· 6 min read · Features

See The Best: Four days is a long time in Afghanistan

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When Peter Crush travelled to war-torn Afghanistan to interview office workers-turned Army reservists, little did he know he was about to experience a life-threatening situation himself.

But the calmness under pressure these part time soldiers displayed left him completely awestruck.

As you prepare yourself mentally for four days of, well, unmitigated danger, it's easier if you accept that nothing about Afghanistan - not even its calendar (it's AD 1389 there) nor its time, which is four and a half hours ahead of UK time (not four, or five, but four and a half) - is normal. It's officially the world's fifth most dangerous place (which means I should probably count myself lucky I'm not in Sudan, Somalia, Columbia or Iraq) and has more than 12 million unexploded landmines. But for four days earlier this year, it (Helmand Province, Kandahar, Kabul - the places most people hear of on the news) was my home.

I was out 'in-theatre' on the invitation of Her Majesty's Armed Forces, to see for myself what life was like for the UK's 9,500 'employees' (soldiers) fighting there. My visit included talking to some of the near 600 reservists - people who have normal day-to-day jobs, but who are plucked from civvy street to do their bit, often taking as many as nine to 11 months away from work, something that is often much to the chagrin of HR directors.

The weary accounts of reservists stationed in Camps Bastian (Helmand Province) and Souter (in the capital, Kabul) and their occasional strained relations with HRDs back home can be found in HR magazine's April issue and also online at hrmagazine.co.uk/afghanistan. The tales I heard from regular Army soldiers telling me how difficult it was to find work in the civilian world was such that HR magazine subsequently launched 'See The Best', a campaign to highlight to HRDs the incredible skills Armed Services personnel have, but which are often overlooked or misunderstood.

It all seemed very prescient. At the same time, 'Hire a Hero' was launched on Facebook, and other soldier-job-searching organisations, such as Soldier On and ForceSelect, also emerged. It's now six months since ForceSelect, a recruitment charity focused on placing ex-Armed Forces personnel with large employers, was launched and it's CEO, Lucy Wood, is exclusively interviewed here (see p21).

The biggest criticism most soldiers have of employers is a lack of understanding about what they do or have been through. While I can't claim the four days I spent in the Afghan deserts comes anywhere near what most of the troops experience, the limited time I was there changed my life.

When I spoke to 'Simon', a reservist from the 4th Yorks Battalion, stationed with the Royal Fusiliers (Welsh) about how a bullet whistled past his head and narrowly missed his captain, (penetrating the fold of his shirt, but missing his skin), little did I know I was going to be involved in my own small skirmish the very next day. A road convey was to take us out of Camp Souter, on one side of Kabul, to another base on the other side of the city - a 10-mile road journey - not an option by air.

By a long way, road travel is the most dangerous form of movement in Kabul. It is a city surrounded by insurgents, either the Hezb-e Islami Gulbuddin (whose ambition is to establish an Islamic government), the more familiar Taliban, or the Haqqani network. All are deadly. You may be strapped into in a claustrophobically small, armour-plated Mastiff vehicle (it feels like a dark, airless coffin), but it means you stick out like a sore thumb. The most common form of attack on these vehicles is not through IEDs (improvised explosive devices), but by the more worrying 'motor bam' or car bomb.

Our Joint Force Intelligence briefing informs us a risk of attack is 'significant' and, to reinforce this, we are shown video footage of three suicide car bomb attacks caught on CCTV, where convoys are picked out by cars whose drivers pull up alongside them and detonate their vehicle which is packed full with explosives. Carnage ensues.

Three or four miles into our convoy - a kilometre-long procession slowly threading its way through downtown Kabul, carrying a mixture of UK and US personnel - we hear word the lead vehicles have suffered some form of attack: we think it's a bomb. Radio messages start flooding through to our driver and the second-in-command and they sound tense. The machine gunner who, from the torso up, is outside the Mastiff, starts scouring the area, turning 360-degrees, panning around, finger hovering over the trigger of the loaded gun. The safety-catch is off; bullets are loaded.

Things have changed very quickly. We are in great peril. But this is what I remember most: while panic was plain in my face and in those of the civilian contingent travelling with me, the soldiers responsible for our safety showed no flicker of distress although their hearts must have been pumping. After all, we had to extricate ourselves quickly from where we were; cars were piling up around us, approaching far too close for comfort; they could have been other insurgents making a co-ordinated attack.

But, while others may have lost their heads, these soldiers coolly and quickly kicked into action as though it was second nature; their scenario-planning performed without fuss, without alarm and with steely professionalism. Messages were duly relayed, a plan was formed, and we were soon making our way back to where we came from. We had been in remarkable danger but, just as quickly, we were out of it, and everything had gone to plan.

I've heard lots of cliches about the qualities military people can bring back to the work environment - everything from clear organisation skills to cool heads, leadership and the ability to motivate and manage diverse people to do their very best. I've always thought these were military truisms that non-Armed Forces personnel would find slightly insulting. After all, is that to say only soldiers can lead people properly?

But I think my mind has been changed. Having had my life - literally - in someone else's hands, I have seen for myself the self-control and the calmness under intense pressure these individuals show in circumstances where others would have cracked. The power of having just a few of these people in your business could be awesome. All of which makes those reservists - people who will go back to their day jobs once their tour of duty ends - such valuable commodities. Why they should be discriminated against (many felt their bosses were unsympathetic to them being away) is beyond me.

In my April report, the MoD felt I had portrayed some of the reservists as misfits, pursuing an army life alongside a civilian one because they didn't want to be leaders in their own businesses and that the skills they learned at war would somehow not be assimilated at work. There were certainly many I spoke to for whom a military life was part and parcel of their working life, and many had deliberately delayed or curtailed their civilian careers to pursue their army life. There were also many who actually under-recognised and under-sold the skills that an army life gave them. But are these people any different from anyone else? When you do something regularly, you tend to take the skills you have for granted. Army service men and women are certainly guilty of this. But I think the fact they don't make a song and dance about their exceptional skills is precisely what makes them so valuable. Unlike the workplace environment, where promotion seems to be based on who shouts the loudest or gives the impression of being in control rather than really being in control, soldiers are doers, not bullshitters. They know what to do in a crisis, and keep their cool while all about them are losing theirs.

DEDICATED TO FINDING THE RIGHT JOB FOR SERVICES LEAVERS

In an average year approximately 20,000 people leave the Armed Forces, most of whom need to find new work and new careers. This year, however, Gethin Roberts, director, British Forces Resettlement Services, estimates the figure could be closer to 45,000, due to the Government's defence review which, he says, will cause a "flooding of the civilian jobs market at a time when the economy remains in such a fragile state".

For Lucy Wood, CEO of recruitment company ForceSelect, which is a dedicated Armed Forces job finder, this is yet more reason why HRDs need to open their minds to the skills former Army/RAF/Navy personnel can offer. "The vast majority of services leavers still take the first job that comes their way, because it can often take up to six months to get this job, and they think they won't be able to get anything else," she says. "This is not a satisfactory way of finding a meaningful career."

ForceSelect is only six months old, and in that time has placed a small, but not insignificant 116 people into what it believes are the right jobs for service leavers. It has the bold ambition of being able to match 10% of all service personnel with the right job/company each year. "We do have to 'sell' the concept of a service leader to many companies," she says, commenting on the scale of the project. Companies often say ex-soldiers with 20-year careers lack the commercial nous they need. "It's demoralising to hear this," admits Wood. "The problem is that when leavers then apply for jobs a level down, they are told they have applied for roles beneath them. HRDs need to sort this issue out."

ForceSelect says it already has more than 5,000 people on its books, waiting to be placed. A few big companies, including Sainsbury's, UPS and British Gas, are helping to clear this backlog, by hiring in large numbers but Wood says greater acceptance all round is needed. "Employers don't necessarily discriminate," she says, "but they don't often understand a person's skillset, and what they have done. Organisations still need a diverse workforce. We're not saying all companies need to hire forces people, but while there are so few in companies, they will remain the black sheep."