Military-to-civilian transition, and back again…

Well, here’s our second transition story, anonymised to avoid identification of individuals. I thank its author, and encourage you all to send in your own.

While perhaps much less straight forward than our last story, there are commonalities (for instance the mental health encounters). More crucially is the lesson that making the most of training and educational experiences/qualifications can be hugely beneficial.

This story also conveys some of the challenges transition from a career in the military can present when settling into civilian job roles and life, particularly if accompanied by additional difficulties. That said, I also sense there is a message of enduring resilience and fortitude, which was perhaps identified in our storyteller by those recruiting them into the military in the first place, and then developed and honed from then until now.

However, what strikes me most is the final message of hope and positivity.

When I was at school in the eighties, the plan was to join up on an Army Regular Commission (you could do that in those days) and serve to retirement, but no plan survives contact with the enemy. After ‘deferment’ by both RCB and OASC, several times in the case of the latter, I followed my then-partner into nursing. God knows why. At the time, I was the most squeamish person in NATO and I had a sense of ‘kill or cure’, about it, but I had to do something. Nevertheless, I found I had a talent and aptitude for it and it genuinely hadn’t occurred to me that I could go nursing in the military until we had the obligatory recruiting visit from the QAs.

The advice was to get a couple of years’ post-registration experience and join on a commission, rather than in the ranks. While I did that, I joined the TA [Territorial Army, now the Army Reserve]. I commissioned in 1994 and by 1996 I was a civilian theatre nurse at the Duchess of Kent’s Military Hospital in Catterick. In 1997, I went Regular. My first boss’s advice to me was, ‘The Army will chew you up and then spit you out…and it doesn’t care’. I took that on board and hoped that, armed with that reality check, I would be adequately prepared. Over the next 16 years, I did three operational tours, trained as mental health nurse, transferred to the RAF and got a first degree and two masters degrees, though not necessarily in that order.

When it came to transition, however, it was rather unwelcome. Having had my sights on a full career as an eighteen-year old, by the time I finally joined the Regulars it was necessary to ‘work your way up’, from a short service commission. Transferring to the RAF also came with a ‘free upgrade’ to a medium commission, but that ran out in 2013, which coincided with the downsizing that was being imposed at the time. Thus, when there were eleven of us in the pot for one full career commission and TELIC and HERRICK were ongoing, the mental health nursing lecturer (as I was then) stood little chance against more ‘crunchy’ role-holders like ITU or A&E nurses.

Nevertheless, I tried to look on it positively. I was only forty-five and an experienced senior lecturer, Fellow of the Higher Education Academy and working on a doctorate so a promising twenty year career in higher education beckoned. 

We had been homeowners when I first joined up, but the potential stress and responsibility of trying to rent our house out was daunting, so we sold up. We just broke even on the sale, a matter of months before the housing market soared. Had we held our nerve, we could have sold for three times what we’d paid for the house, only a couple of years’ later. So when it came to leaving, we commuted the pension for a bigger lump sum so we could buy our ‘forever house’. 

The promise I’d sensed in an academic career was enhanced when I was ‘head-hunted’ by an old friend to join an embryonic team to run a masters degree programme. We bought a house close to somewhere we knew rather than starting afresh in an unfamiliar location. The house wasn’t perfect, in fact you’d definitely call it a ‘doer upper’, but, like my civilian career, it ‘had potential’. 

The first year was a blur. One thing I became acutely aware of was the need to be unashamedly self-publicist, to ‘big oneself up’, in a manner alien and uncomfortable to military folk. Yet, it seemed to be the norm in Civvy St. Another thing that I found difficult was HE’s [Higher Education, e.g. universities etc] apparent obsession with money. My first formal chat with my manager was all about what income I could generate for the faculty, as my salary had reportedly blown the budget and I was told I needed to bring in money to offset that. It was a shock. In retrospect I should have walked away, but I did my best to try and adjust to this new ‘norm’, though as a lifetime public servant it never sat well with me. I had hoped that academia would work on a co-operative basis, but it felt ruthlessly competitive and, ‘run like a business’. This was anathema to my public service ethos. I also found my probation extended from 12 to 18 months, and I told the hierarchy that I felt like I’d gone from ‘hero to zero’.

I was also disappointed with the NHS, as a patient. When I had been NHS, the collective attitude was ‘how can we help?’, whereas in my sixteen years away, the new approach seemed to be to ‘save taxpayers’ money’. In my view, all that does is paper over the cracks and ultimately cost the taxpayer more.

We also found, despite our best efforts and financial planning, that paying a mortgage…and water rates…and council tax and so on was crippling us. I could see our outgoings were consistently more than our income and sought help.

However, the cumulative effect of the stresses I was dealing with, combined with distressing wider family issues back in my home county, led to a significant depressive illness. Being military through and through, I would hurry back to work as soon as I felt a bit better…only to go off sick again within a week or two, like a revolving door. In the end, as a family we decided that our current location was untenable and sold up, hoping to buy something back in our home county. We moved into rented accommodation and I took locum work at a local military Department of Community Mental Health (DCMH) to pay the bills while I looked for academic jobs. I had many interviews, but none were successful. Of course, not having a permanent, salaried job also meant we couldn’t get another mortgage and, as time dragged on, the savings we had for a deposit were eroded just to keep us afloat.

In the end I took a FTRS (Full Commitment) job as a reservist and then transferred back into a regular role, still at the same DCMH. This addressed the shortfall in income and we could have gone back into Service Family Accommodation, but by this time we were renting a house big enough for our family of eight and no quarter would have matched it, so we stayed where we were.

It’s not all, or even slightly, doom and gloom. Through my work with veterans I know that the vast majority make a real success of civvy life, or at least a fair fist of it. In my case I was unlucky, but for a reason I’d never anticipated. Last year, aged fifty-two and with thirty years in one uniform or another, a psychiatrist finally figured out that I have ADHD. That’s not something you develop over time. I’ve unknowingly had it all my life. My first words were, ‘Well, that explains a lot!’ and apparently that’s common for those not diagnosed until adulthood. It certainly explains why having ‘retired’ once and worked with – not for – former star-ranked officers [generals in the Army and Royal Marines or equivalent in Royal Navy and RAF], senior academics, senior civil servants, MPs and ministers, I now find it difficult to function in the military. It’s like having been re-inserted into the Matrix, without the benefit of having my mind wiped first; and neither I nor anyone else should be surprised at how difficult I find it to, ‘wind my neck in’ [just get on with it].

…who knows what I can achieve in the future now I’m armed with that self-awareness?

But there’s no need for despair. If I could make it to OF3 [Army major or equivalent], rack up a string of postgraduate qualifications and keep a marriage and family together, whilst not knowing I had ADHD, then who knows what I can achieve in the future now I’m armed with that self-awareness? ADHD people are creative, innovative and often above average intelligence, so I guess I’ll think of something.

But with nineteen months to push, I must now contemplate transition again. This time I may not land on my feet like before. No house, no savings and no inclination to just ‘work to live’. I’ve spent most of my fifty-three years dancing to someone else’s tune and I can’t do it anymore. I need to come up with some tunes of my own. Watch this space!

If you would like to work on your own transition story, please click on the button below.

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