Military to civilian transition: towards an integrated support system

Definitions and limitations

Transition: This post uses Cox et al.’s definition of transition as ‘a process of adaptation from one identity or culture to another’ (2018, p. xiv).

Military leavers: In this post, the term ‘military leaver’ refers to those that are preparing to, but have not yet left the armed forces.

Veterans: The UK government defines a veteran as ‘anyone who has served at least one day’ in the UK’s armed forces (MOD, 2017).  However, for the purposes of this post, a veteran is defined as anyone who has completed their initial training in the regular (full-time) armed forces and left at some point thereafter.  While the length of what might be regarded ‘initial’ training is dependent on role and nation etc, there are common elements and purposes of this initial training across most armed forces.  Essentially, this is to inculcate a rapid transition into the ‘institutionalized lifestyle’ of the military environment, and thus the prevailing culture (Mobbs and Bonanno, 2018, p. 138).

Limitations: Given the purpose of this post is to consider transition out of a military career, this career context is based on full-time employment in a uniformed role in the military, rather than part-time, reserve service.  This is not to deny the impact of military service on members of reserve forces, simply that some of the issues differ, and thus are out of scope here. Neither has this post considered any differences in transitional experiences based on gender, or different roles within the military. While acknowledging that such differences mean that experience is not entirely homogenous, the broad conclusions drawn here are based on a review of a wide range of literature pertaining to military to civilian transition from a full-time career, and thus the similarities rather than differences.

Military to civilian transition: more than just a career change

Military to civilian transition is often considered in terms of a relatively simple shift from one career to another. However, it is important to recognise that any job change, irrespective of context, can be extremely stressful in its own right.  It can therefore have wide-ranging implications beyond what might be simplistically regarded as a straight forward professional process, and can involve issues of moving home, of finance, retraining, and of building new relationships.  It can be as a result of physical and/or psychological disability, which adds to the challenge of transition; and any or all of this can lead to great emotional disequilibrium, which in turn can affect the how easy or otherwise the transition is experienced.  Often, these challenges do not just affect the individual undergoing the change, but frequently those around them also.

In addition to the above potential pressures, a change of career from a military environment to the civilian environment might bring with it more acute implications.  The shift from being a uniformed member of a military institution is not necessarily just a change of job, but often implies a change of identity and cultural setting too.

Therefore, it is crucial to consider these dual themes of identity and culture when trying to understand issues around military to civilian transition.  It is also important to recognise that this transition is sometimes accompanied by additional traumatic stressors such as illness and/or injury (Brewer and Herron, 2018), as alluded to above.

While the majority of military personnel might encounter few, if any problems in transitioning (Bergman et al., 2014), Mobbs and Bonanno (2018) observe that many do find the military to civilian transition process ‘unexpectedly protracted and complex’, and the stress this causes ‘can generate lasting psychological difficulties’ (pp. 139; 142).  Supporting this, Bergman et al. also report ‘a substantial minority [of military leavers] are at increased risk of developing mental-health problems’ due to pressures encountered upon leaving the armed forces (2014, p. 60).

The unique military context

The chief difference between most military and civilian roles centres on the requirement, potentially, for military institutions to field personnel that are ‘ready to fight and to kill and to die’ (Jolly, 1996, p. 3).  Thus, military institutions have to create the cultural conditions for its people to be ready to do so, and these are conditions that are unlike most, if not all other occupations (Haynie and Shepherd, 2011).

The creation of such conditions begins with basic training, in which recruits are stripped of personal identity markers and possessions such as civilian clothes, and are issued uniform as an initial means of reinforcing military identity (Ahern et al., 2015).  This, according to Mobbs and Bonanno, is accompanied by an immediate process in which recruits are ‘indoctrinated’ with ‘military standards, ethics, and values’, all designed to transform civilians into the military personnel that are able and ready to fight, and potentially kill and die (2018, p. 138).  For reasons of economy, this process is designed to take as little time as possible, while balancing the need to ensure that personnel are effectively trained. Thus, Mobbs and Bonanno describe an early and:

rapid acclimatization to an institutionalized lifestyle in which individuals are obligated to submit to a cornucopia of novel situations such as: concentrated unremitting supervision; intense physical training […] and separation from loved ones […].  The intent of the intense and regimented training environment is to transform civilians into soldiers who are militarily competent and dedicated to their organization […].

(2018, p. 138)

Such inculcation, in Haynie and Shepherd’s view, revolves around firstly developing a spirit of loyalty to the institution (2011).  Secondly, and more pertinently in terms of a focus on identity, it is designed to instil a sense of collective identification ‘based on shared norms, values and beliefs’ (p. 503).  This, in turn, begins the process of creating both an individual and collective identity that is perceived as different from that of ‘civilian’ culture (Coll et al., p. 498), and this is founded on a process that reduces any previously held civilian ‘cultural values and norms’ secondary to those of the ‘total military institution’ (McGarry et al., 2015, p. 361).

Taking that a stage further, and given the potentially risky nature of armed service, cohesion among military personnel is a crucial precursor (Mobbs and Bonanno, 2018). This cohesion is founded on the same dynamic of loyalty and collective identity, but with an emphasis on survival on military operations, as this often depends on such cohesion (Brewer and Herron, 2018).  It is the tight unity this generates that is regarded as a crucial factor in creating a greater chance of success under the stresses implicit in engaging in military missions (Haynie and Shepherd, 2011).  The rationale is that it can provide a sense of safety and security amid the chaos often inherent in the operational military environment (Ahern et al., 2015).

The civil-military gap: a dilemma for both individuals and policy makers

The corollary is that this unique environment can generate a cultural gulf between how military personnel see themselves, and how they relate to civilians. Thus, military personnel and veterans can perceive there is a ‘civil-military cultural gap’ between the two (Collins, 1998), and when leaving the military, many experience a form of culture shock (Bergman et al., 2014).  This presents a dilemma for policy makers: on one hand, the creation of that civil-military gap is designed to allow a nation, state or some other entity to field an effective fighting force by training, enculturating and qualifying a section of that society as its military component; and this takes time and resources.  However, once individuals are no longer required in the military, it is argued that the time and resources dedicated to preparing them to return to civilian society are not nearly as great (Brewer and Herron, 2018; Ashcroft, 2014).  As a result, former military personnel can find themselves in a state of flux and liminality, where they are neither officially military, nor do they see themselves as civilians.  Effectively, they are lost, or at least experiencing some form of loss (or multiple losses) while in this liminal zone (Demers, 2011; Conroy and O’Leary-Kelly, 2014).

Transition shock: loss of career, identity, and possibly health

These multiple losses can involve lost body parts, colleagues and/or loss of mental faculty, and this can be incurred not just as a result of engagement in military operations, but while, for example, partaking in training and other military activities (MOD, 2018).  Additionally, and even if not overtly affected by operational exposure to trauma, the routine environmental stress implied in the military context, as well as training injuries, pre-existing physical and psychological issues and/or the like (Buckman et al., 2012), can result in some veterans reportedly experiencing adjustment problems when transitioning back into civilian society (Williamson et al., 2018; Coll et al., 2011). This can be due to a sense of disorientation caused by an acute change of status, which can induce a search for a replacement identity, as well as an attempt to find new meaning in that return to civilian status and life (Coll et al., 2011). This, in turn, can place that veteran in a liminal state that might endure for months or years after leaving the military (Mobbs and Bonanno, 2018; Rafferty et al., 2017).  Even before potential exacerbation by additional feelings of loss and health issues, a transition back into the civilian world can therefore be conceptualised as a ‘reverse culture shock’ (Bergman et al., 2014, p. 60), or ‘transition shock’ (p. 62).

Research conducted over two decades ago found that attention to deconditioning military personnel in preparation for civilian life was lacking (Jolly, 1996).  Issues of loss are also touched upon in this same research, particularly when pointing to the effects of submitting oneself almost entirely to the total military institution and its all-encompassing provision. Thus, leaving its embrace is, for some, a huge challenge (Jolly, 1996). Not only that, but upon leaving it, former military personnel have to somehow rediscover themselves as self-motivating, yet potentially vulnerable individuals (Jolly, 1996).  If that vulnerability is further complicated by the loss of body parts and other physical and mental health issues, and/or loss of colleagues and so on, then a search for a revised identity may have to involve some form of processing those losses, as well as mitigating other issues inherent in military to civilian transition.

Even without these additional complications, it is argued that issues of identity can be exacerbated by an over identification with the military milieu, which not only means some veterans find it difficult to cope with civilian life, but can also induce some to experience ‘ontological crisis’ (Brewer and Herron, 2018, p. 7).  In contrast, those that transition ‘well’, reportedly do so by never fully adopting the military institutional identity (Brewer and Herron, 2018, p. 9).  This conflicting ‘instrumental’ (p. 62) versus non-instrumental approach to military life creates another dilemma for military organisations (Brewer and Herron, 2018).  On one hand, they seek to inculcate a military identity among their members, while on the other they wish to avoid creating an over-dependency which gives rise to a difficulty to cope upon a return to civilian life.  This then, presents an additional tension.  If one of a military organisation’s success criteria is based on the level of inculcation and acceptance of its desired institutional identity, then when it comes to returning its personnel to civilian life, it could be argued that this ‘success’ becomes a potentially catastrophic barrier to transition.  In the extreme, the suicide of veterans is often attributed to their inability to resettle as civilians (Mobbs and Bonanno, 2018).  If, therefore, a military organisation does feel it has a moral obligation to ‘decondition’ its personnel before returning them to civilian life, and/or it is required to do so by its political masters, then perhaps it might have to invest more in equipping its personnel with an ability to better transition back into civilian life.

Resilience, fortitude and stigma: a double-edged sword

Both Cox et al. (2018) and Brewer and Herron (2018) argue that ‘resilience’ is the key to a more assured military to civilian transition, with the former suggesting it can bridge the gap between military and civilian identities (Cox et al., 2018), while the latter see it as the basis of a potential mitigation of over dependency on military identity and structure (Brewer and Herron, 2018). Resilience is defined by Cox et al. as an amalgam of ‘hardiness, a positive attitude, coping skills, and the ability to handle challenges’ (2018, p. xiv); which McGarry et al. (2015) argue are attributes that are identified, inculcated and developed by the military in order for personnel to operate effectively in military environments. However, the fortitude and resilience required for military service are not necessarily the same as those required for the challenges encountered in transitioning back into a civilian environment (Cox et al., 2018).  While agreeing that resilience is instrumental in both military and civilian contexts, and thus in the transition between the two, Cox et al. (2018) argue that the challenge of transition out of the military requires a different form of resilience.

Amplifying this, McGarry et al. (2015) contend that an institutionalised military form of resilience can act as a brake on help-seeking on the part of those undergoing transition, as to seek help is often seen as a shameful and stigmatising admission of weakness, particularly to those steeped in a military tradition and culture of hardy and robust stoicism (Strom et al., 2012).  Thus, military resilience can be seen to sit in opposition to the form of resilience required when transiting back into civilian life (Rafferty et al., 2017). Military personnel are, after all, a people trained to demonstrate self-reliance and self-sufficiency, and that extends to a conception of themselves as ‘someone on whom others may place their trust, and ultimately, their lives’ (p. 10).  Given this, many only seek help when compelled to do so, or when they feel it is absolutely necessary.  This is often only when they have reached ‘crisis point’ (p. 28).

While recognising that stigma as a barrier to help-seeking is not just confined to the military context (Corrigan, 2004; Cox et al., 2018), it is emphasised that characteristics of strength, resilience, and self-sufficiency (the core characteristics military institutions seek and develop) are likely to discourage individuals from seeking help (Iversen et al., 2011). Moreover, any help-seeking is likely to be perceived as an indication of weakness, and/or as an attempt to shirk hard work, or avoid dangerous military environments (Walker, 2010).  Either way, there is a tendency amongst those experiencing problems that seeking help will have a potentially negative impact on their careers (Walker, 2010; Rafferty et al., 2017).  This is particularly the case when in most military organisations, superiors can be afforded access to medical details concerning their subordinates’ physical and/or mental health if clinicians suspect this may adversely affect military safety, security and efficiency (Strom et al., 2012).  This can create barriers to career progression, as these superiors (or their human resource staff) may well be prevented from recommending such personnel for promotion and career-enhancing assignments while they are considered to be physically and/or psychologically unable to undertake them (Walker, 2010).  In many cases, such ill health can end a career entirely (Strom et al., 2012). Even if not sufficient to affect, or end a career in its own right, the nature of the close-knit military environment can mean that medical personnel and their patients often live, work and socialise alongside each other, which can add to the reluctance for personnel to seek help (Iversen et al. 2011).

Hence, for all these reasons, an additional challenge for military authorities is to reduce the fear of stigma that prevents military personnel and veterans from seeking help, whilst maintaining a force that is capable of being effective and resilient when engaged in armed combat and other challenging operations (Iversen et al., 2011).

The beginnings of more holistic interventions in the UK, US and Canada

As an indication of how this balance might be achieved, Iversen et al. cite the example of ‘education programmes’ delivered to groups of military personnel and their families in the US, which are judged to have reduced stigmatising beliefs (2011, p. 38).  Furthermore, the inclusion of the military member’s family in such programmes is regarded as a crucial additional support and success factor (Iversen et al, 2011). These appear consistent with examples of similar educational interventions being used among veterans in Canada (Westwood et al., 2002; 2010).  These latter interventions are enhanced, it is contended, by participants working in groups with fellow ex-military personnel (including among clinical and support staff in the case of physical and psychological health issues), as well as their families.  The addition of this peer group environment, with the further support of military-experienced clinicians as necessary, creates not just a safe and understanding setting it is argued, but also has positive results in terms of resolving issues, both for the veterans involved, and their families who may be experiencing their own stresses during transition to civilian life (Westwood et al., 2010).

The call for the inclusion of military-experienced peers (and clinical staff if clinical physical and psychological support is required) is consistent with other UK and US research that contends that such staff, and particularly clinicians, need appropriate cultural familiarity to be effective (Strom et al., 2012; Rafferty et al., 2017).

In terms of medical support staff, it is suggested that the most direct way to achieve such competence is through using clinicians who are accustomed to dealing with this population, but it is acknowledged that this is not always possible (Petrovich, 2012).  Given that, research recommends that training and supervision be made available for staff previously not having exposure to the military (Strom et al., 2012, p. 68), as there is a danger that those who do not undergo such training, or who do not have any experience with the military, may not be able to relate to those they are treating, much less their experiences (Strom et al., 2012).  By avoiding this danger, the net effect on the military personnel or veterans receiving support is that they feel safe in a quasi-military environment, due to a sense of camaraderie and belonging among a ‘like-minded group’ of staff and peers (Finnegan, 2016).

Not only does this create a sense of bonding akin to that experienced while serving, but research suggests that programme participants do not need to repeatedly explain their experiences in such great detail, as clinicians and support staff already have an insight into the military context, and particularly the specific military vocabulary and vernacular used to describe them (Strom et al., 2012).  Despite not necessarily understanding every detail of an individual’s experience, this broad military connection is one that Finnegan (2016) indicates is relished, valued, embraced and welcomed, and moreover can prove both therapeutic and practically useful for those seeking support once they have left the professional military community.

The Canadian programme mentioned above (Westwood et al., 2002; 2012), also includes an emphasis on developing coping skills that might increase resilience and facilitate ‘successful re-entry into civilian life’ (Westwood et al., 2010, p. 47). This, it is argued, is particularly beneficial when individuals experience an ‘abrupt, complicated and potentially traumatic’ exit from the military (Cooper et al., 2016. p. 171).  Such unplanned early and enforced career-transitions, for example as a result of illness and/or injury, often imply commensurately reduced time to prepare in practical and psychological terms.  This can also occur while a military leaver is potentially dealing with other physical and psychological issues resulting from illness, injury, and/or pre-existing conditions, and this can result in a greater chance of subsequent challenges in transition (Cooper et al., 2016).

This contention is supported by Jolly’s (1996) research, which indicates that such additional health considerations, linked to reduced measures to prepare for transition, can mean a veteran ‘needs time to recover some emotional equilibrium before he or she can move on to come to terms with the inevitability of change’ (p. 10).  This period of recovery includes an acceptance of the situation in which they find themselves, before attempting to adjust to the career and life changes that transition from the military implies.  If they do not do this, Jolly contends, such issues can remain on an individual’s ‘mental agenda as unfinished business’, and it is argued this unfinished business can ‘periodically surface in the conscious mind’ (1996, p. 19). This, in turn it is claimed, can sap energy that could otherwise be applied to the business of effective transition (Jolly, 1996).

Purposeful post-military careers

Due to financial pressures, Jolly also found that many military leavers were inclined or encouraged to rush into whatever civilian role first presented upon leaving. Once in a new role, they often remained ‘stuck’ in it due to necessity and/or fear of stepping outside it, while deriving no satisfaction from it (Jolly, 1996).

It is acknowledged that a salary-paying job may be a vital means of survival for most military leavers, and therefore, just like anyone else in need of a livelihood, they may be compelled to take the first job available (Lent and Brown, 2013).  However, according to Jolly, this does not mean that this ‘quickest route to relative security will produce the most satisfying way of life for the individual and the family in the long run’ (1996, p. 85).  Consistent with this, Danish and Antonides (2013, p. 552) find that the absence of ‘meaningful and important’ work in the military or ex-military mind risks ‘existential boredom’. Similarly, Bartone’s research also noted that some veterans do struggle with an employment situation they consider lacks significance and value, as these are attributes that military personnel and veterans ‘have a tremendous need to see’ (2005, p. 319).  However, in terms of military leavers, relief from ontological crisis and existential boredom is not guaranteed simply through the acquisition of any post-military work, as ‘achievement of employment, even settled employment, is not the same as the achievement of satisfying employment’ (Jolly, 1996, p. 105; original emphasis).

While there is no guarantee that a long-term plan and support will avoid dissatisfaction with the work environment, even if built on the foundations of a period of introspective examination as Jolly (1996) recommends, it is contended that the chances are increased if decisions can be made based on some form of planning, thus potentially avoiding the missing meaning and purpose that some military leavers reportedly experience.

Military leavers and veterans therefore need help

Those who are able to adopt an instrumental approach to their military experience and transition (that is regarding the military as just a job) may not need to expend much time or energy reflecting on their past and future (Brewer and Herron, 2018), while others may quickly find a job that provides for all of their financial and emotional needs, perhaps by leveraging contacts.  For others though, the prospect and experience of transition might compel a period of ‘identity sensemaking’ (Conroy and O’Leary-Kelly, 2014, p. 68) due to the emotional impact of leaving the total military institution.  This is particularly so if that exit from the armed forces is accompanied by other trauma, and hence a heightened sense of loss.  In response, Conroy and O’Leary-Kelly advance that reflexive ‘identity work’ might be the key for those who might be consumed by feelings of loss as they navigate the end of their military careers and exit from this institution (2014, p. 68).

As indicated earlier, this sense of loss can arise simply in contemplating the end of an almost all-consuming career, support and social environment for some; while for others, this loss can be associated with having had colleagues killed in action or accidents, witnessing other traumatic events, and/or as a result of personal injury or illness.  Often, all this can be experienced by the same person all at the same time, and can, according to Mobbs and Bonanno (2018), be likened to a bereavement, causing grief-like reactions.  At one end of the scale, causes of this sense of bereavement and grief can be triggered by the loss of close members of the military ‘family’, particularly if that loss occurred in traumatic circumstances.  However, the act of leaving the military itself can imply grief occasioned by loss of self-image and feelings of esteem, as well as a sense of bereavement in losing the roles, support, and sense of purpose and order military personnel may have enjoyed while serving (Mobbs and Bonanno, 2018; Graves, 2005).

As a result, military personnel and veterans might be struggling at any one time with multiple inter-related concerns potentially arising from leaving behind an experience of working and living within the confines of a total military institution; one that arms its personnel, and provides them with an all-encompassing professional setting.  This is accompanied with a built-in social life, financial support, accommodation, schooling, medical care, shopping and other facilities for them and their families.  Furthermore, this is frequently all located within the confines of a physically secure military base.  These bases, in many cases, can take the form and size of towns, whether they be physically located on land, or in the form of floating towns on naval vessels.  With this almost total security, however, comes an acceptance that members may be exposed to physical and psychological harm, as this security is designed to protect them from that as far as possible.

This potential for psychological harm can continue into post-military life, as serving members and their families emerge into a vastly different professional, physical and social civilian context, often with a sense of bewilderment and loss that entails.

This has previously been conceptualised in this post as reverse culture shock (Bergman et al., 2014).  If that sense of culture shock is exacerbated by a personal experience of physical and/or psychological trauma, or having directly or indirectly witnessed that among colleagues and friends, then, as has been exposed before, this sense of loss, grief and bereavement can be significantly increased.  It can also entail a sense of grief not just for lost body parts and/or mental faculties experienced directly (and/or indirectly by witnessing this caused to others), but also as a sense of grief for the lost security, camaraderie and feelings of value and esteem the institution has hitherto provided.  It is therefore a potentially multi-faceted and complicated arrays of losses, but ultimately, it seems, one bound up in an identity that was forged, and then withdrawn by the very institution that most depended on it.

But just as the institution depends on the inculcation of that identity, so too, do serving individuals become dependent on it.

Costs and benefits

Accordingly, if military personnel are leaving without sufficient support to enable them to most effectively transition back into civilian life, then the cost to the nation in terms of healthcare and lack of economic productivity can also present a significant resource implication.

It is, undeniably therefore, a fine balancing act between prioritising resources around the ultimate rationale of an armed force (that of defending the society it serves), but also not fuelling a perception that all veterans are negatively impacted by their service.  The danger is that this arguably false perception reduces confidence among potential employers as to how the resilience, self-sufficiency and relevant professional experiences military personnel accrue might be of benefit to them and their organisations (Deloitte, 2016).  Not only does this mean military personnel might miss out on opportunities for future employment, but so might employers miss out on the value they bring.  Once again, the net benefit to the nation of veterans becoming economically active, and mitigation of health issues arising from the sense of self-esteem due to lack of employment (or employment felt lacking in meaning and purpose) is considered highly valuable, as is the positive effect on recruitment to, and retention in the armed forces.

Integrated military to civilian transition support

This post has argued that some military leavers are affected by loss on multiple levels, and this can be experienced as an intense ontological crisis, perhaps exacerbated by existential boredom, and accompanied by feelings of bereavement and grief.  Failure to attend to this sense of loss and potentially resulting ontological and existential crisis, risks not just impeding or prolonging transition (Ibarra and Barbulescu, 2010), but ‘may create long-term outcomes, such as depression […] or aggression […] or […] turning inward and losing connection with the social world’ (Conroy and O’Leary-Kelly, 2014, pp. 81; 83).  In any case, it is likely to create ‘an experience of ongoing heightened emotions that will be exhausting for the individual’ (Conroy and O’Leary-Kelly, 2014, p. 81).  This, according to Oakes, is exacerbated when accompanied with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or other psychological reactions ‘resulting from war’, and furthermore, this is connected to identity issues (2011, p. 932). Additionally, in a link to resiliency as introduced earlier in this chapter, Oakes goes on to argue that the:

capacity to recuperate after such trauma may be related to resiliency. Even though one does not appear resilient during the aftermath of overwhelming trauma, one may later adjust and recuperate, which then allows for identity development.

(2011, p. 932)

Accordingly, some form of identity development work, which itself can build an individual’s resilience and therefore ability to navigate life change, may be instrumental in dealing with the experience of job loss on one hand, but also the trauma of witnessing death, injury and illness on the other.  Given that injury and illness in the military context often implies an unexpected end to that career, and is experienced perhaps comparatively more often than most other forms of employment, then it can be particularly useful in dealing with these potentially multiple and complex issues of loss.

In considering the job loss end of the above spectrum, Ibarra and Barbulescu (2010) argue that such transitions alone ‘are key occasions for narrative identity work’ (p. 136), as individuals often engage in ‘forming, repairing, maintaining, strengthening, or revising their identities’ (p. 137), as part of this transition. Furthermore, Ibarra and Barbulescu (2010) propose that ‘stories’ (otherwise conceptualised as narrative identity work here) ‘are uniquely suited for making sense of ambiguous or equivocal situations because they selectively distill [sic] fragmented or contradictory experiences and information into a coherent portrait’ (p. 137).  Thus, narrative identity work can provide a ‘transition bridge’ (Ashforth, 2001) ‘across gaps that can arise between old and new roles’, particularly when individuals have to establish themselves in new work situations (Ibarra and Barbulescu, 2010, p. 138).

As an advocate of narrative career counselling, Savickas also maintains that creating a narrative around career transition can orient ‘an individual to new events’ and allow them to absorb ‘these experiences into the meaning system’ (2011, p. 38), while helping them to plan for the future; thus restoring a sense of ‘ontological security’ (Crossley, 2000, p. 541).  This, it would seem, may be a crucial adjunct in assisting military leavers and veterans afflicted by a sense of loss and/or trauma, by instilling or encouraging a ‘renewed sense of meaning, order and connection to his or her life’ (Crossley, 2000, p. 542). It is seemingly supported by Haynie and Shepherd’s work with US veterans, at least in career terms, as this work reveals that ‘effectively reconstructing a career narrative serves to distinguish those who transitioned well from those who transitioned less well’ in the military to civilian context (2011, p. 510).  This ostensibly speaks to Brewer and Herron’s (2018) notion, as alluded to earlier, that those that take a more instrumental approach to military careers (that is see it as just a job), may have constructed a conscious or unconscious narrative that defines their military role as such.  Even if military personnel have not viewed their military roles from this perspective, and thus may encounter difficulty upon transitioning, narrative career work may help them navigate away from a loss-orientation, as has been established.

Following the previous contention that meaning and purpose in work are important to many military personnel and veterans (Mobbs and Bonanno, 2018; Ahern et al., 2015; Graves, 2005), Haynie and Shepherd also find that a failure to establish ‘foundational beliefs about the self and the world’ risks delivering veterans into future careers that lack this critical meaning and purpose (2011, p. 511). Importantly, they also observe that those among their sample of military leavers who transitioned ‘less well’, had not yet established a clear career-identity ‘as a basis from which to subsequently author a coherent and future-oriented narrative for their new career path’ (2011, p. 510).  In contrast, those who appeared ‘to have […] coherent narratives of their traumatic experiences […] represent solid foundations for subsequent efforts to construct a career narrative’ (Haynie and Shepherd, 2011, p. 511).  Thus, and as hitherto advanced, narrative repair work is not just useful in terms of moving away from a loss-orientation induced by job loss, but also one occasioned by some form of traumatic experience.

In addition to Jolly’s (1996) concerns over military leavers rushing into the first employment opportunity available and thus experiencing ontological insecurity (Crossley, 2000) and existential boredom, Haynie and Shepherd contend this also risks those individuals not having ‘narrative repertoires upon which to draw in order to craft and negotiate their work identities’, often resulting in them having to subsequently ‘develop a foundational story about the world, humanity, and themselves before they can successfully craft and negotiate a work identity’ (p. 521).  Accordingly, their study concluded that:

individuals facing a discontinuous career transition after a traumatic event need to (a) build foundational assumptions that can then be used to craft and negotiate a new work identity and (b) engage in identity work that involves developing both themselves and their future career.

(Haynie and Shepherd, 2011, p. 522)

But, just as Jolly (1996) acknowledges that this is not necessarily easy, Savickas (2011) also emphasises that ‘clients’ need help, particularly if the prospect or experience of transition is stressful, as it is not guaranteed that individuals ‘can think’ on their own (Reid, 2016, p. 67).  Savickas also notes that as clients ‘begin to teach practitioners about their lives, the stories start out jumbled’, suggesting that without help from a practitioner, the story will remain jumbled, as will a sense of identity (2011, p. 40).  Also highlighted is evidence that clients need support ‘to enlarge their vocabulary of self [which] increases their ability to story their own experiences, understand who they are, and communicate what they see’ (Savickas, 2011, p. 38)—perhaps in that way supporting Brewer and Herron’s (2018) concern that an inability to articulate a narrative is a barrier to reflexivity in some, and thus an obstacle to adopting an instrumental approach to navigating change and loss. Accordingly, the contention is that it is unreasonable to leave those experiencing career transition ‘to cope with transition on their own’ (Brewer and Herron, 2018, p. 7).  Furthermore, it is argued reflexive identity work can lead to identity growth, thus ‘finding benefit in loss’ (Conroy and O’Leary-Kelly, 2014, p. 82).

In support of that argument, and according to Neimeyer, narrative approaches may be among the ‘richest, but also least utilized’ posttraumatic growth approaches (2006, p. 69).  This is particularly so as self-narratives are regarded as ‘the very substance that is disrupted by trauma and loss’ (Neimeyer, 2006, p. 68), which, as has been emphasised, can be a very real facet of the military experience.

Thus, an opportunity to engage in narrative career work when faced with a career end (and one perhaps occasioned by injury or illness) appears worth the investment, assuming it is indeed a ‘rich’ source of posttraumatic growth and increased resilience, as well as a means of achieving beneficial therapeutic effect. This growth and therapeutic benefit would appear to be based on an ability to engage in narrative identity work, and thus move away from loss-orientation.

As has been indicated, such feelings of loss may induce depression, PTSD and other psychological disturbance, as well as associated reactions, including displays of aggression, drug and alcohol abuse, and, in the extreme, thoughts of suicide (Haynie and Shepherd, 2011; Danish and Antonides, 2013; Mobbs and Bonanno, 2018).  By providing the means to reflexively make some meaning out of trauma and loss, not only might a resilience in the face of transitionary challenges be increased, but a sense of instrumentality, or agency, is likely to further bolster the chances of a greater sense of ontological security, as well as potentially reduce a sensation of existential boredom and psychological disturbance.

During the courses run for military veterans in Canada and the UK (referred to previously) (Westwood et al., 2010; 2002; Finnegan, 2016), participants are afforded the time and space to review and narrate their biographies in a supportive quasi-military environment.  Moreover, in the Canadian example, clinical support is always on hand, and indeed forms part of the support provided to participants (Westwood et al., 2010). All this together, Westwood et al. claim, can ‘help normalize difficult feelings such as anger, guilt and shame’ (2010, p. 49).

If such an opportunity is afforded to those experiencing some form of discomfort in transition, perhaps by way of programmes and courses such as Haynie and Shepherd (2011) and Westwood et al. (2010; 2002) identify, then Westwood at al. (2010) contend that a sense of isolation and associated ‘depressive symptoms’ (p. 49) are decreased, while feelings of optimism, wellbeing, life enjoyment and quality of sleep (Westwood et al., 2010) are increased.

In the courses Westwood et al. (2010; 2002) cite, participants also ‘receive career counselling, assistance with the recognition of their transferable skills, the acquisition of job search skills, interviewing techniques, and networking tactics’ (Westwood et al., 2002, p. 227).  This would, it seems, support the notions that acquisition of a post-military job or career is not just vital in terms of economic stability, but also because it confers meaning and importance in individuals’ lives (Danish and Antonides, 2013), and is bound up in a sense of coherent self-identity—all vital to transitional wellbeing as hitherto contended.  This, however, is contingent on an ability to regulate emotional turmoil as a precursor, as has also been previously highlighted.

Opportunities for the UK

As yet, such holistic programmes do not appear to have been implemented in the British context.  In his UK government-commissioned review of veterans’ transition support, Ashcroft (2014), does recommend the insertion of ‘life skills’ (p. 46) modules into current provision for military personnel preparing to transition back into the civilian environment.  However, these ‘life skills’ appear to be limited to aspects of ‘housing and financial management’ (p. 46), which would seem to fall some way short of the ‘interactive learning and mentoring’ that Brewer and Herron argue are needed (2018, p. 113).  The latter propose delivery of ‘practical training, engagement with employers and communities, and the promotion of skills and education through qualifications [and development of] self-reliance and responsibility [and] social skills and cultural awareness’ (pp. 113-114), which, in the authors’ opinion, must amount to more than ‘CV writing, how to apply for bank loans, and so forth’ (p. 116).  This would at least seem to be recognised by Ashcroft (2014), in recommending ‘that the current system of training support [in the UK military to civilian transition context] be replaced by a work placement scheme’ (p. 71), and would also appear to accord with Reid’s (2016) suggestion that it is helpful to create ‘opportunities for the client to test his or her emerging concept of personal identity and vocational choice with real or simulated work activities’ (p. 70).  However, and as mentioned, Ashcroft’s (2014) proposals seem only to be oriented towards the workplace and financial/housing practical implications of transition, which while accepted as crucial, do not take account of emotional aspects that might accompany the transition from military to civilian life.

This is in marked contrast to the educational programmes that Haynie and Shepherd (2011) and Westwood et al. (2002; 2010) refer to in the US and Canadian contexts, but does not yet appear to be a factor in the UK context.  Despite directly contacting the UK MOD and leading UK charities, none was able to identify any similar programmes occurring in the UK military to civilian transition support context.

One of these aspects, which has both practical and emotional implications as Brewer and Herron (2018) emphasise, is that the ‘transitioning process does not just affect the individual [military member] but also the wider family unit’ (p. 115).  The authors argue that given the UK MOD’s ‘hands-off approach’ (in regard to adequate support for transitioning members of the armed forces), ‘the responsibility for managing the problems […] move[s] from the military to the family’ (p. 116).  Again, this aspect was recognised by Ashcroft in recommending that military members’ families be made ‘a greater part of the process of preparing for transition, by giving access to education modules, the resettlement consultancy service and the job-finding service’ (2014, p. 23).  However, the emphasis appears to remain on the practical, as opposed to broader emotional considerations of the impact of transition on family members. As Jolly (1996) argues based on her own research, families can encounter their own challenges in transitioning from the highly concentrated, mutually supportive, and often restrictive confines of military life (where shopping, leisure, school, employment and social facilities and opportunities are all often provided from within and by the military community, and sometimes stratified in accordance with the serving member’s rank), to life outside that all-encompassing community (see also Walker, 2010).  Families are therefore often institutionalised in their own rights (Jolly, 1996), and thus need support in transitioning also.

In contrast to the UK transition environment, families are involved in the emotions-settling aspects of the Canadian courses previously highlighted (Westwood et al., 2002; 2010), which both acknowledges the emotional impact military to civilian transition has on families, but also involves them in ‘awareness sessions’ (Westwood et al., 2010, p. 48), particularly if those family members ‘also need to adjust to a changed [military/veteran] individual’ (perhaps as a result of the impact of career loss itself, but also with the added possibility of accompanying physical and psychological issues too) (Bergman et al., 2014, p. 64).

Moreover, if a family is also trying to support an individual who is ill, injured or enduring stress associated with their own transition, then it is easy to see how the pressure on the whole family can be magnified—and additionally feed off itself—creating spiralling pressure.  It is this pressure that Westwood et al., (2010) recognise, and thus involving families in the transition support provision is regarded as important.

Encouragingly, more recent UK reports and information guides aimed at military leavers and their families appear to acknowledge the emotional aspects of transition to civilian life.  However they lack detail.  For example, a leaflet available on a website co-managed by the MOD and its contracted career transition support partner acknowledges, superficially at least, the emotional (as well as the financial) challenges military leavers and veterans might face (British Army, no date).  It mentions the potential for anxiety and a sense of bereavement, along with feelings of loss of identity, purpose, status, camaraderie and competence, and a sensation of not being valued in civilian contexts.  It also acknowledges that all this can have an impact on families too, as well as stating that those who undergo ‘compulsory’ (p. 1) discharge (perhaps due to illness/injury) may be particularly prone to stress due to an unexpected or unwelcome transition—the ‘traumatic’ transition referred to previously (Cooper et al., 2016). Crucially, it also contends that ‘[f]acing up to the inevitability of change’ (British Army, no date, p. 2) may ease the transition process, as ought a ‘sound Transition plan’ (p. 3).  The latter, among other attributes, ‘should allow […] clarity of thought, purpose and a positive frame of mind which may assist in the process of securing work’ (p. 3).  This appears an acknowledgment of Jolly’s (1996) and Conroy and O’Leary-Kelly’s (2014) assertions that a period of emotional stabilisation is a necessary precursor to making sound, realisable and potentially rewarding plans when attempting to navigate transition, particularly if accompanied by some form of trauma or other emotional difficulties.

However, at only four pages long, and with a commensurately brief acknowledgment of some the above emotional challenges that some might encounter, the MOD’s leaflet (British Army, no date) offers only seemingly brief strategies and mechanisms to cope with them.  It is assessed that this would not necessarily equip a military leaver with the tools to manage and mitigate these potential emotional challenges.


While the above examples do include recognition of the emotional as well as other wider impacts of military to civilian transition, their focus is almost entirely on employment matters.

In recognising that a focus on employment is crucial, it is also of note that a lack of a more holistic approach has attracted much academic and public debate recently.  This has led to calls, particularly in the UK context, for more to be done to both research and support military leavers and veterans, and their families, across all areas of transitionary challenge, and not just a focus on the job-finding aspects (House of Commons, 2018; Brewer and Herron, 2018).

This post, and the wider doctoral thesis is is extracted from, is a means to both respond to this call for research, and to inform debates around how military leavers, veterans and their families might be better supported.

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(In order in which they appear above)

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