Getting military-to-civilian transition right: What’s good for Scotland is good for the UK

I recently came across the Scottish Veterans Commissioner’s ‘strategic overview of transition from the Armed Forces’. 

Published in late 2020, it post-dates the UK Government’s ‘Strategy for Our Veterans’ by over two years. Not surprisingly then, it offers a more nuanced insight into many of the challenges faced by veterans undergoing transition from a career in the Armed Forces.

Rather than just providing a few vision statements, it makes several recommendations, including that a ‘fresh transition model is needed [that] puts the individual at the centre’ (p. 10). If the individual referred to is the person undergoing the transition from the Armed Forces, this is an observation and aspiration that is crucial to transition success. I say that, as the ‘success’ of any transition can only be judged by the individual undergoing it in my view.

It is tempting for any agency involved in supporting those undergoing military-to-civilian transition (MCT) to attempt to measure their own and the individual’s ‘success’ by externally imposed measures, for example by how quickly a veteran secures employment. 

A paid job is likely to be of crucial importance to most transitioning from service in the Armed Forces to be able to support themselves and their families. However, an unfulfilling job is not the same as one that is enjoyable and positively challenging. Employment — for most — is more than just a means to financial ends. It provides a sense of belonging, along with personal, professional and social structure, and an identity and a role — much like might have been enjoyed within the Armed Forces’ environment. 

It therefore follows that only the individual directly involved can tell us when they feel a transition from the Armed Forces has been successful, particularly as it is likely to entail other subjectively judged ‘success’ criteria such as housing and location, both of which imply a success judgement based on mutually influencing practical and emotional concerns. 

Support will only take a ‘Service Leaver’ and veteran so far though. The Scottish strategy also states that these individuals ‘need to take responsibility for their transitions’, which in turn requires them to ‘own it’ (p. 10). Agreed.

But therein lies another issue: in any transition situation, it can be hard to take control of a stressful change process, particularly when forced upon an individual by premature career end, perhaps exacerbated and resulting from health issues or other debilitating complications.

That individual therefore needs support to be able to take control of their transition and ‘own it’. That, in my view, is the most important and pivotal support we can offer. By enabling a sense of control and ownership, this, in turn, provides a motivational impulse of its own, along with a clarity that can clear the way for both subjective and objective transition ‘success’. 

Before moving on to how this support might be offered, and among the many apposite recommendations the Scottish strategy makes, it advises that such ‘support should be extended to spouses and partners’ (p. 10). As I have written about at length elsewhere, the immediate family members of an individual undergoing MCT can — and almost always do — offer pivotal support to that individual during a challenging process of change (much as they are likely to have done when that individual was serving in the Armed Forces – two particularly good reports make this point here and here). For that reason alone, these family members deserve support, as by supporting them, we are reinforcing support to the ‘Service Leaver’.

More importantly however, these family members will also be undergoing some form of transition alongside that Service Leaver, either from the military ‘bubble’ they too have occupied (with its built-in accommodation, social life, elements of schooling and so on), or at least from vicarious proximity from Service life and all the sacrifices that involves. This, of course, is recognised in the Armed Forces Covenant. Therefore, it is not just to the Service Leaver and veteran that we owe a duty of care, but to immediate family members for whom the sacrifices have often been more onerous. 

That duty of care extends to supporting all involved in this MCT process understand how to ‘own’ their transition. This begins by enabling them to understand and ‘own’ themselves, potentially achieved, in turn, by them exploring and leading their own transition story…

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