OP: BELONGING is the social arms of Leavers to Leaders; we aim to help Gurkhas and Commonwealth personnel and Veterans better integrate communities, become valued members of societies, be economically included, and be fully empowered to make life choices. According to McKinsey’s chief client officer, Liz Hilton Segel, an inclusive economy provides opportunities to underserved people and communities. Historically, the UK has lagged in looking after its Gurkhas, Commonwealth personnel, and veterans. In this blog, I will cover why foreign and Commonwealth personnel & veterans need to feel that they belong to the UK—and how governments, organisations, and other stakeholders can help pursue economic empowerment. Read on to learn more.

A few months ago, along with the members of the armed forces and the Commonwealth Veterans and Family Support Group, we attended the funeral of a Commonwealth soldier in Bournemouth. Funerals are always a very emotional place, and it was at that time that I came to realise the importance of belonging for foreign and commonwealth serving in the armed forces as I watched his coffin being carried by his fellow Fijian brothers from Royal Highland Fusiliers under the tearful eyes of his young family. This day brought tears to my eyes; I then understood the true meaning of ‘Belonging’ for Foreign and Commonwealth who joined the British Armed Forces.

There are no natural soldiers, sailors, or aviators. These specialised jobs require formal training, initially in a classroom and then in the operational field of exercise. These service personnel must, of course, be able to fit into a team, but first, they must be specially trained. Then, they can be foisted into a regiment, squadron, battery, or at least into a unit before being allowed to practice their trade.

Interviewed by Richard from BFBS Radio Aldershot.

The British army’s primary focus is to build leaders, and anyone who has done a few years in the services will have gained extensive leadership knowledge. As a career strategist, I have worked with hundreds of service leavers and carefully observed the career path of thousands of service leavers in the marketplace. Underneath it all is the ability to belong; this, unfortunately, is not a science but a need that was first highlighted by the famous Abraham Maslow just after WW1 with his famous pyramid of the hierarchy of needs and belonging sits right in the middle between needs- physiological, safety and growth love and belonging, esteem and self-actualisation.

According to the census of 2021, more than 100,000 Foreign and Commonwealth veterans live in the UK, with another 10,000 still serving in the armed forces today. So why is belonging essential for us, and how can units, garrisons, and commanders make foreign and Commonwealth individuals feel more part of an organisation?

In his latest book, ‘Be Useful’ author, actor and athlete Arnold Schwarzenegger talks about how he wanted to not just fit in American society but belong to this nation; at that time, people didn’t know what a bodybuilder and journalist would write about them as an art rather than sports. So, he made it his mission to tell everyone what bodybuilding is. My point here is that every member of the armed forces needs to feel a part of and belong to the broader British society during and after their service to tell the world about their career, especially for Gurkhas and Commonwealth personnel who join the armed forces and prepare to lay their lives in serving to the highest authority of this country. We can collectively achieve this at every level by letting individuals forge their individuality. The digital age has enabled everyone to be individualised and have a story.

For most F & C service personnel, belonging to a unit, company, or squadron is not a fashion or a tradition but an imperative. It is not a question of fitting in but of committing; those in the armed forces are engaged personally and professionally almost 24/7 a day. As General Sir Richard Barrons says in his foreword of ‘Leavers to Leaders’, we live lives with very little separation between life and work, where everybody relies on each other- where everybody relies on the man or woman next to them in the fight, as well as for their family, unit and country.

A report commissioned by the British Red Cross and Co-op, ‘Barriers to Belonging,’ explores the causes of loneliness among Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic (BAME) communities. It highlights the importance of feeling valued, included, safe, and engaged in community activities to combat loneliness.

These efforts reflect a comprehensive approach by the British Red Cross and its partners to addressing loneliness through research, services, awareness campaigns, and policy advocacy to create a more connected and supportive society. These efforts are directed towards UK-born BAME; the effort for a Gurkha and Commonwealth to enter the community is much more complex due to language, cultures, and a lack of awareness in societies.

OP BELONGING is the community support arm of the Leavers to Leaders International Network. We work with selected organisations to support our Foreign & Commonwealth personnel to overcome the seven hostile environments in which they could fall victim during their career transition, such as :

  • Access to Employment & DWP
  • Access to Housing & Local authorities
  • Access to Health & Wellbeing
  • Access to Finance & Funding
  • Access to Travel & Commuting
  • Access to Education & Internship
  • Access to Justice System Support
  • Access to Law & Solicitors
  • Access to ILR & Visa
  • Access to Citizenship

Since the funeral of brother Livai Vota Boila, who left the military over seven years ago and had a military funeral supported by his friends from Royal Highland Fusilier who travelled 16 hrs to say ‘Au Revoir’ to him in Bournemouth, I have been on a mission to help as many Foreign and commonwealth, those from Africa, the West Indies, Asia and the South Pacific Islands, feel more belonging while in service and out of service. This is where Op Belonging started – Op Belonging has taken me from Southampton to Scotland and covered the land in between.

Summer 2023 ended with the Bula Festival in Aldershot, where over 4000 Fijians from Scotland participated in three days of the festival. It was followed by Black History Month, during which I coordinated with local units around the South for a commemoration parade for all the black soldiers who served in North Africa and the Far East. This parade occurred on the 1st of October, right in Southampton, where 4,500 people attended. We had 45 representatives from the British Army Royal Navy and the Leavers to Leaders International Network (LTLIN) members.

This commemoration was a complete success, but what was more important was seeing those service personnel in uniforms chatting and taking pictures with their fellow citizens; it was then that I realised what true belonging is all about- it is about meaningful connections to communities and “tribes”, looking into their eyes, I can see they were CRAVING to feel that they ‘belong’ to something that values them and allows thriving in the community while listening and eating your traditional music and foods. Seeing the happiness in the eyes of those 45 volunteers was worth all the stress of putting such an event together.

Message from His Majesty King Charles III on the significance of Commonwealth Day 2024

The statistics show that organisations that build a sense of belonging have higher engagement, retention, and performance levels. From experience, I also know that when a service leaver from a Foreign and Commonwealth background gets lost in transition, the impact is generational—meaning it destroys families and children. We recognised that to make Gurkhas, Commonwealth Soldiers, and Veterans feel like they belong to the country they served, we need a dedicated team of individuals who comprehend the unique needs of this group and are fervently committed to supporting them. We are forging partnerships with churches, local authorities, community organisations, and business networks that grasp the significance of the Armed Forces Covenant and share our vision of reshaping history.

Support one of our events where we merge cultures and facilitates community integrations, across Tidworth, Aldershot, Bicester, Birmingham and Edinburgh:

On The 17th of March together with Tidworth Garrison, Simply Church and local churches in the area, we are started our 1st Inaugural Churches United Service for the celebration of the Commonwealth day. This event has been a real succes and blending of people and cultures with about 150 people im attendance including the Mayor of Tidworth and Local Council leaders. Here are some of the key achievements for the future:

Increase Engagement and Participation
Encourage more active participation from attendees, such as having them take part in readings, prayers, or musical performances.
Incorporate interactive elements like group discussions or Q&A sessions to foster deeper engagement.
Invite representatives from diverse cultural and religious backgrounds to share their perspectives and experiences.

Expand Outreach and Publicity
Promote the event more widely in the local community to attract a larger and more diverse audience.
Collaborate with additional churches, community organisations, and local media to spread the word.
Utilise social media and other digital platforms to generate buzz and reach a wider audience.

Enhance the Programme and Experience
Develop a more comprehensive program that celebrates the rich diversity of the Commonwealth.
Include cultural performances, displays, or workshops that showcase the traditions and customs of different Commonwealth nations.
Provide opportunities for attendees to mingle and connect, such as a post-service reception or refreshments.

Strengthen Partnerships and Collaboration
Deepen the collaboration between the British military, local Churches, and the local communities to ensure a cohesive and well-coordinated event.
Engage with the Mayor and local council leaders to secure their continued support and involvement.
Explore opportunities to partner with other organisations or institutions that share the event’s goals and values.
By implementing these suggestions, the Churches United Service for Foreign & Commonwealth personnel can become an even more inclusive, engaging, and impactful celebration that brings the community together in a meaningful way.

What’s next, and how can you support OP: BELONGING as an organisation?

Join this campaign by signing this petition on change.org :

My hope is that:

Many more commanders will become more familiar with the need to make Foreign & Commonwealth ‘belong’ so they can grow within the ranks and flourish as leaders who one day will make a meaningful impact on communities. This is the only way to stop service leavers from getting lost in transition and becoming Leaders of the future.

~ Samuel T. Reddy, Author of Leavers to Leaders, Founder of the LTLIN– OP: BELONGING~ Stronger Together