Army life may not always go to plan, but with the right support it’s possible to get back on track. Jill Misson reports…

Army families learn to manage their expectations. Events are pencilled in with cautious hope. “It can be really frustrating to forward-plan and then have last-minute changes where best-laid plans are disrupted,” says Michelle Alston, AFF Policy & Research Director. Spouses develop resilience but that is a loaded term, explains Michelle: “Whilst it highlights their amazing ability to withstand the frequent change and unpredictability of service life, it can come with an implication that it is their responsibility to cope with this change, rather than be supported with it. Families understand that the needs of the army are important but they want to be supported in dealing with the implications and to be recognised for their role in providing support towards operational effectiveness.”

Nicci Shayler (main photo) tried to stay strong during an extended deployment. She says: “Our whole army experience has been marred with uncertainty and it has caused stress, anxiety and upset.” Two weeks after she gave birth in 2021, Nicci’s husband deployed to Estonia for six months. She struggled and was diagnosed with postnatal depression: “We ploughed on, counting down the days, then I got a call to say that because of what was happening in Russia and Ukraine, they were extending the tour by three months. It was just the final straw for me and I had a panic attack.” Nicci approached regimental welfare but felt they lacked compassion.

Calendar considerations

Units communicate their forecast of events to try and mitigate unexpected deployments and wherever possible deployment lengths are pre-determined. Lt Col Tony Frank, Personnel Directorate, explains: “The army remains ready to respond to escalation and threats worldwide and our commitment must reflect this.

“Deployments are extended on occasion but these decisions are not taken lightly and are made with due consideration to the impact on the service person, their family and the operational effectiveness of the unit.”

X-Factor has been a part of the military salary since 1970 in recognition of turbulence, separation and stress on personal relationships. Lt Col Frank says: “We work hard to ensure the welfare support available at times of deployment is targeted and holistic, whether that be through increased communications, trips for families or help with routine activities.”

As soon as Nicci’s husband got home from his extended deployment, he signed off. She says: “He’d missed the first nine months of our son’s life and we never wanted to experience anything like that again.”

Being prepared

Career planning is crucial for dual-serving couples to manage family life. Maj Lisa Brown from the Service Couples Network says: “If a posting preference doesn’t work out, this can be a real problem. A change of plans for one service person will have a direct impact on the other, potentially rendering one of them a single parent for the duration of their assignment. A short-notice deployment or exercise can have a similarly destabilising effect.”

Lisa acknowledges that things have changed for the better since the army updated its welfare policy. Lt Col Frank says: “We recognise the pressures faced by all families but specifically the challenge of dual service for those with dependent children. Whilst the commitment to service remains, the intent is to provide reassurance that due consideration has been given. It is a positive step and one we have already started receiving positive feedback on.”

Heading abroad

For overseas postings it pays to do your research to avoid the disappointment of being turned down. AFF Overseas Manager Esther Thomas says: “More families are contacting us at an earlier stage before they volunteer for overseas roles but currently there is not enough realistic information easily accessible for them to make an informed choice.

“It’s one of the enduring issues always highlighted in our surveys.”

All family members entitled to accompany the service person have to be medically and educationally screened to determine whether local resources are adequate to support them, such as additional needs provision or medical treatment. Some locations are deemed unsuitable for children and there are host nation restrictions, which the MOD has to respect, for example regarding single sex families. It’s the exception rather than the rule to go overseas as an unmarried couple.

Relationship breakdown

Sadly not all partnerships last and there is more to consider when a relationship breaks down within an army family. One former spouse told A&Y: “Going through our divorce was hard. We were living married unaccompanied and I had no support or contact from the unit welfare office. I felt like I’d been written off by the army after years of following my husband around the world and supporting his career.”

AFF is aware of situations where spouses did not know that their partner had officially ended their relationship by changing their personal status category. This action triggers the notice to vacate their SFA. Michelle Alston says: “It’s really important that both partners are included in decisions about next steps when separating. We raised this and policy has been changed to ensure that both partners should be offered an interview with welfare staff or the chain of command, with a record of this signed by both parties before the personal status category can be changed.”

The MOD has recently updated its Separation and divorce guide for military personnel spouses and partners. This online resource includes guidance, information and links to organisations.

AFF has been working with the MOD to provide information to the family courts regarding the nature of service life following concerns from some families that the court potentially misunderstood the impact of being in the army on their ability to have custody of their children.

Ill-health info

You can’t plan for a sudden medical emergency but it’s reassuring to know there is a support system in place. Naomi* was diagnosed with a brain tumour during her husband’s basic training. It came completely out of the blue and it was only a few days from the first signs of a headache to surgery.

She says: “The staff at ATC Pirbright were incredibly supportive. His officer commanding contacted me directly to let me know that they were thinking of me and that I had their full support including getting my husband back home to be with me if needed. We declined but he was allowed to come home at weekends which wouldn’t normally happen. This all helped to alleviate a huge amount of stress.” With another operation coming up, Naomi’s husband has been granted compassionate leave for the time around the surgery.

If your soldier is off work following illness or injury it can be difficult to access information. AFF receives enquiries from families who are unaware of the support that is available to them or the process the serving person must follow – see our article Army recovery capability – how it works

The Chronic Conditions and Disabilities in Defence (CanDiD) Network aims to empower service personnel, family members and veterans, diagnosed with, or caring for someone with, a chronic condition, impairment or disability. Chair Col Steve Davies says: “In some instances it might just be that someone needs a boost in confidence to raise a concern with their immediate chain of command, in other instances we can help create lasting connections between individuals facing similar challenges or signpost to expert and authoritative care and advice.”

Col Davies recognises the care demonstrated by the army as an employer: “Operational effectiveness remains a key priority but so too does looking after and supporting our people. For some individuals the continuation of military service may indeed not be the best outcome but for others there are an increasing range of options to sustain a form of appropriate and effective military service – be it through flexible terms of service or through restricted employment types.”

Disciplinary issues

As we discuss on pages 40-42 of the Army&You summer 2023 edition (Doing time: army disciplinary matters) soldiers who commit offences against military law could face time in the Military Corrective Training Centre (MCTC). Common issues include disorderly behaviour, damage to service property and contravention of a standing order. MCTC Welfare Officer Alison Tait encourages families to reach out if this happens: “Get in touch with us, local welfare, your SSAFA rep or AFF, who often contact us to get answers to specific questions and can themselves offer practical support.

“We’re very happy to answer questions about the establishment, what’s on offer and what may happen when someone comes into MCTC as it is very different to the stories of old. Often there is a lot that we can do to alleviate worries and concerns.”

Quick moves

A short-notice posting may fill you with dread but for Robyn Watson it worked out well. She says: “We were five months into a two-year posting in Northern Ireland when my husband was given the opportunity to post into Colchester. It was stressful only having 45 days to de-register, organise packers, and be allocated a house but we were motivated by the job and to be back on UK mainland after the two postings overseas.

“We moved just before the first lockdown so when some of the restrictions lifted we could meet family and friends which we wouldn’t have been able to do if we had remained in Belfast. The decision to waive our notice period was challenging but the right one for both my husband’s career, my children and our families.”

*name has been changed

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