As the Army prepares for 5,300 redundancies, an annonymous military wife contemplates the life to come as a civilian:My husband calmly informed me last week that, as a Captain in the infantry, he was in the redundancy bracket. He could either volunteer for redundancy and be out of the Army by Christmas, or wait and see whether redundancy would be forced upon him with an exit date of June next year.
My initial reaction was one of utter exhilaration: we could start a whole new adventure, we could go anywhere… Canada had always appealed. I began daydreaming of this new life together: my husband and me, our two young daughters, aged four and 17 months, and, of course, the dogs.
I was stopped in my tracks by the reaction of friends and family. My stepmother, who is struggling to keep her business afloat during this trampoline of a recession, messaged me: “Voluntary redundancy is absolutely only possible when you have a Plan B, and possibly even a Plan C, in place… and preferably running alongside the end of Plan A. Otherwise it’s a bonkers idea.”
Hmm. Three minutes of serious thought revealed to me that not only did we not have a Plan B or Plan C, and given that I’d already been four years out of the job market, putting a plan into action would be nigh on impossible.
After our wedding five years ago, my husband and I lived apart initially. I had an interesting and well-paid job in London which involved travel and meeting people on a daily basis. I had a busy social life, too, with new friends as well as old ones from university. Three weeks before the birth of our first child, I packed some bags and drove to almost the exact middle of nowhere (I can prove it on a map) to begin the rest of my life as an “Army wife”. My newborn daughter and I acquired another new label too: “dependants”. In one fell swoop, I’d taken an axe and destroyed my career and any potential ladder attached to it. There was no risk of falling glass from the ceiling firmly fixed above my head. I had traded in a professional life to be with my best friend and the father of my children, just as hundreds of thousands had before me.
Traditionally, for a woman married to a man in the Army, this is a normal run of events. It is almost as if feminism never happened. Of course, for those wives who are, for instance, teachers, doctors or nurses, continuing to work is far easier, as these are ideal vocations for anyone needing to relocate frequently.
Yes, we’ve enjoyed a privileged life. When my husband isn’t away on operations or exercise, he works within a 10-minute bicycle ride from home and is entitled to far more leave than he ever manages to take. The social life on camp can be fantastic, and I have made several close friends. Our children are discovering the length and breadth of Great Britain, as well as farther afield (thousands of British soldiers and their families are still based in Germany, Belize, Canada, Brunei, Northern Ireland, Cyprus and the Falklands).
The Military Covenant protects our children so that every time we move, there will be a guaranteed place for them at a local school. The repeated house moves can be tense, but it’s more about paperwork. In the past we have lived “behind the wire”, which is in many ways the perfect environment for a young child to grow up in: there is an armed guard on the gate 24 hours a day, speed limits are set at 15mph and there are mazes of tracks perfect for learning to ride a bicycle.
So the deal I made with the Army upon marrying was this: I agreed to adopt an entirely new culture and way of life. I sacrificed my career, moved away from family and civilian friends, and relinquished my God-given right as a female to dabble in interior design (the walls in Army accommodation can be any colour as long as it’s magnolia). In exchange for this, I acquired a husband who was away a lot, often in uncomfortable amounts of danger, but with – and this is the important bit – a secure job until he had served 16 years in the Army (my husband has an intermediate service commission which can be extended to a regular commission, depending on performance, that would “guarantee” his job until the age of 55). During this time, we assumed, I’d be able to retrain for a job more suited to our lives so that once the girls were older, I could again be gainfully employed and contribute to society.
Now that my husband is in the redundancy bracket and the deal I made with the Army is coming perilously close to being broken, how do I feel? Well, how can I feel? Redundancy has been the fate across Britain for nearly three million people in the wake of the global recession. I feel that we truly are “all in it together”. But the threat of redundancy has had an unexpected and troubling effect on me. Even if the loss of job is never actually realised, it has irrevocably broken the trust I bestowed in the Army when I said, “I do” in my parents’ parish church five years ago. The pension, upon leaving the Army, has always been considered a gratefully received “thank you” from the nation for risking life or limb in hellholes around the globe. Redundancy instantly removes the immediate pension a soldier would have received on discharge, and instead a much reduced pension awaits at 65. My mother always told me that life wasn’t fair; but to lose that immediate pension would bring a very real feeling of having been cheated by an organisation, an institution, we’ve been actively encouraged to trust and rely upon.
I tried to rally my husband, to convince him that it wasn’t the end of the world; millions of civilians have been made to feel dispensable, their pensions worth the plunder. His heartbreaking response? “They’ve ruined it. They’ve shifted my job into ‘just another’ civilian job; which it’s not.”
I worry that the Army will be left permanently scarred by having broken so great a trust with its loyal members and their families, and that the high regard in which it is held by so many Britons will be diminished for ever. I am fearful for those soldiers who have reached almost institutionalised levels of integration and who will undoubtedly struggle to adapt to entering the civilian world prematurely and against their will. My husband and I are constantly considering options and investigating potential employment channels – just in case. I know – I hope – we will be fine whatever happens.
But I also worry that many Army families will allow the bitterness of betrayal to influence their thoughts and memories of what has, after all, been our provider and way of life for so long. I want to hold onto the good times accumulated during my time as an Army wife which a wife of a civilian can never lay claim to: sipping G&Ts with other mums while multitudes of children eat their supper around long grand tables in the officers’ mess, that delicious post-tour leave when the whole family is flying high because Daddy is finally safely home; trying not to be self-conscious as an entire regiment marches past – and then a dog runs out from the ranks to greet you in a wonderfully overenthusiastic fashion…
There have been very happy days; I wait to see if they will continue.
The author has requested anonymity
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