Just over a year after a diagnosis of cancer (and an associated reaction of ‘adjustment disorder with mixed anxiety and depressed mood’) the time came to hand back my Army uniform.
This was kit I had worn day in and day out for almost 20 years, and it felt like relinquishing not just a uniform, but an identity.
In a peculiar twist, the list of all uniform and equipment I held and was therefore required to return, was blank. Due to a technical glitch, there was no record of anything on it. Nothing. Just my name, rank and number, with a page’s worth of white space under it.
The storeperson who handed this to me looked as confused as I did, but after staring at it for a few seconds, informed me that I owed nothing, as there was no official record I was in possession of any issued equipment. This was despite the evidence – based on the kit I had had been given over the years and brought with me in black bin bags – suggesting otherwise. The British Army has a reputation for having a collective sense of humour, but I don’t think even its greatest comedians could have come up with this.
Having heard stories of the Royal Military Police (the British Army’s dedicated police service) scouring internet auction sites looking for current or former serving personnel attempting to sell uniform technically belonging to the state, I did not want to be caught in possession of illicit items, so handed it all back anyway.
While I savoured the comedy of the situation, the symbolism of the blank kit list was not lost on me. It seemed to me as if any record of my service in the Army had been wiped even before I had officially left its service.
I felt as if the blank record was an image of my identity. Blank. Washed clean. All trace gone. There was nothing on it to suggest what this identity had been, nor what it could be in the future.
To complicate matters more, the storeperson appeared reluctant to accept the ghost uniform and equipment, as he would have to go to the trouble of burning clothing that did not officially exist. So not only did I feel that I was denuded in terms of handing back my (officially non-existent) clothing, but this very visible and personal trace of my Army existence – one with much history and symbolism attached to it – was about to be cremated also.
So with images of erased identity lingering in my mind, I have long reflected on being an Army ‘invalid’ since 2011. I joined the Army some 18 years earlier amid much pomp and ceremony replete with bands, horses, flags, uniforms and proud families, marking – as such initiations are designed to do – the assimilation of an ‘Army’ identity.
And much happened between to reinforce that. But I left it almost alone, save clutching black sacks containing significant markers of my time in it, and offering these up for their funeral pyre. The uniform, long since incinerated, bore the flag of my country, its international alliances, the insignia and colours of my corps, my branch and brigade. It even had my name emblazoned across my heart – literally. To me, it accordingly bore the visual manifestation of what I believe I considered my identity.
I was therefore left pondering what I now was, apart from a broken, ex-Army officer and ‘cancer survivor’ – neither of which I expected or wanted to be.