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

I produced the following ‘executive summary’ of the above titled thesis in preparation for my viva later this month (September). In contrast to the abstract, I hope it provides an alternative and more accessible summary of my work, if not to help me as much as anyone else understand its aim in overview form (particularly as I prepare for viva). It ought to stand as a mini paper highlighting salient aspects of the much longer write-up of the study provided in the full thesis, leading to an emphasis on its recommendations.

Please feedback any typos and lack of clarity, and/or if you have anything to add from your own understanding and experience. Please also ask questions. My aim is to generate interest and dialogue, and ultimately assist others in their own transitions (as well as pass the doctorate).

An executive summary

Background

The thesis opens by emphasising military work entails not just a professional commitment, but also a personal dedication beyond the demands of most, if not all other professions. Military personnel bear arms and, in extremis, use them to exert lethal force. By its nature, military action implies an ability to endure physical and psychological hardship, and involves loss. Ultimately, this includes the loss of military members’ lives, as well as those of adversaries and non-combatants. In most circumstances, no one takes this lightly, and it comes at a cost.

This responsibility implies a training and organisational regime that is commensurately different from most, if not all other professions. Consequently, military work and life are rarely routine, and often require personnel to operate in isolation from the society they serve. Such environments have to be secure and almost entirely self-sustaining (which frequently includes families in that ‘total’ institutional context, and who thus vicariously share the intrinsic challenges). This results in a ‘civil-military gap’, and the totalising and inherently institutional nature of this existence can mean that many members come to define themselves and their identities in military terms. Many also come to rely on the self-sustaining context for almost total practical support. This is not surprising: nations expect their militaries to undertake extreme work, and this requires an extreme form of enculturation and resilience as a result. Accordingly, military organisations go to great lengths to ensure this is the case, as do the people that serve in them. This includes families that coexist within, support and are supported by those military institutions.

In contrast to the training and sustaining process, resources and time invested in preparing personnel for an exit from the military environment is comparatively meagre. While acknowledging that the primary concern of a military organisation is to prepare for and engage in military operations, research has pointed to both the moral and economic imperative to provide greater transition support. Moreover, given the unique nature of the military environment, this preparation needs to be elevated beyond the current primary focus on simply acquiring a post-military job, accompanied as it often is with an attitude that any job will do. While the UK Ministry of Defence (MOD) provides briefings on other crucial financial and emotional transition aspects, it also acknowledges that a more ‘holistic’ support package is necessary.

Similarly, while the provision of care for those physically and psychologically injured has recently improved—accompanied with implementation of awareness campaigns (especially as regards mental health)—the MOD also acknowledges there is still more to do in all respects. Crucially, and for example, stigma and fear of personal/professional repercussions and/or lack of awareness can prevent personnel from embracing much needed assistance in these areas. Resolving this tension relies on creating the conditions in which transitioning (as well as potentially ill) military personnel shift the focus of their ‘military’ resilience to the differing challenges encountered when transitioning back into civilian life. This includes overcoming fear of stigma and wider repercussions as appropriate, or at the very least, creating an awareness and means of accessing this support.

Educating for post-military life

This is where education and comprehensive support is key. In my thesis, I use the ‘4 S’ transition model* as a framework for articulating how to provide enhanced educational—and therefore more comprehensive—military transition assistance. This model takes account of the ‘Situation’ surrounding a transition (for example medical issues), and identifies what aspects can be controlled. Linked to issues of control, it also provides a framework by which an individual can identify what drives their sense of ‘Self’ and identity (and thus what is significant and important to them), and provides a ‘Support’ package to assist them in both navigating and benefiting from this process. As recommended in this thesis and other studies, this support should be delivered among the safety of experienced peers, family members and clinicians (if applicable in the case of the latter two), and must begin well before the military exit point. It should also continue for as long as is necessary after that exit (with at least periodic check-ups to mitigate issues).

It is additionally crucial to deliver this in a far less fractured manner than is currently the case in the UK (that is by a plethora of non-military governmental, third sector and private providers, some of questionable quality and accessibility). Moreover, providing transition support in a group setting as far as possible is shown to reduce the effects of perceived stigma (perhaps adding a fifth ‘S’ to the other four ‘S’), as well as to increase learning by sharing ideas, and to reinforce the concept of mutual-support that is familiar to military personnel—all of which can augment beneficial impact and response. Finally, the 4 S approach offers individuals a range of ‘Strategies’ to employ during their transition and beyond, thus increasing their personal strength, as well as their resilience and ability to enact progress. The 4 S framework therefore provides for an analysis of the situation and self aspects surrounding and/or giving rise to the transition, and then the support and strategies that can be deployed to assist in reducing and/or navigating challenges encountered.

Chief among the array of strategies is a narrative approach to transition. This is based on an autobiographical methodology, used by the individual (with the support of experienced peers) to reestablish personal meaning and coherence in the face of transitional disruption. Studies indicate that identity conflict causes much of this disruption, as military leavers attempt to redefine who and what they are in the post-military world. Both identity issues (arising from a disrupted sense of self), as well as the potential for trauma occasioned by military service, imply loss. Loss can imply grief, and that can fix an individual in loss-orientation—from which it can be hard to emerge. In turn, this loss-orientation can worsen or create physical and psychological trauma, and lead to professional and social difficulties; all of which can play on each other and amplify one another, sometimes to tragic ends. The social and economic costs can therefore be vast; however, the investment needed in providing a far more comprehensive and holistic transition support package is likely to be much less (as well as lead to potentially beneficial impact on military recruitment and retention in order to better take advantage of this).

The thesis explains that the narrative approach can focus individuals on what drives their professional and personal sense of self, which feeds into a greater potential for transition into more meaningful and purposeful civilian careers and lives upon eventually leaving the military. Research supports the notion that most military members thrive on a perception of personal and professional meaning—as well as a sense of value and esteem while serving; and many seek and/or miss this when leaving. While the narrative approach is not a panacea, evidence suggests it can provide a powerful adjunct to other interventions when attempting to identify what motivates and drives an individual, and thus what might satisfy their meaning and esteem needs going forward. It can help mitigate any sense of loss and disruption-orientation, along with the aim of scaffolding personal and professional growth (even occasioning posttraumatic growth). Its power lies in the human characteristic of seeing life as storied, and an often-innate need to resolve feelings of loss and disruption in order to emerge from a state of grief, flux, shock and despair. If not resolved, this trauma tends to resurface in the mind, diverting attention and effort that could be applied elsewhere.

Recommendations

The UK MOD acknowledges these concerns and is looking at how to enhance its transition support. This thesis seeks to inform the development of that package by using a comprehensive review of relevant academic research, allied to an analysis of the author’s own experience of challenging military to civilian transition, as well as the role of narrative ‘review, repair and reconstruction’ in supporting that process. It concludes, in common with many other studies, that transition support must be provided in the group environment as far as is possible (as outlined above, among experienced peers and clinicians, and alongside family members as appropriate), and be made universal (rather than just aimed a selected few).

The unique contribution the thesis makes is a recommendation that the 4 S model be used to guide and provide this support, which allows for a far more holistic approach, and greater account of both emotional and practical concerns and challenges. This is particularly pertinent given issues of identity and trauma so often prevalent in military exit contexts. In employing narrative approaches, all ‘4 S’ are covered in a framework that educates those preparing for and experiencing transition, thus affording them an ability to dynamically approach it with heightened resilience.

The cost of not doing so is evident, and far greater than the investment needed to provide this enhanced capability and loss-mitigation measure. This will benefit us all.

Graham Cable is a former member of the British Army’s Educational and Training Services Branch, also seeing operational service between 1994 and 2005. A medical discharge from the UK armed forces in 2011 prompted him to consider how to better support military to civilian transition. He submitted his doctoral thesis (in education) on the above subject in June 2019, with examination later this month (September 2019).


* After: Schlossberg, N.K. (2011) ‘The challenge of change: the transition model and its implications’, Journal of Employment Counseling, 48(4), pp. 159-162.