Beyond being the best: on narrative & education for transition from British Army to ‘Civvy Street’

Having banged on about the ‘forthcoming’ thesis for months, here’s a flavour of what I intend it to do, by way of the latest version of the introduction. In airing it, I hope this is the final push I need to assemble the many thousands of words written so far, and produce the final draft adjudged acceptable for submission:


This study is framed within a part-time doctorate in education, a degree described as a ‘professional’ qualification by Scott et al. (2004).  As such, I consider it the continuation of a professional development process begun while serving as an Education Officer in the British Army, and continuing now while I am engaged as a civilian consultant in the field of military education and training. While serving in the Army, I began a Master of Education degree, which I completed after my premature discharge from uniformed service on account of illness.  Following achievement of my Master’s degree, and while continuing to act as a civilian consultant in the military education and training arena, I progressed onto this doctorate in education; the subject matter of which I turn to now.

My former uniformed role included provision of advice and guidance to those preparing to leave the British Army, by pointing them towards appropriate courses and information aimed at supporting their transition back into civilian life.  Yet, when it came to my own transition, I believe I was wholly unprepared.

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 from the Army created huge personal and professional challenges in my experience. What is more, literature that I will consider in detail in the next chapter suggests that I am not alone in encountering such challenges in the context of leaving the United Kingdom’s (UK) armed forces, and also those of other closely aligned countries.  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 (the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force) are not entirely homogenous, 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 allied nations, and thus while this thesis is founded on 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 and practical output is necessary in order to ‘better’ understand how this transition experienced.  The purpose of this parliamentary call for research, ostensibly, is to provide a basis upon which more appropriate governmental and non-governmental support to those embarking this transitional journey can be founded (House of Commons, 2018).

Accordingly, in this thesis I set out to respond to this call, and I aim to do so by focusing attention on key themes that emerge as potential challenges to a ‘successful transition’ (Cox et al., 2018).  As I embarked upon this doctorate in 2013, my initial hypothesis was that the major thematic strand at the heart of most military to civilian transitional challenges centred on issues of identity.  As my review of literature in Chapter 2 reveals, these potential identity challenges can be further broken down into two sub-foci: how a military institution, such as the British Army, aims to inculcate both an individual and an organisational ‘military’ identity; and how well its members are deconditioned in respect of this internalised and institutionalised identity, or not, in readiness for a return to civilian life.

Literature additionally suggests that the ability for former military personnel to smoothly transition from a military role into a civilian life can be hampered by experiences of mental and/or physical trauma, as well as feelings of loss of, for example, identity, limbs, colleagues, innocence and so on.  This trauma and sense of loss can be accompanied with feelings of guilt, while stigma and a sense of ‘military resilience’ can act as a brake on the often vitally necessary help-seeking on one hand, or, conversely, provide a catalyst for mitigation of transitional challenges on the other.  The latter and more positive effect of resilience is enhanced, literature suggests, if a military member’s family is more intimately involved in preparing for that member’s transition, as well as their own transitional journey.

Having further reflected upon my initial hypothesis by way of reviewing pertinent literature, I moved on to explore whether it is borne out by a more considered appraisal of my own military to civilian transition experience.  This exploration has been conducted by examining this experience autoethnographically, based on being both a participant in that process of military to civilian transition, and also a member of the military institution supporting others in their own journeys.  The resulting narrative, as presented in Chapter 4, provides the cultural (ethno) setting in which my own (auto) experience is situated, and this methodological approach is explained in greater detail in Chapter 3.  This is then used to analyse and interpret that experience in light of my original hypothesis and subsequent research, and thus present my conclusions and resulting recommendations for those delivering policy and practice in this military to civilian transition arena.  I present this analysis in Chapter 5, and the ensuing conclusions and recommendations in Chapter 6.

Primary among these conclusions is that an individual period of reflexive consideration of the potential challenges of military to civilian transition, might better prepare those embarking on it to better navigate any difficulties encountered along the way.  A method of doing so, it further emerges, could involve some form of narrative approach, and this has been the approach I haven taken in attempting to overcoming my own identity challenges.  Thus, I seek to demonstrate that such narrative approaches can not only provide a basis for this research, but can also be, in themselves, a means by which military personnel and veterans attempt to make sense of their experiences, and can use them as tools to more effectively navigate their transition to ‘Civvy Street’.

As an example of this reflexive narrative approach, I round up what I believe this thesis and its narrative exploration has done for me by way of a reflexive epilogue in Chapter 7, and thus provide a nexus in which the professional and personal benefits of an inherently educative process are revealed and demonstrated.

Therein lies the course this thesis takes, and a study such as this would appear timely given the apparently mounting ‘interest among policy officials, charity representatives and academic experts in understanding the transition process for Service leavers’ (Cox et al., 2018, p. xiii).  The aspiration is to offer military leavers better support than is presently available (House of Commons, 2018; Brewer and Herron, 2018).  While that, ultimately, is my aim, I also have an emotional and enduring vocational desire to do so.  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 now seek to both make some meaning from an experience I found troubling not just for my own sake, but also to continue to serve those that I was officially charged with supporting while in uniform.  I felt called to do this from an early age as I elaborate in Chapter 4, and this calling continues to drive me now.

It was to these serving personnel and veterans that I dedicated my efforts while in uniform, and it is to them that I dedicate my learning in this thesis.  I invite you, and them, to join me as I embark on an exploration of this journey.

A quick plea while you are here:

This thesis is fuelled by the desire to help, but also by caffeine. You can help both if you…

Buy Me a Coffee at


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: 3 August 2018).

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.  Available at: (Accessed: 3 August 2018).

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).

Scott, D., Brown, A., Lunt, I., and Thorne, L. (2004) Professional Doctorates. Integrating Professional and Academic Knowledge,Maidenhead: Society for Research into Higher Education and Academic Knowledge & Open University Press.

7 thoughts on “Beyond being the best: on narrative & education for transition 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.


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