbated by a stigmatised reluctance to seek and accept help among serving military and veteran populations (Strom et al., 2012).  In extremis, this can lead to tragedy, including suicide (Mobbs and Bonanno, 2018).

Finally, in considering a sense of ‘military resilience’ as a cause of the stigma that can prevent help-seeking (McGarry et al., 2015), it also emerged that this resilience can be harnessed to good effect in terms of transition (Brewer and Herron, 2018; Cox et al., 2018).

Primary among these effects is consideration of the notion that a ‘transition bridge’ (Ashforth, 2001) might arise from a period of reflecting on past experience and using this as a means to better traverse any transitional challenges. Furthermore, the potential for ‘narrative repair work’ (Neimeyer, 2006) to serve as a crucial foundation to this transition bridge is explored in detail.

Thus, I seek to determine if such methods might prove an educational means by which military personnel and can better navigate their own transitions to ‘Civvy Street’.

To locate this in a broader context, a study such as this would appear timely given the mounting ‘interest among policy officials, charity representatives and academic experts in understanding the transition process for Service leavers’ (Cox et al., 2018, p. xiii).  My aspiration is to go some way in increasing such understanding by way of this thesis, and do so by offering those that strive to support ‘Service leavers’ a valuable insight into the lived experience of military to civilian transition. My intention is that this insight might promote and inspire a more effective means of supporting military personnel in their transition to civilian life.

Those are my academic and professional goals, and I keenly harbour an enduring vocational desire to attend to them.  Where I began my professional career as a British Army education officer, part of whose role was to assist others in preparing to transition out of the British Army, I still feel compelled to serve those that I was officially charged with supporting while in uniform.  As I elaborate in the thesis, I felt called to do this from an early age, and the Army reinforced this desire to the extent that I still identify with it. Consequently, this calling continues to propel me now, and it drives this thesis.

A quick plea while you are here:

This thesis is fuelled by the desire to help (myself as much as others admittedly, but all self-funded), and also by huge quantities of caffeine.  Three kind and altruistic souls have helped sustain this effort at the time of writing.  If you wish to join them in helping push me over the finish line, I would delighted if you could…

Buy Me a Coffee at


Ashforth, B. E. (2001) Role transitions in organizational life: An identity-based perspective.  Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Brewer, J.D., and Herron, S (2018) How Counter-Insurgency Warfare Experiences Impact upon the Post-Deployment Reintegration of Land-Based British Army Personnel. Available at: (Accessed: 30 July 2018).

Castro, C. and Carreiras, H. (2013) ‘Concluding remarks’, in Carreiras, H. and Castro, C. (eds.) Qualitative Methods in Military Studies: Research experiences and challenges. Abingdon: Routledge.

Cooper, L., Caddick, N., Godier, L., Cooper, A., and Fossey, M. (2016) ‘Transition from the Military into Civilian Life: An Exploration of Cultural Competence’, Armed Forces & Society, 44(1), pp. 156-177.

Cox, K., Grand-Clement, K.G., Flint, R., and Hall, A. (2018) Understanding resilience as it affects the transition from the UK Armed Forces to civilian life.  Available at: (Accessed: 4 July 2018).

Goffman, E. (1961) Asylums: Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates. London: Penguin Books.

House of Commons Defence Committee (2018) Mental Health and the Armed Forces: The Scale of mental health issues. Available at: (Accessed : 29 July 2018).

McGarry, R., Walklate, S. and Mythen, G., (2015) ‘A Sociological Analysis of Military Resilience: Opening Up the Debate. Armed Forces & Society, 41(2), pp. 352-378.

Mobbs, M.C., and Bonanno, G.A. (2018) ‘Beyond war and PTSD: The crucial role of transition stress in the lives of military veterans’, Clinical Psychology Review, 59, pp. 137-144.

Neimeyer, R.A. (2006) ‘Re-storying loss: Fostering growth in the posttraumatic narrative’, in Calhoun, L.G., and Tedeschi, R.G. (eds.) Handbook of Posttraumatic Growth: Research and Practice. Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Strom, T. Q., Gavian, M. E., Possis, E., Loughlin, J., Bui, T., Linardatos, E., Siegel, W. (2012) ‘Cultural and ethical considerations when working with military personnel and veterans: A primer for VA training programs’, Training and Education in Professional Psychology, 6(2), pp. 67-75.

12 thoughts on “Beyond being the best: educating for narrative repair from British Army to ‘Civvy Street’

  1. Hi Graham,

    A piece of work that’s long overdue and you are exactly the right person to complete it.

    I have many thoughts I would like to share with you on this and would like to catch up with you again if possible. I am also a surviving cancer veteran like yourself and it might be interesting for you to know how I was supported by civilian employers when suffering from a highly agressive lymphoma that nearly terminated my life. You might be surprised.

    I am now about to retire following an interesting second career. I always find it interesting seeing how service leavers transition to industry.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Richard,

      Really good to hear from you again, and (notwithstanding you had to go through it) that you are surviving your own cancer experience.

      Thanks also for your feedback, and the suggestion we get together again. I would be delighted to do so.

      Where are you based these days? Perhaps you could message me via our LinkedIn connection?


  2. Reblogged this on War Stories and commented:
    The following is a re-blog of Graham Cable’s summary of his forthcoming thesis on education and transition. The theme of ‘narrative transformation’ speaks to this blog’s core interest in war stories. Graham’s blog ‘Write for you life’ is well worth exploring for stories of transition and we look forward to engaging with his work when it becomes available.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Graham, I look forward to hearing more about your research. I’m still serving and have just completed an autoethnographic research project. I also combined it with creative methods – as well as your autoethnographic approach in researching transition I think there is something in autoethnography and creative methods that can assist people through transition. I look forward to hearing more, and good luck with the writing!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you very much for taking the time to respond, and for your support – it makes me feel the slog is worthwhile! Your own project sounds fascinating – is it available anywhere, as I’d be interested in reading it, particularly as I agree with your views on autoethnography and creative methods (and narrative approaches in general). This is a theme that I consider in the thesis too.


    1. Great to hear from you as ever Rich! More than happy to share the research naturally. Will send a link once it’s in the ether, and also give you a call (I’ll get in touch by email & we can go from there). In the meantime, I’m really grateful that you’ve taken the time to leave a comment and ‘buy me a coffee’. It makes me feel the grind is valued and worthwhile, and yours and others’ support is instrumental in getting this over the finish line.


  4. Hi Graham,
    I come late to this conversation but read your draft introduction with interest. I completed my doctorate in 2007 and my theses examined factors in a successful transition from military to civilian society. No doubt, by now, you are well into your writing up; it can be a hard slog and I wish you well


    1. Hi Jim, thanks very much for taking the time to write. I also read your thesis with interest, so thank you for your ‘slogging’ your way to completion and thus helping me. Tidying up chapters 3 & 4 at mo, then need to reorganise the remaining 3 and see what the supervisors think 😱


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