10 Oct 2018

From Soldier to Civilian: Behind the Ex-Forces Experience

Defence features writer Robert Atherton speaks with Julie McCarthy, Director of Volunteer Operations at SSAFA, the Armed Forces charity to find out more about the ex-forces experience and the difficulties encountered when transitioning from soldier to civilian. 

For the uninitiated, SSAFA is the UK’s oldest tri-service charity. For over 130 years, the organisation has supported service personnel, veterans and their families, helping them to live with independence and dignity. SSAFA does this through face to face support – be it bereavement counselling, mentoring services to transitioning personnel or an extensive prison inreach programme to give veterans in the criminal justice system an opportunity to get their lives back on track.  

Speaking to SSAFA, it quickly becomes clear that the transition from soldier to civilian is anything but simple. Transitioning servicemen and women often have complex needs, from financial considerations to emotional or physical concerns. Having served over a period of years or even decades, they may find themselves out of touch with civilian life or in need of significant retraining. And so, for SSAFA, it’s very much about outfitting ex-service personnel with the skills and support they need, not just to survive but to thrive. 

“It’s a bit of a culture shock,” admitted Julie McCarthy, Director of Volunteer Operations at SSAFA. “Our latest report – The Nation’s Duty – found that veterans often feel wider society doesn’t understand them; that the UK doesn’t value military service as much as the US. There’s overt support for the Armed Forces in the United States that the people we speak to say isn’t as present in Britain.” 

In total, 1,000 veterans were surveyed as part of The Nation’s Duty, which sought to highlight society’s “disservice” to a new generation of veterans. The findings were overwhelmingly negative, with 62% admitting that they felt undervalued by society as a whole. It’s a shocking admission; one that paints a sad picture of prevailing attitudes to ex-service personnel. 

 But if this is the case, why have attitudes to our Armed Forces changed so dramatically? McCarthy suggests that soldiers simply aren’t in the public eye as much as they once were – during the Iraq War, for instance. The majority of ex-service personnel surveyed seemed to agree, with 67% saying there was less respect for veterans when the Armed Forces were not in conflict. And yet, there is still a huge commitment from our soldiers every day – a fact that McCarthy is quick to point out. During the summer months, it was they who aided the fire service as Saddleworth Moor burned to a crisp; and they who provided humanitarian aid and disaster relief to the Caribbean following Hurricane Irma in 2017. For McCarthy, more needs to be done to publicise the wonderful work our services do. But until this happens, the experiences of transitioning soldiers aren’t likely to be made any easier. 

Here is where mentoring can make all the difference. SSAFA pairs sick, injured or emotionally vulnerable servicemen and women with select mentors on a one-to-one basis to build their confidence and help them acclimatise to a new way of living. The mentors come from all walks of life, and often have no military experience themselves – the thinking being that if a soldier has been discharged from the Armed Forces unwillingly, they may not engage with a serviceperson. Instead, civilian mentors bring empathy and life skills to the table, and SSAFA is careful to offer them support in return. 

Employment is an obvious pitfall, however. Not every veteran walks into a full-time job. In fact, anecdotal evidence from Cranfield University suggests that ex-service women are more likely to struggle securing paid employment in comparison to their male counterparts. Historically, the Armed Forces have been male dominated. Thankfully, this has changed a great deal but perhaps the infrastructure isn’t in place to support women in the same way it is men. 

For her part, McCarthy is supremely confident in the abilities of the veterans SSAFA supports, and says that their employment prospects are endless. “In our experience, the service personnel that we support have such a wide variety of skills that no one sector is a natural fit,” said McCarthy. “With a little help, they have the ability to excel in any industry – but their military trade might make one sector a better fit than another.” 

It’s worth remembering that soldiers aren’t alone in the transition, however. Often their families bear the brunt of the change – even more so if a family member returns from service with complex needs. “It’s as much about families as it is the service personnel themselves,” said McCarthy, who – as a military spouse – has herself been ‘in the army’ for 24 years. “We move homes, manage households and hop from job to job following our soldiers, sailors and aircrew across the country. Families have a huge amount to offer but they may need support as well.” 

For the servicemen and women exiting our Armed Forces, the transition may well be a concern – particularly if they already feel undervalued by the world they’re re-entering. Change is never easy, but help is available. For McCarthy, however, the issue is one of planning. It’s never too early to think about life outside the Armed Forces. 

“Service personnel often underestimate when they should start thinking about their own transition. They begin the moment they sign off, when actually they should have started five years ago,” said McCarthy. “The transition itself is so important. If we can get it right, through military or charitable support, we’ll have fewer veterans coming to us five or ten years down the line, their lives having imploded.” 

For more information about SSAFA, please visit: www.ssafa.org.uk 

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