Chapter 1 – The Beginning
When I recall my earliest memories, they are of the seemingly endless and sunlit fields that abutted my first home, which formed a swathe of green that appeared to extend into the horizon beyond the coastal cliffs just a few hundred metres from our house.
This house was provided to us by my parents’ employers, the local police service, and it was located in a small town in East Kent, England. While my father continued to serve as a police officer, my mother was required to leave when she became pregnant with me, as were the regulations in 1970. However, given that my parents met and married while both serving as police officers in the local area, I perceive that it was this service, in part, that brought my parents together thereby leading to my arrival in this world.
I do not recollect much else of those early years, including my parents’ divorce when I was 3 years old, although I am aware that we moved away from the coast not long before that, to an area just outside the City of Canterbury some 10 miles inland. While at first this move was also into a house provided by the police service, the breakdown of my parents’ marriage soon after meant my mother and I were relocated by the local authority to a home in a village just on the other side of the city, where I lived for the next 13 years.
While I was conscious that money was tight for my mother, this was a time and location in which I recall prospering. The village setting – alongside what is described as one of the largest areas of ancient woodland in England – provided ample forested countryside in which to roam and build dens as a pre-teen, and then explore on a pushbike as a young teenager. Just as my earliest memories were of fields and sunlight, I feel I flourished as a youngster in those verdant fields and woodlands, while spending seemingly endless summers enjoying them.
Notwithstanding relatively scarce financial resources (and no doubt by dint of my mother’s hard work), we did travel outside this rural idyll while I was still young. We were close to my mother’s two sisters, one of whom lived with my cousins in London, while the other was married to a member of the British Army. I would spend some of the school holidays with my aunt and cousins in London while my mother was still working in Canterbury. Sometimes this would mean accompanying my aunt to her place of work in a primary school, where I joined her charges in the classroom. Thus, I was not only looked after, but also exposed to a family member’s involvement in the profession of education, while recalling marvelling at my aunt’s ability to command the attention of 30 young children and engage them in what appeared to be a passion for learning. Around the same time, my mother began work at a local university and, by virtue of that, created a family connection to the bustling campus barely a mile up a hill from our house.
As I grew into my teenage years, this university would provide work not only for my mother, but also for me, along with exposure to a seemingly vibrant, buzzing and cosmopolitan environment right on my doorstep. As I approached my late teens, one of my cousins began his university degree in the north of England, evidently enjoying his experience. While I was not particularly well applied in my own scholastic endeavours at the time, it did occur to me that a university encounter would be beneficial in multiple ways. Attendance at university thus became a focus for me too, adding a belated impetus to attain sufficient grades in my final school exams to pursue this goal.
While my aunt and mother’s involvement in educational institutions had an impact on me, and just as I was proud of my parents’ police service, I also recall admiring the stories I was told of my maternal grandfather and uncle’s military careers. This was accentuated by being able to travel to see another aunt and uncle in their military postings around England and Germany, consequently presenting me with what appeared to be the excitement of peripatetic life with the British Army and the opportunities for professional and personal satisfaction and progression that this offered. Aside from travelling around England and Scotland – with the addition of day trips to France and longer journeys to visit my uncle and aunt in Germany via Belgium and Holland – I also ventured farther afield to southern Spain.
The latter came about by virtue of my London aunt’s friendship with a woman originally hailing from a small rural village in the province of Córdoba, who invited us all to visit her there when I was 8 years old. The experience felt a world away from previous trips abroad, as the village was tucked away in the mountainous, yet seemingly endless and verdant olive groves of central Andalucía. In contrast to any previous aestival experience, summer temperatures reached well into the thirties and beyond, and all manner of new and heady sights, smells and sounds created an enduring allure, along with lasting acquaintances. From then on, Spain, and particularly Andalucía, has held a strong attraction for me, creating an impetus to learn more about this land and its people, history and culture.
Several trips back to the village and province followed, strengthening a desire to study Spanish at school and leading to securing a university offer to read Spanish and Latin American Studies after enjoying a gap year in the city of Córdoba. I had thus achieved my aim to both gain a place at university and study Spanish, while acquiring a degree of fluency thanks to the gap year in the country. As an undergraduate, I felt comfortable in a university environment and thoroughly enjoyed the course and locations in which I found myself.
What is more, I also discovered that one of the extracurricular activities on offer was a chance to join my university’s Officers’ Training Corps (UOTC). This was (and still is) a reserve unit of the British Army centred on the south coast of England and affiliated to local universities, with an aim, as I understand it, to recruit future Army officers (alongside a number of other similar UOTCs and recruiting centres). However, a parallel aim, I believe, is to expose future employers, based on an assumption that some UOTC members will become employers, to the benefits of reserve service and thence to encourage and support both them and their employees to serve or continue to serve as reserve military personnel.
Accordingly, the university experience provided not only an opportunity to don a British Army uniform like my uncle, but also exposure to an aspect of the Army’s work that appealed to me greatly. This was via an introduction to what was then the Royal Army Educational Corps (RAEC) and its broad educational and training development duties, including responsibility for delivering foreign language training to military personnel. My undergraduate degree also involved periods of study in Mexico, Portugal and Spain, which deepened my interest in the related languages and associated studies (as well as provided an opportunity to learn Portuguese).
As I cast around for where this might take me beyond university, a career in the RAEC became increasingly attractive. The opportunities that the specific work in that corps – and the wider opportunities for travel that the Army seemed to offer – enticed me, and I suspect that my family background in the uniformed services, as well as my interest in language studies and travel had much to do with that.
Given that the RAEC at that time was an all-graduate (and all officer) corps, I consequently attended and passed the Army’s officer selection process in the penultimate year of my undergraduate degree course, and I did sufficiently well enough to be awarded a bursary for the final two years of my studies. This funding tied me into attending the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst for officer training upon graduating – an obligation I willingly accepted with great anticipation for what I imagined lay ahead.
Chapter 2 – An Army to Beat
After graduating from university, I joined the full-time Army in 1993, emerging from training as the top officer cadet in my chosen corps.
As a result, I was awarded a full 32-year contract directly from commissioning, as opposed to the more common short service contract of four to eight years, and this was a condition that suggested to me that my chosen career and I were highly compatible. I was also enjoying the physical and mental challenges involved in training, and I felt a continuing pull to the professional aspects of my chosen corps in delivering language training and education.
Moreover, within a year of graduating from Sandhurst, I deployed on a United Nations’ mission in Angola, where I was able to use my Portuguese and Spanish, thus further convincing me that I had found my metier and purpose in both career and life. From there, I continued to work with other Spanish and Latin American military and government personnel throughout my early career, in addition to delivering and administering language and other training. I was also posted to Germany (where I had witnessed my uncle and aunt’s evident enjoyment of their Army lives), and I engaged in diverse operational roles and numerous other gratifying, fulfilling and rewarding opportunities along the way. This included a posting to Italy to work with North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) nations, where I improved my nascent Italian and relished working in the multinational environment.
Like many who join the Army, I did not see my career as one based in an office and in one location, but as an opportunity to travel, learn and remain active and outdoors as much as possible. I was not disappointed in that respect, and while there were moments of danger and discomfort (which I accepted as part of the professional landscape, much like any member of the military), my chosen path in the Army was not one that routinely placed me in the firing line; however, it did, on balance, offer the professional and personal environment I sought.
Not only did the career offer me these things, but it also caused me to meet my wife and provided us with homes and facilities wherever it took us (‘us’ including, later, our daughter). That career, while it lasted (for almost 16 years), was a manifestly significant period of my life and one which fully engaged, motivated and absorbed me and my time.
However, that arcadia was soon to be shattered.
Chapter 3 – Beating Cancer
While I knew a military career involved risk of physical injury (even as an education officer), I never considered my confrontation with my mortality might involve cancer. That was until I began to experience symptoms of acute pain and discomfort in late 2006, with a confirmed cancer diagnosis arriving a year later.
I was serving with NATO and living in Italy when these symptoms presented themselves, but the many trips to the military medical facilities some distance away failed to diagnose the cause. This left me enduring excruciating attacks and incapacitation as a result of the unknown cause of the pain (often curling up on the floor of work washrooms clutching my belly in agony), while completing my military duties, including physical training and field exercises. When on field training, the inconvenience of using latrines every few minutes on account of racking abdominal pain and permanent diarrhoea was a particular challenge.
However, I was posted back to the UK the following summer, visiting the local doctor in September that year. Speedy referrals for tests in the nearby hospital followed and led to the diagnosis of a cancerous tumour in my colon. My immediate reaction at being told the likely cause, perhaps surprisingly, was one of relief. In retrospect, I think I had prepared myself mentally for that to be the case, and my relief came down to having an explanation for the cause of the acute discomfort at last, as well as how it might be resolved.
In the event, that resolution came in the form of having the tumour removed, along with a section of my colon, within a month of diagnosis. A mixed route to recovery then followed, which saw me given an ileostomy. While this was somewhat inconvenient, I accepted it was necessary to allow the resected colon to heal without waste matter infecting the area around the surgery. However, I did experience a post-operative infection, which delayed physical recovery and became more unbearably painful than anything hitherto experienced (which not even morphine could dull). Recovery was also hampered by the need to repair a potential leak where the two remaining sections of colon had been joined together, therefore requiring a further bout of major abdominal surgery. The cancer fortunately appeared to be contained in the extracted tumour without spreading elsewhere, hence I needed no chemo or radiotherapy. Despite the initial setbacks, the cancer has therefore seemingly been cured.
Furthermore, throughout the whole clinical and surgical experience, I was determined to remain as physically fit as possible; encouraged to do so by clinicians under a regime of enhanced recovery. Part of the motivation was also driven by a desire to return to full physical fitness as quickly as possible in order to remain competitive for career promotion, hence I wished to demonstrate that I was fully fit to those who oversaw and influenced my career prospects.
This tactic seemed to work straightaway, as within just a matter of days of my first operation, I was informed that I was to be re-assigned from the job I was then undertaking in southern England, to Glasgow, in Scotland. This new job was one that was traditionally seen as leading to swift promotion for the incumbent, with an indication that the move was to take effect as soon as I was fit enough, underpinned by an insinuation that this be sooner rather than later. I consequently recall feeling significant pressure to comply as quickly as possible, resulting in attempts to maintain and improve physical fitness from initial hospital discharge, while still experiencing complications from the surgery that I had undergone.
The key annual physical tests in the Army at that time involved a speed run without weight (that is, without carrying military equipment in, for example, a backpack), accompanied by a longer march with weight, along with sit-ups and press-ups. Accordingly, I was attempting to maintain core strength and fitness, having had my stomach muscles cut open for removal of a section of my colon, with an ileostomy, along with the other effects of colon cancer and remedial surgery and treatment. Instead, as I have subsequently been told by clinical staff, I should have been resting, both physically and mentally, and I should have known this, or at least realised.
However, never having had cancer before and never having been committed to hospital other than for a bout of food poisoning aged 11 years, I had no idea what toll the disease would take on me and therefore what I should be doing to mitigate its effects. As far as I recall, no one advised me to do anything other than remain mobile and active post-operatively, with no caveats as to limits. I say this not to apportion blame, as this is not the purpose of this story, but merely to illustrate how I was experiencing the situation at the time and hence what I was thinking and doing as a consequence. Thus, in lieu of suggestions to the contrary, I perceived returning to full fitness as quickly as possible to be the best way to recuperate, particularly as I determined that there was a high likelihood my career would suffer otherwise.
Nevertheless, I was attempting to recover in a house provided by the Army, in the same base I worked in, only around a 3-minute walk from that place of work. Key personnel from that job would consequently see me leaving my home as I attempted to remain mobile and active. This activity included taking my daughter to the nursery school and visiting the medical centre for checks ups, both located in the same camp and even nearer my workplace. As far as I can determine, these visible signs of activity seemed to indicate that I was convalescing well to those who saw me moving around the small Army camp.
Despite leaving the house during the immediate aftermath of the first operation, as soon as I returned, I could do nothing but get back into nightclothes and either lie on the living-room sofa or return to bed owing to pain and tiredness. This was how visitors initially found me; not only that, but I was also frequently stained with the waste matter that was leaking from my ileostomy as I got used to managing it. While I received visitors in this state at first, I was beginning to notice that I found these visits stressful.
Chapter 4 – Beating Myself
With the tumour removed, and once the infection had been treated and colon leak repaired, my ileostomy was reversed around six months after my first operation.
There had been moments of concern and physical and mental stress, but despite the weakened abdominal muscles and other physical complications, I seemed to have maintained my fitness. The military medical centre that dealt with the wound left by the reversal of my stoma seemed unconcerned with that or any other issue. No one around me could see any physical evidence of the cancer or surgery; my attempts to feign, if not prove my return to corporeal and professional fitness hence seemed to have worked. Overall, I was confident that I would make a full physical recovery from the cancer, while not giving much thought to any psychological impact following its diagnosis and treatment.
My focus throughout this period was on the tumour being excised and, given that mercifully there was no metastasis, being patched up and carrying on as before; that is the point at which I seemed to be just over six months after diagnosis. Aside from the discomfort caused by visits from career-influencing individuals and the pressure I felt to resume my career as swiftly as possible, I do not recall much other psychological stress. There were notable exceptions throughout my illness, including when I had to break the news of diagnosis to close family members, and when it simultaneously occurred to me that I might not see my daughter grow into adulthood if the cancer killed me sooner.
Other than that, for the most part, I approached the early stages of diagnosis and treatment with an attitude that I and the hospital staff would beat it, not the other way around.
Accordingly, my recollection of that time is that I felt optimistic that I would make a full physical recovery, albeit with a portion of my large bowel removed, along with attendant surgical scarring and altered bowel habits. With that sense of optimism prevailing and as requested by my superiors, I prepared to move jobs to Glasgow, while the family base moved back to where I had grown up, in East Kent. The new professional posting was located not only some 400 miles away from this new family home, but also the same distance from the previous Army base I lived and worked at when my cancer was initially diagnosed and treated, and therefore the same distance from the clinicians providing ongoing monitoring and care.
Although the Army provided housing close to the new role in Glasgow, the difference in educational systems between England and Scotland meant that my daughter, who had just gained a place in a local English primary school prior to potentially moving countries, could not do the same in Scotland until a year later. There were also no places available in local nursery schools in Scotland, thereby presenting practical as well as emotional concerns in relation to her educational and social development.
Furthermore, my wife was established as a teacher in the English school system; therefore, a move to a differing educational delivery model would have interrupted her career as well. Accordingly, we made the difficult decision to provide for these apparently more pressing developmental needs when choosing where to establish the family base, which also afforded proximity to my parents and their much needed support at a time of change and concern, along with their help with our young daughter (their granddaughter), albeit at the cost of my being away from the family most of the time. While my cancer care could also have been transferred to a hospital nearer my new home or workplace, I did not yet feel ready to sever the bonds to the people and place that I credited with saving my life. I felt they knew me, and I them, and I did not wish to risk having to re-establish a relationship with a new, unknown care team, particularly when, internally, I was increasingly sensing emotional and physical fragility.
Thus, having been provided with a one-person apartment in central Glasgow, I was living on my own during the working week from June 2009 – just over six months after my cancer diagnosis and commencement of treatment, with the latter ending less than three weeks before. This was also, as stated, some 400 miles from both my family and the hospital providing the follow-up cancer and treatment reviews. All this meant frequent and tiring commutes back home and to hospital, while trying to get to grips with a new and extremely busy work schedule, which made no allowance for the recent disease and its aftereffects. In the event, I was only able to endure this for 5 months.
Chapter 5 – Losing the Self
The 11th November 2009 was Remembrance Day, an annual Memorial Day observed in the United Kingdom and some allied countries, falling either on 11 November and/or the closest Sunday to it.
Its purpose, ostensibly, is to bring to mind members of the armed forces who have died in the line of duty, along with civilians who have lost their lives as a result of military action. However, I recall it most for reasons other than those traditionally linked with this day of recollecting past conflict. Standing in uniform and at attention in the midst of the ranks of assembled fellow soldiers, my hands began to tingle, and my mind raced and railed against the feeling of being trapped.
I have subsequently been advised by military clinicians that I suffered an episode of panic or anxiety triggered by the multiple and simultaneous stresses of ill-health, job change, house move and separation from support networks; none of which, in their view, was conducive to effective recovery from cancer and its treatment, nor advisable in the circumstances.
Unfortunately however, no one had mentioned this before; therefore I had no basis upon which to weigh up the benefit or risk of refusing the assignment order to the new job and location within 3 weeks of my last bout of major surgery.
What I had noticed was that for some months leading up to that day, I had not been sleeping and eating well, all the while withdrawing from social contact. Furthermore, I was greatly concerned that I was walking into shops, picking items up and, while lost in what seemed like dreamlike fog, almost walking out without paying for them. The prospect of being arrested for shoplifting, no matter how excusable it might be given recent events, was not one that sat comfortably with my background as the son of police officers or as an Army officer trained and expected to act with integrity, honesty and virtue.
Although I remained standing throughout the parade on 11 November, at its end I staggered over to a nearby bench, soon followed by my superior officer. I recall telling him that I could not go on as I was, having realised that I was verging on a major psychological and physical collapse. Self-preservation had taken over, but it had been a hard battle to fight. The Army goes to great lengths to instil selfless commitment, courage, discipline and loyalty in its members. By giving up, I felt I was lacking in all of those values.
The realisation that I had to give up in order to survive consequently weighed heavily, and was almost too long coming. However, to admit to experiencing problems would require ‘reporting sick’ in British Army terms – being classified as sick was often mockingly suffixed by colleagues with the words lame and lazy, accompanied by accusations of malingering. I did not want to be regarded as any of those things, so I simply tried to ‘soldier on’. Military life requires that its people should be mentally and physically robust enough to operate in arduous, extreme and dangerous conditions, particularly looking to those in positions of leadership, such as non-commissioned and commissioned officers, to set the example. That, after all, is what a nation pays and expects its armed forces to do, and commensurately what the armed forces require their members to commit to and carry out.
The effect of this, in my case, was to resist admitting defeat and asking for help until I felt on the verge of a breakdown, and doing so seemed a more frightening prospect than the blow wrought by the cancer in the first place.
A reluctance to seek help was further induced by the professional environment in which I found myself: in the building I was assigned to in Glasgow, the entrance lobby contained a large screen displaying the casualty rate resulting from Army operations in Afghanistan at the time. Confronted with a daily tally of these combat-related deaths and injuries, bolstered by the then frequent images appearing in the media of repatriated flag-draped coffins, I felt that my experience with cancer was nothing as compared to them. To me, it was considered minor in comparison to any (and particularly any visible) form of battlefield injury.
My ‘injuries’ were invisible to anyone bar family and clinicians. I had scars on my abdomen, and I still have them, but they are covered by my clothing. Any stress, anxiety and depression that I was experiencing were similarly invisible, and none of these physical or psychological injuries were sustained in combat, as I had accepted might be the case.
Accordingly, I felt there was no apparent heroism on my part, certainly not of the type lauded by an organisation that awards medals and commendations to those displaying courage in the face of the enemy and much discussed in the nation’s media and literature. Instead, as far as I was concerned, the cause of my disease was a body and mind turning on itself, which was far from the military ideal, much less heroic.
Furthermore, I was not only in a sedentary job far away from the battlefield, but also responsible for sending people to it. This compounded a sense of physical and mental inability to perform the same combat duties I was ordering others to undertake, in turn provoking an internal psychological conflict exacerbated by immense guilt.
Moreover, in trusting the Army to manage my career, as well as having faith in its attendance to my welfare needs and handling of my health concerns (as I believed it had covenanted, undertaken and committed to do), I also trusted that it had determined me to be fit enough to move to Glasgow and undertake the new job. I thus felt that my declining physical and mental state was my fault, further intensifying and amplifying a spiralling sense of failure and guilt.
Chapter 6 – Help
Even prior to experiencing the panic attack, I realised that the threat of impending breakdown meant that I had to seek clinical help if I was to try and avoid total collapse.
However, I was initially prevented from doing so as my documents had not been forwarded to the local military clinic. ‘Local’ was 50 miles away in Edinburgh, while visits were further hampered by trying to inconspicuously accommodate and arrange an appointment without having to explain an absence of at least half a day spent in travelling. This occurred in tandem with my attempts to prove my fitness for work, which included telling as few of my new work colleagues as possible about my recent illness. I was at once simply tired of talking about it and aware that in not seeking help, I was likely to collapse physically and mentally, while petrified of public knowledge having a catastrophic impact on my career. I had to do something, yet wanted to do nothing – a frightening, intolerable and extremely stressful situation in which to find myself, I recall.
When I did finally get to see a doctor in Edinburgh on 9 November, just two days before my Remembrance Day crash, records note a referral for psychiatric support. This was due to the aforementioned concern that I was under entirely inappropriate professional pressure when I should have been resting and recovering from the implications of a diagnosis of cancer and follow-on curative surgery – doing so with the close support of family and treating clinicians, according to these notes.
However, this psychiatric referral did not occur before the eventual collapse, a collapse I saw as imminent, as mentioned. Given its occurrence on 11 November, 2009, and shortly after recovering a degree of composure by sitting on the bench after having been dismissed from the parade, I contacted the clinic again to arrange another appointment. I subsequently discovered my boss had also been in contact with them after speaking to me while sat on the bench, as he had come to recognise I was ill. That, at least, restored some faith that some elements of the Army appeared to care, with the instantaneous result that I was sent home on immediate sick leave, thus given the crucial time and space to recuperate with my family.
While being afforded this period of rest was a relief in many respects, the foreseen and feared consequence was the removal of my file from all promotion and appointment boards. To me, the withdrawal of my promotion chances compounded a sense of personal failure, and I have regretted not reaching the next rank since. The Army had instilled in me a desire to be the best, and circumstances had prevented me from continuing to strive for this. It was a Catch-22 situation: to have admitted to needing help earlier would have conceivably delayed or irreparably damaged my promotion prospects in any case, even if I had remained in the Army. However, in not seeking support earlier, this possibly sealed my exit fate due to delaying help and subsequently worsening my condition. It seems I was damned if I did and equally (or more) dammed by not doing so.
Chapter 7 – Identity Disassembly
After 2 months’ rest at home and an attempt at paced rehabilitation, military medical authorities came to the conclusion that I was to be discharged from the British Army on grounds of ill health.
With the Army’s discharge verdict reached and the ensuing dismissal procedure activated, part of the process required me to hand back my Army uniform – kit I had worn almost every day for nearly two decades. To me, the act of handing over this clothing felt like relinquishing not just a uniform, but part of my self and my identity. Just as the provision of military dress throughout a career is symbolic of entry, progression and success, to me the surrendering of this attire epitomised my failure to cope and act with the strength and resilience required of a British Army officer.
Moreover, in handing over my uniform and accoutrements, it appeared as if I were offering up my soul – a soul that I realised had been lent to me by the Army at its convenience. In contrast to the initial and protracted process of enculturation, marked so often as it was by ritual, this humiliating and isolating ‘decommissioning’ experience was far from ceremonious.
This sense of bathos was accentuated by a peculiar twist: the list of all uniform and equipment I held and was required to return, was blank. Due to a technical glitch it seems, there was no record of anything on it, at least according to the sheet printed out by the storekeeper attending to the process. Apart from my name, rank and number at the top, the remainder of the sheet bore nothing but white space.
This storekeeper looked as confused as I did. After staring at the blank list for a few seconds, he informed me that I was not in possession of any issued uniform and equipment according to his records; therefore, there was nothing to hand in. This was despite the evidence, based on the kit I had brought with me, suggesting otherwise. Having heard stories of the Royal Military Police (the Army’s dedicated police service) scouring internet auction sites looking for serving or former military personnel attempting to sell uniform and equipment technically belonging to the state, I did not wish to be caught in possession of illicit items, so handed it all back anyway.
The metaphor of the blank list was not lost on me. It seemed to me as if any record of my service in the Army had been expunged even before I had officially left its service. I felt as if the blank record was a facsimile of my fast disappearing identity: it was already washed clean, all trace gone. There was little on the practically empty sheet to suggest what this identity had been, nor what it could be in the future.
To complicate matters further, the storekeeper 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. The uniform was to be burned, I am told, as anything that has touched skin as intimately as uniform, is incinerated for hygiene reasons. So not only did I feel that I was being denuded in terms of handing back my officially non-existent clothing, but this very tangible trace of my Army experience was also about to be cremated, causing me to imagine my former self dissipating in a column of sparks and smoke, until I, and my identity, disappeared entirely. Where the cancer had not succeeded in eliminating me, the Army appeared to be doing a marvellous job of both deliberately and inadvertently purging any evidence of my having passed through it.
Although I savoured the comedy of the situation, and still do, this heralded an extremely difficult transitionary period.
From then on, with images of erased self and identity lingering in my mind, I have long reflected and ruminated on being an Army ‘invalid’ since 2011. Where I joined the Army some 16 years earlier – accompanied by proud family and friends and amid much pomp, ceremony, marching bands, horses, flags, uniforms and fireworks – I left it almost alone. My only companion was a black bag containing officially non-existent symbols of my time in it, which were to be consigned to a funeral pyre in any case.
The long since incinerated uniform bore the flag of my country and its international alliances, as well as the insignia and colours of my corps, branch and brigade. When wearing it, it also inscribed my name across my heart – literally. To me, it therefore bore the visual manifestation of what I believe I considered my identity, while encapsulating, sustaining and nurturing my sense of self.
Along with my kit, I also returned my identity card, which was regarded as property of the head of state. This card bore my picture, taken in the uniform it entitled me to wear. It also displayed the rank I had earned and my military number: numerals that indicated when I joined and hence how long I had served. Like most who serve in the armed forces, this number was committed to memory, having been so often required. Accordingly, it has not been forgotten, despite long since leaving.
The card I carried while in service also bore my name, my date of birth and my blood group. It therefore conveyed the essence of who I am, or was. Thus, perhaps more than any other item on that blank list of military belongings that I returned, this card was the most difficult to give up and entailed the most disturbing experience of the entire process. If I had lost it in service, I would have been disciplined by the Army. But in losing my career, I was required to surrender a piece of plastic that encapsulated my sense of self as well as my identity, and this felt like the greatest loss.
Chapter 8 – The Civil-Military Gap
At 1 second past midnight on 12 August, 2011, I ceased to be a member of the British Army and became a civilian and a veteran.
The institution with which I then most identified left me in no doubt that I was no longer mentally or physically fit enough to be part of it, preventing me from striving to be the best in its embrace just as the Army recruiting posters had urged me to be. Furthermore, given the efforts the Army invested in differentiating itself from civilian society, I perceived that if I could not be the best in the Army, I was never going to be able to be the best as a civilian, given its apparently inferior status.
That understanding heralded a long period spent pondering what I was, along with what I could be, other than a broken, veteran ex-Army officer and consequentially inferior being.
As a result, I believed I had failed not just myself, but my immediate family and parents. I also felt I had failed those I had been trained to support as a member of the Army. I also felt guilty that I felt terrible, as this suggested to me that I was ungrateful that I had survived a disease that might have killed me. My life had been saved; I had been given an opportunity to live in peace with my family, and I sensed that I should be grateful for that opportunity. However, I resented what the disease had done to my career, and this conflict of emotions provoked an immense sense of confusion, bewilderment, guilt, shame and humiliation. It caused me to attempt to avoid leaving the house and meeting people, in an effort to forestall having to explain why I was at home and not working any more. I simply could not bear to relate what had happened to anyone other than my wife.
Accordingly, while I remained a husband and father, I felt a shadow of the person I previously considered myself to be. I also felt unable to determine and see how my light might once again shine, much less project that light going forward. Any future I did try and visualise appeared to lack foundation, and therefore did not seem credible in my mind. In short, I did not trust my imagination, as it seemed to be basing plans on unfounded and hence unrealistic fantasy.
However, it as at that point I realised I was focused almost uniquely on what I had lost, as opposed to where I needed to be going; and this needed to change. The result was an instinctive pull towards examining my past (pre-military and military) life, while considering my present circumstances; and doing so with a view to determining what I could take forward into a positive and realistic future.
The result is this story you are reading now and how I have used it to haul myself away from loss in the civil-military gap.
Chapter 9 – The Beginning: An Epilogue
After writing and reflecting on the narrative I present above, I realise it paints a picture of many transitions: from childhood to youth and on to adulthood; from local to international cultures; from school to university; from wellness to illness and more.
However, for me at least, two passages stand out, and both, in their own way, were marked by rites.
Aged 23 years, I marched – in the uniform of an officer cadet at the British Army’s Royal Military Academy Sandhurst – up the steps and through the Grand Entrance of Old College. This pageant marked my ‘commissioning’ as an officer in the British Army, and it was one in which I was surrounded by my fellow cadets, with whom I had spent the previous year engaged in physical, tactical and academic training around the UK and Europe.
The parade was also witnessed by close family and friends, and it felt like a fusing of two families and friendship groups: my social family and friends from my home and university backgrounds, and the new Army family and friendship community I was joining. However, I now question whether it really was a new fusing, or simply the continuation of a familiar life theme.
I came, after all, from a family of soldiers, police officers and educators, and I was moving into a family of soldiers, police officers and educators (my wider corps incorporated the Royal Military Police). Whether I stopped to think about it then (and I do not recall doing so), present reflections suggest I might have felt that my life’s direction was coherent and preordained.
Everything I remembered experiencing up to that point seemed to be leading to that point, and from that point, everything seemed to be mapped out – bar misfortune.
But 15 years later misfortune did strike, and I had to accept and somehow accommodate that change. It was a process that took time though.
Having left the profession of arms and retreated to the sanctuary of home and family, I knew – for their sake perhaps more than my own – that I needed to move beyond the prevailing sense of loss, guilt and shame that accompanied my professional demise. Consequently, I undertook this process of self discovery by creating the story of my life.
By tracing ‘lifelines’, or themes, from my earliest memories through joining and then leaving the military until now, I have been able to identify an enduring sense of coherence and symmetry despite the unexpected nature of illness and its career and life impact. By laying out the story of my beginnings, I have been able to discern what is important to me and what motivates me, along with which personal, situation, support and strategic assets I can take from the past, and what liabilities I might need to reject and mitigate as I manoeuvre towards the future.
We do not have to be bound by these liabilities, and by identifying and harnessing our assets we can free ourselves from liabilities that might otherwise hold us back as we transition to a new future.
While I have realised there are aspects of my former ‘life’ I miss, I now understand why I miss them and I have come to terms with the end of that life chapter. Not only does this recognition afford me a degree of closure, but I can use assets that experience afforded me, along with many others, to shape a future based on what the past has given me.
That future, at least according to my narrative and plan, is to continue the research that I outline here. In that respect, I can reconnect with and continue to serve the community I undertook to support while wearing a British Army uniform.
As a result, I enjoy not just narrative coherence, but symmetry also. My story has revealed that to me.
Consequently, I see this story as a beginning. Having related my account thus far, I do not yet want it and the learning it affords me to end.
In that respect, we are always transitioning from one situation to another, while – I hope – learning and fortifying ourselves in the process.
To do so, we can revisit and develop our narratives and continue to make sense of experiences – both old and new – as we manoeuvre into the future.
That is the essence of the Manoeuvrist Approach to Transition.
I wish you good luck in your own journeys.
Create your own transition story and manoeuvre plan
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