Motivated by my own experiences as a veteran and sparked by a growing awareness that there was a more profound complexity to the issue, I began to probe the hidden battles Australian Army Reserve soldiers face when returning to civilian life after serving overseas. Observing nuanced emotions and adaptive behaviours among fellow veterans amplified my curiosity, prompting a deeper exploration of these hidden struggles.
With the support of Swinburne University professors Chris Mason and Anne Bardoel, my interest in this subject evolved into a PhD research project focusing on the impact of Army Reserve deployments on personal identity. Utilising narrative identity theory, we explored how surrounding stories shape the self-perceptions of these reserve veterans and influence their transition between military and civilian roles.
The Australian Army Reserve is an indispensable part of the Australian Defence Force’s (ADF) capability for both domestic and international operations. The 2016 Defence White Paper revealed that approximately 14,000 ADF reservists have served in operational duty since 1999, constituting nearly 18 per cent of all ADF personnel deployed. Over the past two decades, the Australian Government’s reliance on reserve personnel has spiked, calling for reservists to fill critical roles in the ADF, whether at home or overseas.
Despite this growing reliance, a vital issue remains largely overlooked: the often poorly supported process of abruptly leaving full-time operational military duty to return to civilian life. This process is uniquely challenging for reservists compared to regular forces due to their dual roles, as they must frequently shift between civilian and military identities, obligations, and social environments.
Veterans’ Stories: Narratives in the Spotlight
In our investigation, we interviewed twenty-two Australian Army Reserve veterans who had served on overseas missions. The richness of their narratives exposed a complicated network of challenges, resilience, and identity struggles.
Within their narratives, we uncovered a profound link between narrative elements and the internal psychology of identity, notably concerning the sense of agency. This relationship is especially complex for individuals like the veterans we interviewed, who frequently shift between civilian and military roles.
One of the pivotal discoveries from our study is the power of storytelling in the reintegration process by reinforcing social connections through shared experiences and providing veterans with a ready script to unify their past experiences and establish themselves in the present. For instance, meet John*, a proud veteran and a father. He explained:
“I always said to my recruits, right, whatever you do for the rest of your life, you’ll always be a soldier. As soon as you march out of this place, you’ll be a soldier for the rest of your life. Whether your career is two years or 20 years, you’ll be a soldier. When you’re 85 years old, you’ll be a soldier.
Compartmentalisation: A Double-Edged Sword
Stories have a unique way of affirming and validating experiences. As we dug deeper into their narratives, we observed that some veterans use compartmentalisation to manage the differing demands of their military and civilian roles. It’s akin to storing different parts of oneself in separate boxes, ready to be pulled in the right circumstances. While this strategy may help to soften cognitive dissonance and emotional distress, it comes with the consequence of locking in regressive traits and perpetuating unhealthy coping mechanisms.
On the positive side, Brian*, an Afghanistan veteran with a successful career in management, explained, “There’s an army You, and there’s a civilian You”. Similarly, Katrina* spoke of “switching hats” as a metaphor for changing personas when moving between the military and civilian contexts. She said, “I know I’m going through it, I have to… like I flick a switch, then I’m ready to go into army mode [and then] back into civvy mode. I don’t know exactly, but something like that.”
Stephen*, who had deployed on multiple overseas missions as a reservist, spoke of why putting his identity into the context of his life outside of the military is essential. He offered the following explanation:
“I consciously try to make it a small part of my identity. There have been times when it has consumed me, and I think it’s been unhealthy for me. If we want to fit back into the community, we’ve got to become more community-focused as opposed to [being] a veteran. I think that’s a big stumbling block for a lot of [veterans]… I’m a big believer that I’m also a part of the community. I want to contribute to the community. I’m a friend, I’m a son, I’m a father and all that sort of stuff. So, I think it’s important to consciously, it’s worked for me anyway, to consciously… Yeah, I’m, I’m a veteran. It doesn’t define me.
Female Veterans: Confronting Cultural Bias and Tokenism in the ADF
Our research findings also highlighted the systemic hurdles and adverse experiences that reservists grapple with upon reintegration into civilian life. A significant number of veterans reported difficulties in securing and holding onto jobs post their international service. Simultaneously, several felt a lack of support and understanding from their employers and peers.
Evelyn’s* experiences punctuated these challenges, particularly concerning institutional bias and unintended consequences of policies designed to favour women in the ADF. She expressed frustration over the Army’s “disingenuous” efforts to uplift women’s prominence, referring to them as “nothing more than tokenism”. In her words:
“The fact that they’ve put all these policies in place, is the thing that annoys me about the Army, and it’s sort of another little undercurrent of why I’m leaving. There is a lot of tokenism in there towards the female side of things. So, they’ve put a lot of, you know, Band-Aid solutions and interim policies in place, but what they haven’t done is actually address the cultural issues of female exclusion in the military.
Echoing these sentiments, another female participant expressed frustration about how the ADF didn’t adequately prepare her for her primary employment yet offered a promotion if she agreed to continue full-time service with the ADF.
These accounts highlight the distinct adversities described by female veterans encompassing issues of tokenism, devaluation of service, and cultural biases that ultimately lead to female exclusion in the ADF. The Australian War Memorial’s initiative - the song “On the left” by the then-serving female ADF veterans, known as Sisters in Arms, demonstrates attempts to foster public recognition of women’s service. However, it is evident from our research that there is an urgent need to address the deep-rooted cultural problems that compound the struggles faced by female veterans in the ADF.
The way ahead
We hope that these empirically-based insights, and other insights we will reveal over the next few months, will be used to shape future support programs and policies for Army Reserve veterans. We propose creating collective narratives by designing programs that promote resilience, empowerment, and agency. By facilitating veterans to share their stories and experiences, we can help harmonise their past experiences with the present, and in doing so, move towards the construction of positive and empowering narratives.
However, the need to address the institutional failures and negative experiences we uncovered during our investigation is just as crucial. We must challenge key institutions such as employers, government agencies, and media outlets to provide a more supportive environment for our veterans.
A collective effort
Our examination of the lives of Australian Army Reserve soldiers returning to civilian life revealed a complex labyrinth of challenges. But more importantly, it highlighted the strength and resilience within our veterans. Let’s use this understanding to provide them with adequate support in this challenging transition. Together, we can ensure that they are supported and that we build evidence-based programs with profound impact. Notably, our research reveals the role of community in developing a collective narrative that promotes resilience and self-agency.
With this article, we hope to inspire you to join the conversation and the cause. Whether supporting a veteran in your community or spreading awareness about these issues, what we say matters.
*Names have been changed to respect the privacy of the individuals.