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, no natural 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.

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 48,000 Foreign & Commonwealth veterans live in the UK, with another 14,000 still serving in the armed forces today. So why is belonging essential for us, and how can units, garrisons and commanders be part of making 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 non-UK 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.

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

The latest report by the RED CROSS ‘Barrier to belonging‘ shows that people from the Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic backgrounds born in the UK are more likely to belong when they are valued, included, safe and able to join a community.

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, followed by black history month, where I coordinated with local units around the south for a commemoration parade for all the black soldiers who served in North Africa, and 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 gives the opportunity to thrive 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.

Statistic shows that organisations that build a sense of belonging have higher engagement, retention & 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.

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 Leavers to Leaders.

~ Samuel T. Reddy, Founder of the LTLIN