Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Thank you, Captain Wales

HRH Prince Harry has recently commented on his difficulties about leaving behind his comrades. A very moving account - representative of what many in his situation experience.

Below is the link to my

LinkedIn article: Thank you, Captain Wales

Sunday, 20 April 2014

Rules of Engagement: Spouses

I've been labouring over this for two weeks now - I'm into my second year of writing this blog; I am no more (and no less) "military wife" than I am soldier, and still I haven't mentioned them once:


Being the spouse of a serviceman (or a servicewoman) must be one of the toughest jobs going *) :
  • You spend a lot of time on your own, when your partner is away on exercise or on deployment; even when he is back home, he might not actually be around much;
  • You will be excluded from large parts of his life;
  • Your partner misses out on a lot of important events: anniversaries; births; school start ... And you have to make up for it, cover up your own disappointment and "soldier on" - even organise second birthdays or anniversaries;
  • You might be on your own when important decisions need to be made - you can't rely on your partner to be around to "quickly fix something";
  • You have little choice when it comes to housing and where to live;
  • You will be expected so socialise with other spouses with which you might have very little in common - other than the rank and regiment of your partners; and you will be competing alongside your partners competition for promotion;
  • There will be a "third party" in your relationship: rules, expectations, standards and norms - a lot of them unwritten, and you might not even know that you have signed up for it;
  • Your behaviour, the way you talk and dress will be under close scrutiny;
  • Your conduct can, ultimately, impact on his chances for promotion;
  • You give up on your career and aspirations, you become part of the "military family" - without much of the closeness and camaraderie your partner will experience;
  • A lot of the time you will worry.
There are positives, obviously:
  • You share the sense of commitment - of a "greater good". Yes, I've heard that many of you supposedly hate "the military". But, let's be honest, he's not away on a business trip selling cars or insurances.
  • Even though you might have to move more often than you want and might not like the accommodation - at least you don't have to "house hunt".
  • There's no denying ... he does look gorgeous in uniform.
  • And, yes, you will move up the ranks with him.
Then, when your partner is around, you need to switch into a different mode
  • You now need to include your partner, make him (her) feel part of the family, without overloading him.
  • Your partner might need help to unwind, relax and "come home" - especially when he returns from deployment; these days, there are only 48 hours between the heat in the desert and the school run.
  • No matter how long the break, or what happened while you were apart, you need to find a way to reconnect, and you need to help your children do the same.
What you cannot say is:
  • "Thank God, you're finally back. I need ... I want ... you have to ... can we please now ...
The serviceman has dedicated his life to the military. As his spouse, you have dedicated your life to supporting him. (I imagine the wife of a vicar must feel the same. Or the wife of a policeman. And there will be others.) You will look after the children, socialise in a way that supports his career, give up on your own; you start living among other military wives - accidentally thrown together, far away from your family and old friends.

And then the question:
How are you?

He doesn't want to know about your fears, your frustrations, your struggles - because he will have to go away again at some stage and he will want to know that you're alright, that you can cope.
     The CO's wife might make the rounds - but she doesn't have time to listen to your worries - after all, she has experienced them herself and is also expected to "get on with it".
     The Family Liaison Officer might ask you how you are - but he is busy, it's not his main job and if you appear too needy, it reflects bad on your partner.

On the other hand, you will never really know how he is. "I'm fine now - glad to be back home." You accept that; what choice do you have? Just like a vicar's wife, you might have the reassurance that what you do is important, that it serves a higher purpose. You know that he depends on you. He needs you while he is away - the knowledge that he will come back home to you.

Should the unthinkable happen and he gets wounded, you will be brought in. You're not alone. You're part of the big military family - according to their rules. You still have to play a part.

You are a couple, a unit - and yet you are forever separated. His closest bond will not be with you - it will be with those whose lives depended on him and whom he trusts with his own life. We say "blood is thicker than water" - that's why we come up with ideas like "blood brothers" or "band of brothers". That is a bond you have to experience, be part of to understand it. There is something you will never share.

"He is always so kind, so calm. He wouldn't ever hurt anybody."
I am sorry, but you're fooling yourself. You don't know your partner in battle. He harms, he hurts, he lives a life you can't imagine. That is a side of him you will never get to see. He leaves it out there (unless something goes badly wrong).

Probably your number one rule of engagement is "you don't step outside". You are a pillar of support - but you do it quietly. You don't publicly complain about bad treatment or accommodation. You praise him for his achievements and stand proudly by his side. You don't comment in any detail on his failures - you bear his frustration and go on supporting you. You can bask in his glory - and you will fall with him. It's not your place to defend him, certainly not in public.

Whatever bothers you - at the end of the day, you swallow it and "get on with it". End of story.

It can be one of the toughest jobs going.

And if you have survived all this and are still a couple, then you are thrown into new turmoil when he leaves and has to adjust to life outside of the military.

Nobody has ever taught you how to become a military wife - and you are forgotten again in the transition into civilian life. He might have access to resettlement, to some form of support and training. But spouses?

Again, strangely enough, this is a topic we came across in the research project I coordinated ten years ago. So I've decided to call my next article "spouses in transition".

*) I will focus this article on the "serviceman" with a female partner. That relationship is complicated enough. It becomes even more of a challenge when the roles are reversed or follow less traditional patterns.

If he is a hero, she must be a saint

When I try to make sense of something, quite often I start off by writing a poem about it.

A (veteran) friend asked me the other day: "Why don't you write about spouses - about what happens to them during the transition?" So I wrote a poem and sent it to him. Nervously waiting to hear what he might think, the reply that came back was: "It sounds angry."

That made me think.

I have spoken to many Service leavers over the past few years: their hopes and fears; their disillusionment and disappointment; their struggles - and their successes. There has only ever been the odd glimpse of what it all means to their partners. A lot is expected of "military wives" and, somehow, most of them grow into it. There's no course they can take, no exam they sit. They just get on with it. After all, they know why they are making all those sacrifices. Or do they? Should they just be happy, grateful, cheerful when it comes to an end? Unlikely. Nobody has prepared them for it. It won't all be plain sailing - so, yes, why shouldn't they be a bit angry at times.

You're leaving the Forces
The life I thought we’d have is gone.
You didn’t ask for my advice,
when you decided to move on.
It’s me as well who pays the price!
Life happened at a hurried pace,
I’ve only ever seen you strong.
You are now in a different place,
but you don’t tell me what is wrong.
You were not ready yet to go,
now it is only you and me.
I’ve loved you long enough to know
you miss the camaraderie.
So please let’s talk, just you and me,
let’s make a start at a new dream.
We can both fight adversity,
just let me in, I’m now your team.

I have the utmost respect for every soldier, sailor, airman I have got to know over the past years. I have begun to feel extremely uncomfortable at the overuse of the term "hero" - they don't want to be called heroes anyway. It prevents us from dealing with them as simply fellow human beings - especially when they are leaving the Forces and start competing with us for jobs.

Now I think I have come to realise that their partners deserve just as much respect and admiration - and support. They aren't just "military wives" - they are the partners of men (or women) whose jobs were demanding, dangerous at times, and are now coming to a end. They have to master just as much reorientation. Therefore, I will dedicate the next two articles to them.

In the meantime, I leave you with a song:
I can't remember how often I've heard it - now it leaves me deeply in thought as I'm about to go and see "The two world of Charlie F." again.

Our Servicemen (and women) aren't heroes. Their partners aren't saints. Both are doing tough jobs, both have my highest regard - both ought to be recognised for what they are.

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

How much do we owe our soldiers, sailors and airmen?

About a year ago, the then chairman of the Armed Forces Pay Review Body, Prof Alasdair Smith, was sacked after he had defied an order to limit pay rises for troops.

I fail to see how such an increase could have compensated for the additional pressure put on Forces families by redundancies and defence cuts - "deteriorations in the conditions of military life" as he put it - unless as an attempt to "boost morale" among those still in Service. The recommendations were:
  • 1% increase in basic pay for soldiers, sailors, airmen
  • 0.5% increase in the "X-factor".
The "X-factor" is a supplement to the standard wages, meant to reflect the hardships and uncertainties of life in the Forces. It increases overall pay to 14% more than a comparable civilian salary. There's also an additional daily allowance while on deployment ("away from base for more than 7 days").

Apparently, the pay rise would have cost a total of £40million - on an on-going basis, presumably. In a time of public sector pay freezes, as well as defence cuts, this wouldn't go down well. Sometimes there's a disadvantage in numbers.

On a side note:
At the time, (Jan 2013) Defence Secretary Philip Hammond was quoted stating  "We will have a smaller Armed Forces but they will in future be properly equipped and well funded, unlike before." - Well, The Royal Navy will be without a working aircraft carrier for years and the Desert Rats will lose their tanks.

At the same time, changes to state pension mean that Service personnel will have to pay higher National Insurance contributions - with a new Armed Forces pension scheme to be introduced in 2015.

But it doesn't end there.

There are numerous examples where service personnel affected by redundancy were given wrong information about the amount of their pay. Some opted for voluntary redundancy, based on misleading figures. Only later did it transpire that some of them had, for example, "gaps in their service" and their entitlement would be considerably less - many ended up in debt. In some cases, those affected might not have asked all the relevant questions. But how can they? They are used to being looked after, not to being suspicious. There is a responsibility on the part of the MoD to make sure those affected have all the relevant information before they are asked to make a decision.

Life in the Services is still not conducive to a thorough and systematic preparation for life in civvy street - especially if the individual plan was a lifetime career in the Forces!

The final tranche of redundancies have been announced. But the impact will be felt for years to come. Thousands are now still in the process of leaving. Veterans still face numerous prejudices in civilian life and when they approach civilian employers. I have written about how the Deputy Chief of the Defence staff talks about "transferable skills". Yes, of course I know all about it! But many civilians don't want to know. The media like to focus on PTSD and veterans in prison. And, again, there's the disadvantage in numbers - even organisations who have traditionally employed Service leavers wouldn't be able to cope with the demand now.

While many Service leavers will eventually make a successful transition - many won't. The CTP is a good idea, but in many cases it doesn't even scratch the surface.

The MoD hides behind the contract they've signed and washes their hands of anybody past the point of Service. But there's something they should worry about.

The research I was involved in all those years ago didn't only look at how redundancy impacts on those who are affected by it; we also looked at those who didn't have to leave - poignantly called "survivors of redundancy".
  • They worry that there will be redundancies again in the future and that they might be hit;
  • They lose trust in the organisation;
  • Increased fear and loss of trust lead to reduced engagement - while some will "try even harder" to prove that they are worth their money. (Which, of course, will have no impact whatsoever on future redundancy selections.)
  • People will stop calling in sick - putting themselves and others at risk.
Statistics can always be read in many ways - here's my excerpt from the Armed Forces Continuous Attitude Survey 2013. (I don't have the complete tables, only the "key findings".)
  • 28% of Service personnel are dissatisfied with Service life
  • 29% rate their morale as "low"
  • Only 28% feel valued in their Service
  • 44% consider their workload as "too high"
  • 61% have not taken all their annual leave (an increase compared to the previous year)
Pay and benefits, on the other hand, were of little concern! (It would appear it only comes into play during the search for employment outside the Forces.) Overall, in the 2013 survey, there was support for the ethos of being in the Service, people are proud to serve, consider the systems to be supportive and fair and give huge credit to their immediate superiors. But for how much longer?

It will be interesting to see the 2014 results.

Finally, let's have a look at what the British public thinks - bearing in mind that "the public" is where our future recruits are coming from:
  • They think very favourably of the UK Armed Forces in general and of the three Services;
  • They think that the UK needs strong Armed Forces, that they make a positive contribution to the UK and offer value for money to the tax payer.
  • The public do NOT think that
    - the Armed Forces are well equipped,
    - have appropriate levels of pay and benefits;
  • And the public are divided whether or not the Services look after their people.
Unfortunately, this positive image of the Forces in general does not seem to extend past the end of the Service. The Forces are only appreciated as long as they are a separate entity. Apparently, the current recruitment drives for the Reserve Forces are not overly successful. Does that surprise anybody?

In contrast, the public think very unfavourably of the Ministry of Defence - they do not offer value for money, don't support the troops enough and don't engage sufficiently with other stakeholders.

Only 4% of the public feel confident that they know what the Armed Forces Covenant is about.

Maybe not surprisingly, the autumn 2012 "engagement index" for MoD employees showed a decline in all areas of engagement - and those who responded don't generally expect that the report will be of any consequence.

Let's hope that Lord Ashcroft's Veterans Transition Review is.

Because we do owe our soldiers, sailors, airmen:
  • appropriate pay;
  • decent living conditions;
  • support for their families;
  • first-class training and equipment;
  • preparation for the life post-Services - which will, inevitably, come one day;
  • and ongoing support.
They should be able to be proud of having served - unreservedly - rather than try to hide it in their CVs.

This country needs a much greater awareness of what veterans can - and want to - contribute to civilian organisations (and to society in general). This is a joint responsibility - it shouldn't be left to the MoD alone. But the MoD could well take on a coordinating role, rather than leave it to thousands of "military charities" to pick up the pieces - all with their own overheads, quite a few of them currently under investigation.

It's not an issue of pay.
It's about respect and recognition.

James Kirkup in The Telegraph online, 15/03/13, 10:09am (26/02/14)
James Kirkup in The Telegraph online, 22/01/13, 11:29am (26/02/14)
Steven Swinford in The Telegraph online, 25/01/13, 10:00pm (26/02/14)
Ministry of Defence (2012). Autumn 2012 Survey "Your engagement index"
Ministry of Defence (July 2013). Statistical Series 6 - Other Bulletin 6.03 - Armed Forces Continuous Attitude Survey 2013
MOD and Armed Forces Reputation Survey Spring 2012: Topline Findings March 2012
http://www.army.mod.uk/join/20097.aspx (26/02/14)

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

What I understand about PTSD

I'd like to tell you a story about myself, for a change. Please bear with me - the relevance will become clear!

The other morning, I woke up having dreamt of my Dad. (He passed away in 1999 after a gruesome battle with cancer.) I told him politely but firmly that I don't want to argue with him again and that I'm not interested in his opinion.

Breathing deeply.

My Dad has always been an avid sportsman - no challenge was too much for him. He could never understand why I wasn't more like the son he would have wanted. My younger sister was much more of a tomboy. She could do all the things kids do long before I even attempted them. (I don't know what made me so shy and scared in the first place, but I just was.)

When my Dad got fed up with me not learning to swim - he resorted to throwing me into the water. I was too young to retain a very detailed memory. What I do know is that I went into a state of shock and nearly drowned. He rescued me, and the whole event won't have lasted longer than a few seconds. But it had a profound influence on my life ever since.
  • I try to avoid anything to do with sudden contact with water, whether it is deep or shallow.
  • I feel uneasy about heights.
  • I loathe the feeling of slipping and losing the ground beneath my feet.
  • I hate the idea that I could fall.
  • Even just watching other people take risks leaves me anxious that something might happen.
Dreams of endless falling have, thankfully, long subsided. I'm no longer at school where I have to find excuses for not being willing to do what everybody else attempts. But it is still there.

And now it's beginning to change.
I'm not talking about some miracle cure. It has been a long process, and it's not concluded yet. I know, of course, that there are some major differences compared to what some of you have experienced:
  • For those of you who have been diagnosed with PTSD or show some of the symptoms, the events which caused it will have been much more recent.
  • Most of you will therefore remember much more detail - unless, of course, that memory is suppressed.
  • And, it goes without saying, that unlike in my example, few people will be able to relate to what it is you have experienced. But they don't have to understand every little detail. It's a misconception that nobody understands because "they haven't been there".
Much more important are the communalities:
  1. It is not your fault!
    Despite all the training and the preparation - you can't control the thunderstorm in your brain. We don't yet know why some people just shake events off and get on with life while others are deeply affected. And though we can speculate on the kinds of events that might lead to post-traumatic stress - we can't predict it. Nor can we prevent it.
  2. You need to do something about it - or nothing will change!
    No matter how difficult it is, only you can spark the change. Therapists can help - but you are at the center of it.
    Rather than just focus on the trauma: Try something new; do something that you never thought you could do. Can't think of anything? How many of you have attempted to write a short story? Paint a portrait? Learn a foreign language? Have a go at acting? What's the thing you think you could never do? Then try it. You won't be the next Picasso or Michelangelo overnight - but there is so much satisfaction in achieving even part of something you wouldn't have thought possible.
    Trust me - it will give you confidence. And that confidence will carry on into other areas of your life. You need to find people you can trust, of course: a writers' club where everybody is working on a publication is probably not the best start. But a beginners class in an adult education college will be a very supportive and encouraging setting.
    If you find even such small steps too scary - then you ought to talk to someone about medication, at least temporarily.
  3. Therapy - help - doesn't have to involve "going there again"
    There is no "one-size-fits-all", and some of you might be so deeply affected that you need therapy. There are loads of approaches out there, and even for a professional it can be a challenge to navigate through them.
    "Talking about it" seems to be something we would all intuitively recommend - but that's not the only option. Nor it it necessarily always the best. I've done an awful lot of "talking" and it has never changed anything. And if someone were to suggest to "take me back in time" and make me relive what happened, I would finally be able to sprint. Why would I want to re-experience what it feels like to nearly drown???
    If you don't have a GP or receive therapy via some other route, have a chat with the guys at www.ptsdresolution.org.
  4. The road to discovery might involve some "trial and error"
    Whether it is a new hobby or therapy - your first attempt might not be successful. This can feel like a major setback, given that it might have cost you considerable effort to make that step in the first place. But, again, it doesn't mean that there's something wrong with you. It might just not have been a good match. A professional in that particular area should unterstand that and should be able to help you find an alternative.
    But don't give up. You can't run away from it anyway!
    Deep down, though maybe hidden away, you have all the skills necessary to get onto the road of recovery! I know that - and I believe in you.
  5. You can get your life back on track!
    And you have to. You might have dependants - children, partners. But you also have your whole life still ahead of you. You have a responsibility to do something useful with it. The man (woman) you once were is still inside of you!
Ulitmately, nobody can do it for you.

What it was for me? Well ...

I joined a boot camp class - and, yes, you're allowed to laugh. Me - who doesn't have a record of avid exercise; in fact, I hated it as a child. Now I feel like I'm going crazy when I have to miss a class. I wouldn't dream of getting too dirty as a child - now I end up sweaty, dirty and smelling of wet soil ... and I love the way people look at me on my commute home. I love the way my muscles ache - muscles I didn't even know I had. My friends think I've gone completely barmy. Or, more precise: My civvy friends think I've gone mad; my ex-military friends smile in a slightly condescending way, sometimes mixed in with a "why would anybody do that voluntarily ...?". And, yes, there's the occasional "well done". But none of that is important. It's my journey.

Me being me, of course, it couldn't just be any "military-style fitness class". It had to be the "real thing" - short of joining up, obviously. (That's a whole different story ...) Why? Now this will make you smile as well ... Because I trust them. I trust the man who has worn a uniform. I admire and respect them. I trust them to know what they are doing. I will never get to what they are capable of. But it's an incredibly supportive environment. We all feel part of a team - no matter what our fitness levels. There is so much mutual encouragement. You get praise when it's due - and you're challenged when you don't try hard enough. And they have a genuine interest in people - it never feels as if they were just doing a job.

The culmination of this experience so far was a trip to an "obstacle course". OMG. There was an awful lot I didn't attempt and for a while I felt like quitting - but I didn't. I still remember the adrenalin rush which accompanied what I did master. It worked, because I knew there were two Marines I could rely on. I knew I would be in safe hands. I wasn't pressured. And I wasn't petrified either, I even enjoyed it - continuing to run in soaking wet clothes to try and keep warm (having waded through a small river), shoes that suddenly feel so much heavier, the mud splashing up and always at the verge of slipping. And, yes, I do want to do it again and see if I can push myself a little bit further.

I will never be the one to jump off a cliff into the sea. But I would like to have a go at abseiling within the next 5 to 10 years.

What's your challenge?

It doesn't matter what it is,
as long as it takes you out of
your comfort zone!

Make one tiny step today - and keep going!

If you want to share your story but don't want to create a Gmail account - email me: sabine.pitcher@mail.com - and I'll add it.

Sunday, 2 February 2014

Let's talk about transition - YOUR transition!

I have teamed up with a professional photographer (www.dominicharris.co.uk) and I have interest from a publishing house (www.cwpg.com) to help make this work.

I am now looking for volunteers who are happy to talk to me about their transition out of the Forces:
  • You might have left a long time ago, settled in a new job - or not;
  • You might be in the process of leaving, not knowing how to "sell" yourself;
  • You might have an injury or disability and aren't sure how a potential employer will react;
  • Your transition might have been successful, but you remember all too well what made you struggle.
Whatever your story is - I would like to hear it. I will try to sum it up in a few key sentences - I know it won't do it justice. But my aim is to get the message across to others.

I want to have your photos taken because people remember pictures better than words.

The collection of stories and faces will then - that's the plan - be sent to HR professionals in organisations which have not yet signed up to the Covenant. With a bit of luck, this could help you directly. But it will also help spread the word about what people like you can contribute and how we can all help Service leavers make the transition.

If you cannot connect with me via Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn - then please email me:

It's not just me then ... "Bring in the Military!"

I read a lovely quote in the paper - in a not-so-lovely article about flood victims. 30,000 acres of country are submerged; many claim that this is, ultimately, a man made problem since the Environment Agency stopped dredging the rivers and even flogged off the machinery 20 years ago.

Here's what one of the residents said:

     "I'd have greater faith in the Environment Agency
      if there  was a brigadier in charge of it."

The man refers to Brigadier Alex Birtwistle and the Army intervention during the 2001 outbreak of foot and mouth disease. At the time, local farmers held protest meetings, calling the Ministry of Agriculture incompetent. (The brigadier had postponed his retirement for the army intervention.)

Soldiers worked continuously "collating intelligence, giving slaughtermen weapons training, and working out how to shower down vets fast enough to keep the diagnoses ticking over". Most had served in Bosnia, Sierra Leone or the Gulf. Now they became known in the farming community for their clipped vowels and organisational skills.  

And I don't think I need to mention the 2012 Olympic Games. Many of the soldiers who supported the games had just returned from deployment and should have gone on leave. For many of them, accommodation was improvised - in comparison, Camp Bastion offered a life of luxury and here they were in the middle of London. And, yet, they saved the games and made them an unforgettable experience.

How much more evidence does this country need? There are now thousands of military personnel being made redundant - they are highly skilled, they know how to adjust and to adapt and to get a job done.

So I have finally started a little project to help promote the idea - ultimately, to promote (ex-) military personnel and their skills.

Please go to my next blog - "Let's talk about transition" - maybe you would like to contribute as well?

Daily Mail 29/01/2014 p. 6