I have been out of the military for just under three months, although I have lived away from the military life for about 6 months. And as I have said several time I have not really missed military life. The people, now there’s another thing… but the life itself…not really.
I am enjoying my part time work, and enjoying my life in the countryside and even more enjoying village life, with all that I need – the small shop and post office and the pub, and my daughter, Lily, has her school just a few hundred yards down the road.
But I don’t miss the military life. Don’t miss living behind the wire, don’t miss the community of other people who work in the same place as you, living in the same place as you, doing the same things as you.
Well, I thought I didn’t miss it.
But the other day as part of one of my jobs, I drove past RAF Cosford, where I once lived and worked as part of my posting as an instructor.
And that afternoon I felt a sudden pang of pain. The fence at the edge of the camp was no different from when I was on the other side of it, but it suddenly seemed a million miles high. And thick. As I sat at the traffic lights waiting for the green light, the perimeter changed, in my imagination, from a chain link fence to a thick high wall. Impassible and impenetrable.
Automatically, I checked my wallet was in my pocket, as I would have if I was going to to get my ID out as I passed through the gate. But it was pointless. My ID was not there. As I am no longer in the RAF, I have no ID. None, other than a drivers licence and a couple of bank cards. And my library card.
And I felt empty. I felt alone. As the lights changed I pulled around the corner and sat looking through the fence at the Med Centre, the Dentists. The all ranks club. The building I used to work in. Just 50 yards away. 50 yards might as well have been 50 million miles. It was unobtainable, separate, distinct. I saw trainees marching about. An instructor parked his car outside the Med Centre and stared through the fence at me. Looked at me and must have wondered why was I staring through at him. Maybe he took a mental note of my description and my car details, thinking of security. A different culture; a different life. I was no longer part of that. I had no right to go on that camp anymore.
And my detachment from the RAF became complete. I am an ex-airman. I am a civilian. I am no longer special like those people in there.
And I missed it. Missed the ability to just go in there, to go to the gym, to just walk around as part of something bigger than just me. I felt alone. Because you see the RAF, the military, the armed forces are about being part of something bigger than just yourself. About being part of something with a history, tradition and meaning that is more than just one person and more indeed is more than the sum of all of it’s parts. It’s about belonging. Your very identity is given from what you are and what you do.
And I was part of that, but now I am alone. What I stand for once was pride and uniform and honour and comradeship and serving others and putting my own needs behind those of the wider community and the country. But now I am just me. I might still personally embody those values but the visible symbol of that is now gone. When people looked at me once, they saw a serviceman, but now they just see a person. They might be kind and say veteran, but I am no longer a serviceman. I have handed that on to the next generation. I am just an individual. I can do what I want, go where I want, when I want, think what I want, say what I want, but that is no compensation for the fact I am no longer part of all that.
I got home. And I realised something. It hit me like a bolt from the blue. It hit me like a four year old running through the dining room to bash into me and hug my leg when I arrived in the house.
I still am part of something bigger than just me. I might miss being part of the RAF, but I still am part of this family. And I am always going to be part of it. It will always be there.
As wil the RAF. I might have physically left the RAF. I might no longer have the card that allows me access to a free gym and to free medical prescriptions and to not to have to worry about what clothes I was going to wear to work – but I will always be part of the RAF, like I will always be part of my family. I will always have my brothers and sisters – my colleagues. I will always have those who served before me – my parents. And I will always have my children – those who will follow me into the service and make their sacrifices and maybe give their lives.
Life goes on. And even though I am not in the RAF, it will always be part of me, and the material things that showed I was part of it are just that, material things that tarnish, fade, rust and decay. But my memories will be with me, all around me, inside me, like my family is.
And will always be.