Sunday, 23 December 2012

Can you trust a civvie?

Trust is essential in all organisations - but even more so in the Military. Decisions have the potential of lethal consequences - so you need to be able to trust those making decisions. In combat as well as in training, you need to be able to rely upon each other. There's little personal advantage to be gained; you're in it together. Everybody knows his or her place; understands what has to be delivered. The roles are clear - you know what to expect of each other, and what is expected of you. There's a whole system of rules and roles which has been tried and tested for generations. When you join the Forces, you join this history. You become part of it, and you learn to trust it. You know where you stand.

Not so in civvie street.

We are much more geared to being individuals - "fitting in" is not our main concern. Often, hierarchies are not well defined; roles and responsibilities are fluid. Though we adjust to the organisation we work in, we generally also quite enjoy challenging it. Some consultants suggest we need a lot more of not doing things the usual way, of thinking outside the box for organisations to survive.

To somebody who has just left the Forces, it must appear as if we were all fighting each other, each defending their own, individualistic causes. I don't think we are. But for a service leaver, it must be confusing: the lack of structure, protocol, procedures. We do have rules, of course, but not so much for how we interact with each other. "I'll get back to you tomorrow" could mean "if I don't forget" / "if I find the time". We will hardly ever assume that anything we do or promise is critical. Of course, decency would expect of all of us to deliver; to show respect to one another. But don't be too surprised if occasionally it doesn't happen.

If civvies have proven unreliable - does this mean they can't be trusted? In some respects, this would seem to be true. Some of us can't be trusted to deliver. It also means we can't be trusted to understand what it means to you - to be able to rely on what we say.

Whoever is reading this and still willing to give us a chance: We are not all the same. By all means be careful and take your time - but don't assume the worst of every single one of us. Give us a chance - because I'm convinced that we can help each other in making this transition successful for you.

Saturday, 15 December 2012

Leaving the Forces - feeling lost

Don't get me wrong - many servicemen and women will leave the Military with plans for their future, will know where to go an so so successfully. People have joined and left the Forces for generations. But have these transitions really always been so smooth? Have the problems not maybe always been there - and it's only now that we start talking about them?

What guidance or advice will you have been given? Hopefully, once you have been through resettlement, you will have some answers to questions like
  • How do I write a competitive CV?
  • How do I prepare for an interview?
  • Which jobs should I go for?
  • What qualifications will I need?
Based on stories I hear, I assume that not alll the answers you can come up with will be satisfactory. So keep asking!!! I am in touch with service leavers, and some of the things we discuss will eventually find  their way onto this blog.

But there is one aspect for which resettlement will not have prepared you. I suspect that, in many ways, advisers shy away from this, maybe think it is counter productive - some of them will paint  a picture that is too rosy and optimistic.

Let me resort to the words of someone who has been there - because, as you know by now, I haven't. I leave it to you to decide whether this is an exception, or whether some of this rings true for you:

I don’t miss the RAF. I felt nothing handing my kit back and a similar feeling of ‘meh-ness’ handing my ID card over. The job I could take or leave. But just the people. People who share an outlook like you. Who share a way of thinking, and who share the same strange, stupid, macabre, self-depreciating, downright sick sense of humour as you do.

How do you prepare for that? Maybe you can't - but, then, maybe you can. If the people who provide advice were a little bit more honest - and were more willing to try and understand what this particular transition is about.

The Military has prepared you for combat before you ever went out. There are people who can help prepare you for this challenge as well - people who understand the impact of change, of redundancy, of uncertainty - particularly when it is involuntary. (Alex, if you read this - unlikely as it is - please do let me know how you get on ...) There is no area in civvie street which will feel like life in the Military. But it's not the end of the world, either! Consequently, there is something you will miss. It might take you a while to come to realise it - maybe a clash at work, an argument in a pub.

If you read this before you leave - whoever offers you advice: ask questions! Don't take anything for granted. Don't believe it when anybody says it's going to be easy. But, likewise, there is no need to panic.

The difficulty will be to navigate through the many, many people and organisations who offer advice. Don't let it scare you off - the one thing you cannot afford is to be complacent. You have very little to lose - and a lot to gain. In civvie street, most of our decisions won't have disastrous consequences when things go wrong. So be patient with yourself when some of it feels like failure - that's how we learn and grow.

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

I have just filled in a survey about the attitude to Combat Stress - another word for PTSD, or C-PTSD or shell shock or ....

As a psychologist, I know a thing or two about post-traumatic stress disorder - how it can come about and what potential treatment options there are. But does anybody really understand it? We can't explain why a group of soldiers will go through the same battle, see the same horrible scenes, but one or two of them will struggle later. It can catch up on them when they least expect it. You don't necessarily see it. And most of them won't talk about it.

I have met Northern Ireland veterans who are still on medication, all these years later. Who sometimes don't want to go to sleep because they know they will wake up in the night, sweating, feeling as if it had only just happened.

In the wake of the war in Afghanistan, PTSD is now a recognised condition, but many still doubt it exists. They still believe that all it requires is to "pull yourself together".

One of the questions in the survey was whether I believe there is a cure ... My honest answer: I don't know. Each case is different. Some will get over it if they can talk about it. Some will take medication and will otherwise lead a perfectly normal life. Others will continue to struggle.

There still is a stigma attached to PTSD / Combat Stress, which makes it difficult to talk about it for those who are affected. But I think there is also a growing awareness that there might be no cure. To some extent, no matter what treatment, people might still have to live with the consequences. So why talk about it? Why talk about it and risk a reaction that only shows a total lack of understanding?

I don't know the answers. But I would still urge those affected to talk - by NOT talking,
  • we will never know the full scope of the problem - we will continue to speculate:
  • you miss the chance to find out that there are others out there in the same situation (realising this can help!)
  • you won't realise that there are, indeed many people out there who would like to support and, at least, try to understand.
My favourite knock-out argument is: "You can't understand, you haven't been there, you haven't seen what I have seen." Though this is undoubtedly true, it would mean that I can talk about hardly anything, because there is so much I haven't experienced - hunger; neglegt; domestic violence; abortion; delinquency; prison - I have been lucky and have probably led a rather sheltered life. That doesn't mean I can't empathize; it doesn't mean I can't understand.

The biggest fear of those who don't talk might not be the fear of being misunderstood - it's the fear of living through it again. And who could blame them? Who could blame them for trying to lock it away?

If you have read until here, you will by now have guessed that the topic isn't new to me. I have friends who have been diagnosed with PTSD. Some have been medically discharged. Some have recovered.

When you are ready - I'm willing to listen. And there are others out there trained to listen and trained to help you make the next step.

Monday, 12 November 2012

The day after Remembrance Day

The day after Remembrance Day 2012

Yesterday was Remembrance Day - the first time for me in Whitehall. And what an event it was. While I'm still thinking about what it meant for me - being among the crowd of members of our Armed Forces and civilians alike - a Navy veteran friend told me "there are fewer people in the crowd each year".

That got me thinking. And now I have finally found a topic for the blog I created back in the summer. Remembrance Day was yesterday. But we must remember every day! Rememberance is not just about the fallen - it is also about those still alive - those serving and those who have left the Forces

So, over the coming months, I want to use this blog to post my thoughts - thoughts not about combat and war; thoughts about transition - out of the Forces and into civilian life.

These thoughts are based on my conversations with active members of the Armed Forces, with service leavers, with those who have been made redundant or medically discharged, with veterans of wars of the past. I listen to them; I am fortunate to be able to help some of them, and to learn from them. But the thoughts published here are entirely my own.

Please feel free to add your comments.