CampaignForce: setting a new direction for our times
It is 2011, and I am looking out across the beige Helmand landscape on the usual evening slot of stag (as sentry duty is known to soldiers). The call to prayer fills the sky from several directions, and the dry winter wind keeps me guessing from which. By this stage of my Tour, I have begun to differentiate the voices of the multiple calls and have a rough idea of the direction from where they are coming from, despite Mother Nature’s attempts to trick me. By now I also have learnt what time the shop keeper (roughly) closes, where certain groups of kids will be and from what compounds they spill out of, as well as what ‘normal’ traffic looks like on the main supply route. The honesty of thought means that the memory of home is often competing with the fight of boredom and not the Taleban. As the days go by towards the end of my time in Afghanistan, my feelings often turn to thoughts about what on earth I will be doing for a job after my tour ends and I demobilise from the Army.
Some people might think that veterans are only suited for certain jobs when they leave the military; the usual stuff, like being a security guard, working on oil rigs, mainly manual roles. I on the other hand was on a 3-year break from my civilian career, deployed as a linguist on Full Time Reserve Service. Contrary to perceptions, I had left a job working behind the scenes in politics, not quite what people might think for someone with a military background. So, as I stood in that sanger each evening on my usual slot of stag, I started to go over the same questions concerning my future back home: Would I use the new-found Pashto language skills that I had worked so hard to learn? Would I return to Afghanistan? Or would I get back to my political career, running campaigns and elections for MPs and local councillors? In the end I went back to what I knew, so at the beginning of 2013, after I had demobilised, I returned to my old trade – politics. This time it was different, as I was about to realise the true potential of those with a military background in public life. Although having come into this strange career with previous military experience from my youth, the enormous value that ‘being military’ has to offer public life, elected or otherwise, remained to be seen.
Fast forward to 2015. I had just successfully run the General Election campaign of a high profile cabinet minister, under a lot of stress, public scrutiny and no end of journalistic incursions (this included a forgettable ‘door-stepping’ from Channel 4’s Michael Crick and some unscrupulous tactics involving shady characters sat outside my office in their cars on laptops with antennae popping out of them, while others literally camped outside my MP’s family home). During this campaign I called on every ounce of leadership and resilience cut from the cloth of that Afghan tour and previous Army service experience in my late teens on the streets of West Belfast. During the build-up to that year’s election, I stumbled across a campaign run by the MoD on the Armed Forces Covenant. This part of the MoD, I was to discover, focussed on building relationships with business and connecting them to the transferable skills of the veterans’ community. People just like me! The penny had dropped, and I felt like a living case-study. I was so inspired, that at the end of my contract, I applied to work with this fledging government organisation known as ‘Defence Relationship Management’.
It was an endeavour that would see through the next 3 happy years of my professional life. But I was never far from politics, as our department had the interest of MoD Ministers, including during my time there, some with a military service background, namely: Mark Lancaster, Tobias Ellwood, Sir Julian Brazier, Penny Mordaunt and Mike Penning. On the other side of the benches, I was impressed by the work of Dan Jarvis, an Afghan veteran like me and had a long-held high regard for Paddy Ashdown now in the Lords. Over that time, I witnessed a shift from the MoD pushing veterans into employment, to employers pulling veterans into roles based on the value of their transferable skills. Leading organisations like Deloitte were even investing their own time and money into this, culminating in their ground-breaking Veterans Work report. The attention had begun to change from a call for action by government to business that asked them to urgently support the reservist agenda owing to the tempo of Iraq/Afghanistan, to one where employers wanted the military hires in order to face the skills gaps in industry. But what about other areas of society? I looked to the Ministers that I was working for and other MPs and thought about my own experience behind the scenes in politics. It seemed to me that the skills and values that veterans bring to public life were simply not being tapped into effectively.
Right now, we all know that the political landscape looks like a battleground. There are ‘sides’ like never before, and there is chaos. The more I thought about it, the more I realised that the political operators that were cutting through, gaining trust and working collaboratively for the greater good were those with a military background. But this was mainly in Parliament, so I also began to pose questions about veterans in local government too, an area where I had always struggled to recruit talent when working in politics. I wondered what was being done to encourage veterans to serve again in public life? Veterans resettlement and employment prospects were improving, why not match it with a second service in local politics? And back to Parliament, although I was inspired by the ex-military/reservist MPs, they weren’t wholly representative of many groups that make-up the military community. For example, although Penny Mordaunt is a Royal Navy Reservist, we do not currently have a female veteran MP. Nor do we have an MP from our Commonwealth troops community that have chosen to settle in the UK. Neither do we have an MP that has been discharged wounded, injured or sick as a result of their service. Of course, our cousins over in the US are already all over this. No surprise there. This presented me with an idea that something had to be done about harnessing the talents and transferable skills of veterans into public life, as business had done, and that I was in a unique position with my network and background to influence this. And that, my friends, is the reason why I am setting up CampaignForce; the only non-partisan campaign in the UK that harnesses the talent, transferable skills and moral leadership of the Services community. We have one simple mission: to inspire, train and coach those whom have served, to stand up, and serve again…It is time to stop staring into the landscape of a battleground and do something about the political conflict we all face. And I know just the group of people to do it…