At the end of 2016, I made the hard decision to leave my role as a Logistics Officer in the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF). For a little over two years (27 months to be exact) I gained experience working overseas and with various other Government and Non-Government Organisations; much of this work linked in some way to security, defence and diplomacy. During this time, I remained connected to the Australian Defence Force (ADF) through friends and colleagues, loosely keeping up to date with an evolving strategic direction. In 2019 I returned to the RAAF. It became immediately apparent how my external experiences afforded me a greater Whole of Government perspective and helped me see ADF’s contribution to the bigger picture of national security.
I found a break in service immeasurably beneficial; both in the process I went through to decide to leave, and the actual time away. If you, or someone you know, is at a crossroads – questioning whether the ADF remains a viable option, or another pathway is equally tempting, read on. Alternately, if you are a supervisor or leader looking to guide those seeking external experiences but are unsure or would like to maintain a connection to the ADF, this discussion could provide some important insights.
Know your ‘why’
The first question that must be asked is ‘Why are you considering leaving?’ Time out of uniform can be very beneficial when you do something that results in personal or professional growth. Even better if it achieves both. Leaving the ADF because you feel disillusioned, disgruntled, or merely bored will rarely address the critical issue. Know the core of that feeling. Without honest self-reflection, you risk finding yourself in another job for another organisation, still suffering from the same complaints because the underlying issue has not been identified and addressed.
Know why you are leaving; know where you want to go. Without this self-reflection, your potential for personal and professional growth is limited. This does not need to be a complicated reflection. I am not suggesting a specific job, company or even career path is necessary; rather a process of contemplation whereby you understand your intrinsic motivations and the ideas that you want to test. From my own experience, I was bored with my role and lacked a feeling of purpose and meaningful contribution. I had a long-held goal to work within the Humanitarian or Development sectors I wanted to contribute in some way to peace, stabilisation or humanitarian missions. I had gained enough education and work experience and at the 10-year mark and so decided I was in a good position to take leave without pay and seek other employment. My decision was not a passing thought; I consulted with several trusted advisors and churned over the concept for several years. When I did leave, I only had a rough idea of where I wanted to go; not a blueprint but at least a mud map to follow.
Make your time count to achieve your ‘why’
Some members of the ADF leave abruptly because, for years, they have been growing quietly, and sometimes not so quietly, disenchanted with the organisation. They reach a point where the grass looks so much greener on the other side that they jump at the first offer or easy option that comes along. The individual makes a quick escape, often without introspection to identify what it is they are escaping from or want to run to. They then find soon enough the same feeling of dissatisfaction experienced in uniform. The territory is likely unfamiliar, the support network and community of the ADF may be unavailable or distant, and often the remuneration is sub-par in comparison.
The roles my friends and acquaintances have left the ADF for are wide and varied. They include a consultant in Defence Industry; a Supply Chain Specialist in corporate New York; a Logistics Operations Officer at the United Nations (UN) Headquarters; a Gender Adviser in a Non-Government Organisation; a new mum studying to become a psychologist; and a bus driver working in the local community able to spend some very happy days with family. Despite the vast array of roles, these individuals all hold great value in how they are now spending their days. Some are still involved within the ADF on a part-time basis; some are not; however, they all look back on their service with gratitude. They all knew their ‘why’ and are making their time count toward achieving that purpose.
Leave the window open
There are many options for employment within the ADF which are not continuous and full time, including part-time service; long service leave; leave without pay; amongst others. Not all options will fit all circumstances; perhaps a complete discharge is the best call for you and your preferred lifestyle. I chose to take leave without pay (LWOP). I was in the fortunate position of having a partner employed overseas and was not in a critical trade. Both factors helped me. Other options for those in critical trades may include transfer to Service Category (SERCAT) 5, commonly known as ‘a reservist’. This option has enabled a friend to travel to Europe and explore potential training and employment options with the UN and North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). Using this flexibility, he has been asked to undertake the UN Staff Officer’s Course as a student and then come back to teach. With any luck, this opportunity will lead to a UN deployment and allow him to thrive in the space he set out to work in. That is a win.
In acknowledging the flexibility available within the ADF, it is always worth considering if there is an arrangement available that could benefit both the organisation and your individual goals. Could you secure an education opportunity that would benefit the organisation and propose a period of paid study leave; perhaps working with the career manager to go into a relevant position soon? Maybe a secondment to industry could be something the career manager would consider? Are there remote roles available on ForceNet? Get creative.
If the ADF is unable to support an alternative arrangement, that is ok. It would be a bold assumption to expect the organisation to be responsible for supporting pathways for our own individual fulfilment at the cost of capability. However, if there is a need the organisation has, and you can propose a way to fill it or value-add, it could work well for both parties.
In place of discharge from Service, I would recommend leave without pay or a SERCAT transfer in the first instance. I had no intention of returning to full-time continuous service within the RAAF but, as we all know, a lot can change in life. Just look at how COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on society. It is entirely possible you will have surprises and experiences come up that you could not have predicted.
Create your own luck
I have time and again attributed my positive external experience to being in the right place, at the right time, with the right person. That, and an insatiable thirst for coffee, chats and making new friends. Recently, however, I had a mentor pull me up on this mantra. They reminded me ‘You made sure you had the chances – own that, you created luck.’
It was through my humanitarian course instructor, and now dear friend, that I was put in contact with a world-renowned independent security analyst (and all-round decent lady) running an analysis workshop at the same centre in The Hague where I was to do my UN course. By virtue of this contact, I developed another friendship and was invited to after-work drinks with the NATO Civil-Military Cooperation Centre staff. On the final night of my course, I mentioned to the Lieutenant Colonel that I had a couple of months to spare, and by the next Tuesday, I had signed a contract for an internship. Aside from my time volunteering in Timor (which I had secured through a formal application process), every job opportunity came about because I showed an interest and was not afraid to talk to people. You get 100% of what you do not ask for.
During my LWOP, I maintained contact with my career manager and formally advised the ADF of all employment and overseas travel. I checked in regularly with trusted mentors and maintained an awareness of how the organisation was evolving. As my formal education and experience in the Humanitarian and Development Sectors progressed, I used my connections with RAAF and the ADF more broadly to understand where the future opportunities may exist. I also maintained contact with senior ADF Gender Advisors, CIMIC officers and contacts within International Engagements. I wanted to understand the needs of the ADF and the windows of opportunity that may be opening up for me. Some of these contacts were pre-existing, while others I would ‘cold call’ via email. I would briefly explain my situation and what I was interested in understanding about their area of expertise while always acknowledging that their time was limited. Every one of them provided advice via email, over the phone or in person. I was and still am very grateful to these leaders for their time and investment in my journey.
Why go back?
Many ADF personnel depart service life due to personal circumstances the organisation could not support, poor leadership or a lost sense of purpose. In assessing whether you should return to service life, consider asking yourself the following questions; What knowledge or experience have I gained? Has my time away afforded me a new or reinvigorated purpose? From this new perspective, is it possible to add value and feel gainfully employed?
In contemplating these questions, take time to reflect while engaging with mentors in and out of the ADF who will provide frank and fair advice. Always make the decision that feels right for you, though it may take time to figure that out. Such reflection may reinforce the desire to remain a civilian, but it may also lead to a rejoining as a different mustering, service or SERCAT. You may also decide that there may not be a place for you doing what you enjoy or are good at in the ADF. There are two possible reasons for this conclusion. The first is simply that sometimes there is no need for the skills you have to offer. The second is that the organisation is still developing the robust systems required to identify skills, talent and experience, and the mechanism to feed that back into the organisation in a way that exploits maximum benefit.
Always make lemonade
The decision on whether to take a break, change your service contract or bow out completely is entirely unique to the individual and their circumstances. For me - I would do it all again in a heartbeat.
While I can offer my perspective, unfortunately, there are no flow charts to follow. My personal and professional development is exponentially greater for having varied my career path. It is one of the best decisions I made. I may be in the ADF for a little or a long time; either way, I am once again happy to be on the ride. I hope that by sharing this, individuals who identify with what I have been talking about can feel confident that there is no wrong decision, only an experience to be had and learn from.
Flight Lieutenant Samantha Hewitt is a Logistics Officer currently posted to the Joint Movements Coordination Centre. While on Leave Without Pay, she worked with various Government and Non-Government agencies in Australia, the Solomon Islands, Timor Leste, and the Netherlands. Her focus has primarily been in the Humanitarian and Development Sectors; where she has a strong interest in Civil Military Cooperation training and education. Samantha will post into the A4/7 position in 2021 where she hopes to support Combat Support Group and broader RAAF using the experiences she has gained with Government, Non-Government, International and Joint environments.