Category Archives: Military Life

When the Ordinary Seems Extraordinary

This week is mental health awareness week, and I am struggling.

I say this with both feeling and knowledge. Feeling because quite frankly I am emotional, knowledge because I have been here before, twice.  I know that having had two episodes my risks of more are significantly higher than if I had only suffered one. 

With the benefit of experience I can see too, that I am the steady, almost imperceptible, downward spiral to a further relapse.

But I am not there yet. And I want to write about my experiences to inform and encourage others, because I view this as a positive story.

To be clear from the outset, I don’t suffer from PTSD.  I have experienced stress and depression. To my somewhat frustration PTSD is seen as the SAS of the mental health landscape.  It is glossy, seemingly everyone wants to write about and yet the vast majority of us will, if we suffer from anything, will suffer from stress and depression. PTSD is seen as acceptable, the curse of the brave. Stress and depression, the unsung stalwarts who are the backbone of mental health statistics are not quite so empathetic. I am one of those.

I had my first episode in the mid ‘noughties’ after an intensive period of operations and far too little leave. I broke, suffering a catastrophic breakdown just before Christmas. The doc gave me some pills, the boss, sympathetic though he was, told me not to talk about it (“it will impact your career you know”) and after two weeks Christmas leave and three appointments with the shrink I carried on as normal.  To be honest I wanted to carry on as normal and career wise I was in a good place and enjoying my job.

But I was not better, and I wasn’t actually in a good place.  Over the next four years I inexorably drifted back to the same hole, only bigger and deeper this time.  This time the system was better. I had three months sick leave and then a graduated return to work over a period of nine months.  More importantly I had access to Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and could start to undo some of the very bad habits I had picked up over the previous 10 years.

I had to relearn how to enjoy life, how to relax.  I had to diversify my interests and rediscover my hobbies. I learnt how to walk away from the desk.  I learnt that the ringing of the telephone was not a harbinger if doom, and I learnt to calibrate my responses by looking at those around me.

I promoted too, and deployed again, several times. Life does not finish when your mental health fails, you just learn to walk at a different pace.

So what have I learnt?

Firstly, that prevention is better than cure.  I am struggling once more, but I am not broken.  I have the tools to manage my mental resilience much better now.  I recognise the warning signs earlier and pace myself better.  The military’s mental health awareness campaign is excellent, but mental health issues are insidious, manifesting gradually over months and years. I need to look back to 12 months ago and compare then and now. I ask myself when was the last good day that I had, for not every day should be a grey day. I ask myself why does the ordinary every day, seem to take the most extraordinary effort today? And so I check; am I connected? Am I active? How is my prayer life? Am I still volunteering and am I still learning? We all need to be doing these things. The balance for each of us will be different, but the ingredients are the same. I can manage myself better now than in the noughties.

Now, compared to 6 months ago  I am less active, less communicative and my prayer life is superficial; but two weeks ago I was painting the walls in a women’s refuge and that gave me such a boost! So I am recalibrating and consciously changing my behaviour. That is hard, it takes effort and it is immensely draining; but it is possible. Changing patterns is possible, but like the incremental spiral down, so too is it an incremental spiral up.

I will talk to people too.  My padre knows, family and friends too. I have never been shy on my experiences, it is part of my initial patter when I report for duty. There remains a stigma over mental health issues, but there needn’t be.

So what can people do? 

Be supportive.  It sounds trite, but actually in my experience and struggles, having shoulders to lean on has been the best support.  Depression is often called ‘the curse of the strong’, and none of us want to be a burden, but we are not all strong all the time and sometimes we need support.

Be aware.  These changes manifest over time, think back, not now.  Worry about the person who is working harder to stand still, for these are the people for whom the ordinary is becoming extraordinary, and when the ordinary becomes extraordinary and life becomes grey – then you are at the tipping point.

Lastly for those who see a glimpse of themselves in where I am, take a knee, take that condor moment, and reach out.

Remember that stress and depression is what can happen to you, but it does not define who you are. We are all better than that.

For help try:

Big White Wall

Shortlink http://q.gs/EwW4I

Of the commissioned divide and a plea for more civilians.

WHEN the ‘arf-made recruity goes out to the East
‘E acts like a babe an’ ‘e drinks like a beast,
An’ ‘e wonders because ‘e is frequent deceased
Ere ‘e’s fit for to serve as a soldier.
Serve, serve, serve as a soldier,
Serve, serve, serve as a soldier,
Serve, serve, serve as a soldier,
So-oldier of the Queen!

The Young British Soldier

Rudyard Kipling

A recent conversation on twitter over rank and status got me thinking.  The debate had been sparked by the post on the Wavell Room by Nicholas Drummond (@nicholadrummond) about flattening rank structures.

The actual question that I was posed by @AlanIvinghoe was “perhaps  the commissioned/non-commissioned officer divide has had its day?” This lead me to think about status, form and function.  Why do we do what we do the way we do it? What sets us apart in what we do?

Much of the form of the military, derives from our function.  The function of the military differs from all other civilian professions, in that the military have unlimited liability.  As soldiers we accept that we put our lives on the line as part of our routine operational duties; we expect to take casualties on operations.

If your officer’s dead and the sergeants look white,
Remember it’s ruin to run from a fight:
So take open order, lie down, and sit tight,
And wait for supports like a soldier.
Wait, wait, wait like a soldier . . .

In order to carry out our duties effectively we fall under military discipline, reflected in the Army Act (or Service equivalents).  Within this legislation responsibilities of and to the chain of command are stated and this is reflected in the Commissioning Scroll that most officers receive.

“And we do hereby Command them to Obey you as their superior Officer, and you to observe and follow such Orders and Directions as from time to time you shall receive from Us, or any your superior Officer, according to the Rules and Discipline of War” 

The difference between commissioned and non-commissioned ranks therefore, lies in the duties and responsibilities, it reflects their function in war and is reflected in legislation. Could this change? It is conceivable that officers in command receive letters of appointment (or commissions) specific to that command which would then afford them the same rights and responsibilities but I do not see how this would improve matters.  A broader issue for more fruitful consideration is how within the armed forces (and the Army in particular) we can de-segregate rank and status from appointment and recognised expertise.  If we managed this, then it would be much more the case that rank would not be seen as equaling expertise and I think we would be a more agile organisation as a result; it would also empower our non-commissioned expertise to a far broader extent than is currently the case.

There is a perception that our current personnel structures are not optimal.  This was the genesis of the Wavell Room articles and has also been reflected by Sir Humphrey on his 6th August blog post.  Much ink and angst has been expended on how we need to change structures and standards, in order to bring more expertise and agility into the military.  Do we really have to? Why don’t we keep this expertise in the civilian realm?  Do we expect or need these specialists to pick up a rifle and engage in close combat? Do we expect them to hold unlimited liability?  The US Army has the Army Civilian Corps. These are civilians who are in many cases deployable under orders. They take the oath, they have a creed.  I have deployed alongside them in every theatre I have operated alongside my US colleagues. Some have volunteered to go (the same system our MOD civil servants operate under), but some were ordered too.

“I am an Army civilian – a member of the Army team.
I am dedicated to our Army, our Soldiers and civilians.
I will always support the mission.
I provide stability and continuity during war and peace.
I support and defend the Constitution of the United States and consider it an honor to serve our nation and our Army.
I live the Army values of loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, and personal courage.
I am an Army civilian.”

It seems to me that rather than focusing on how to bend the boundaries of what it means to be military, we could productively look at developing a status of personnel for operating in the gray zone. Neither all soldier nor quite all civilian, but hybrid, under orders but not expected to hold unlimited liability. If we are not employing these people against the contingency of picking up a rifle and engaging in ‘dash, down, crawl, observe, sights, Fire!’ then why we should we treat them as though we are? This category would also usefully enable us to easier fill the SO2 and SO1 pinchpoints that Sir Humphrey highlighted.

Perhaps the future isn’t green, but pinstriped…

 

 

Postscript:

When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains,
And the women come out to cut up what remains,
Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains
An’ go to your Gawd like a soldier.
Go, go, go like a soldier,
Go, go, go like a soldier,
Go, go, go like a soldier,
So-oldier of the Queen!

Shortlink http://q.gs/EOSom

Reintegration Blues

For most of the last three years I have been deployed on operations, or preparing to deploy on operations. It has been challenging, stressful, a deep learning curve and immensely satisfying; I am a very different person now from what I was in 2015; but adjusting to the ‘now’ as opposed to the ‘was’ comes with its own challenges.

While I have seen a campaign through almost from start to finish, being deployed is life in a bubble. I have been intensely focused on one thing and one thing only, and with that comes a battle rhythm. Meanwhile in the real world life goes on, and goes on to its own rhythm. Coming back is stressful.

Returning from deployment is much like experiencing two of the four main stressors of life (birth, bereavement, marriage and a new job) in life.  After an extended period away I have to readjust to family life. The family has moved on, I have not. We all need to readjust. This can take time, one of the briefs I received on my return highlighted that most domestic issues come to a head three months after return from deployment. Adjusting takes time, and the pressures of not adjusting well take time to rise as well.  A family has a balance of its own, this is a dynamic thing – it takes time to recover its equilibrium.

Recovering equilibrium needs a broader perspective as well.  There’s many things that make a balanced life and that balance is different for everyone. Work, creative pursuits, emotional support, spiritual life and physical fitness all need to be balanced, and on deployment that is difficult. My fitness levels have decreased over the course of deployment, my creative pursuits dwindled to nothing and while I maintained some degree of spiritual balance I now need to regain my equilibrium while at the same time balancing reintegration with the family. My desire for a week in the mountains hiking is neither practical nor desirable from my wife’s perspective and while I would like to start writing again sooner rather than later, quite frankly I feel somewhat frazzled yet. On the plus side my attempts at baking have been met with both approval and an expanding waistline. While I have time now, I do not have limitless time, and while time is a great balancer, time and thought are better together.

In the same way that I deployed to a plan, I have to think through the return. It sounds trite, but goals and timelines are important, as well as measurements. I have to set realistic expectations for me and my family, accept that I am not going to start from where I left last year, but instead will be ahead in some areas, behind in others and different all round. The plan is nothing, but the planning is everything,

So older, wiser and with a good malt in hand, I shall contemplate the future with a certain degree of trepidation, some frustration at opportunities lost and a great deal of anticipation at what the future holds.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Shortlink http://q.gs/EIG1P