Back on Civvy Street

Linda Cooper

While only a minority of veterans experience long-term struggles after life in the Armed Forces, many more experience a culture shock when they return to civilian life. Dr Linda Cooper has developed a new model which could help to ease that transition.

Few people would dispute the notion that life in the military – a physically and emotionally demanding environment that breeds stoicism and self-reliance – is tough. Leaving it behind, however, can be just as challenging.

For the thousands of people who leave the Armed Forces every year, that challenge is a reality. Most go on to lead happy and successful lives, but a sense of culture shock as they move from a highly structured and supportive world into a more open-ended civilian existence is nonetheless common. The sense of displacement can be acute, and some struggle to cope.

While the problems faced by those who emerge wounded, injured or sick are widely recognised, less attention has been given to 'ordinary' veterans who simply need to adjust to civilian life. Dr Linda Cooper, from our Veterans and Families Institute for Military Social Research (VFI), is interested in how service personnel could receive more help as they plan and prepare for life after discharge.

The military can be almost 'bubble-like', she suggests. It offers a close-knit community in which personnel have a well-developed support structure and many mundane details, such as bills and accommodation, are taken care of.

“When they leave, they have to find a home, a job, and cope with the loss of the camaraderie they knew behind the wire,” she explains. “It can be very difficult going back into Civvy Street and living with people with whom you lack that connection.”

Anyone who has served a day in the Armed Forces is classed as a veteran, but by far the biggest groups making the leap back into civilian life are still young. The average length of service in the British Army is less than six years, and so-called 'early service leavers', who have done less than four, are perhaps still only 21 or 22 when they move on.

The Ministry of Defence already works extremely hard to help its employees transition to life as veterans, but there is a shortage of clear information about what motivates the decision to leave, and what support they need as a result. The VFI is trying to fill that knowledge gap, and has recently developed a tool, called Model of Transition in Veterans, or MoTiVe, for that purpose.

MoTiVe is a theoretical model, developed using a range of existing studies, which attempts to map the life journey of a member of the Armed Services, while acknowledging that the exact experience will differ in every case. Its aim is to chart the likely peaks and troughs and causes or factors of service, and use this as a template against which the MoD could assess individuals as their career progresses.

“At some point, everything that’s good about the Forces starts to change,” Linda says. “The idea of being young, free, single and thrill-seeking is replaced by the pull of a regular job, wife and children. We want to gauge when that happens, and why.”

Nothing like MoTiVe is currently being used, but if it can be made to work, Linda believes it would enable the MoD to 'think two steps ahead' of its employees and help them to progress their careers positively, whether that means staying in the military or moving on.

She and the VFI team are currently seeking funding for a five-year project to test the model with serving personnel and veterans. They have also had promising discussions with the MoD themselves about collaborating during the project, so that they can make direct use of the results.

“The MoD is a massive employer,” Linda adds. “They may benefit from showing how the Armed Forces enhance people’s lives, and we support that. If we can help them to develop a system where more veterans come out feeling positive and informed about where they are going next, that can only be a good thing for everyone.”

The MoTiVe model

MoTiVe is a theoretical model that charts the journey of an individual through the Armed Forces.

It posits the imaginary Soldier A who joins at 16 looking for adventure. He gains a new sense of belonging as part of a team, followed by the highs and adrenaline rushes of being deployed on tour.

Over time, however, the perceived stability and freedom of family life becomes more attractive and Soldier A moves on. Having done so, he finds that his new life brings different, mundane challenges and he misses the status and camaraderie of the Army.

Further research based on MoTiVe may explain how this change occurs, so that the MoD can apply the theory to serving personnel and help them prepare for life as veterans.

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