Leaving the army

Being part of the army, and everything that comes with it, is something that’s portrayed a lot in the media but never really spoken about in real life. We were lucky enough to meet someone with experience of leaving the army about finding a civilian job and getting emotional support. Read on to find out more.

A young man is considering leaving the army. This is a close-up image.

Why leave the army?

Whilst the thought of a generous armed forces pension, new friends and new experiences might be enough to get you to join the army, life as part of the armed forces community isn’t for everyone. “I made the decision to leave the army because of loads of different things,” explains 27 year-old Rob, a former Captain in the British Army.

But really it boiled down to the fact that I realised it wasn’t something I wanted to do as a long term career. Mostly because of the time spent away on operational tours. From there, I figured that I needed to get out while I was still young enough to start something else.”

Can you quit the army in the UK?

Technically you can quit the army in the UK. The only condition is that you need to get permission to leave the army beforehand, or you risk breaking the law. It’s also worth mentioning that there are different rules for quitting the army if you’re under or over 18.

If you’re under 18, within the first six months of your contract and have been in the army more than 28 days then you can leave by giving 14 days notice. Similarly, if you’re over 18, in the first three months of your contract and have been in the army at least 28 days, you can leave after giving 14 days notice. Plus, during basic training you can leave at any time with the permission of your commanding officer.

Returning to life as a civilian after leaving the UK military

Rob says the biggest challenge facing anyone leaving the military is the massive shock you get as you transition to civilian life a.k.a civvy street.

Don’t get me wrong, you’re going into a great environment where everyone may be supportive and want to help people in your position – people who’ve fought for their country. The problem is, very few of them will understand where you’re coming from and what kind of experience you’ve had. This makes it extremely hard to relate to any of your peers. Even when they have the best intentions. ” he explains.

What to think about financially after leaving the army

The other big problem after leaving the military in the UK is slightly more tangible: all those bills and bits of paper you didn’t need to worry about out on the battlefield.

“The armed forces cover just about everything,” says Rob. “If you go a bit wild on the first day of the month and run out of cash, you can just lock yourself inside the camp, take on extra duties and wait for payday to come round. No trouble at all. The same can’t be said about civilian life. You constantly have to make sure you can cover your basic bills.”

As a helpful guide, once you decide on transitioning from service life, Rob says you need to consider the following expenses when you’re deciding what kind of job to get and where you want to live:

Support for ex-armed forces members

Fortunately, there are plenty of organisations who can help with retraining, career advice, finding a home or paying bills. Steven Williams, an advisor with SSAFA Forces Help suggests the following:

Finding a civilian job after leaving the army

The Ministry of Defence says 96% of ex-armed forces employees are re-employed within six months of leaving. However, Rob believes many service leavers don’t get the job they want. For example some might end up working as service personnel despite having ambitions of becoming a lawyer. This is mainly because they find it hard to explain to employers how their military experience is relevant to a civilian job.

“In the army, everything is decided by your rank,” he explains. “Outside the army, your career depends on things like qualifications, skills and experience. Of course, most soldiers leave with good experience, and stronger skills than they might realise. Usually, the only missing piece of the puzzle is some form of education qualification.”

Rob left the army without a degree. Regardless, he still managed to find a civilian career he’s proud of. “If you show a work ethic and prove that you’re proactive – for example doing civilian work placements to gain experience before you leave the army – then you’ll probably be able to get round any holes in your CV.”

Going AWOL from the army

Both Rob and Steven say the most important thing you can do is to plan in advance. Basically, don’t just get up one day and decide you’re quitting. See, you’re likely to get more sympathy and support from your Commanding Officer if you come up with a concrete plan of action. 

“The earlier you can start the transition, the better,” says Rob. “The minute you have any kind of doubt about wanting to continue, don’t shove it away. Instead start thinking about what you would do if you were to leave. After that, spend as much time in a civilian environment as possible.”

Feeling overwhelmed by stress, and not having a plan for life after the armed services, can lead to individuals going AWOL (Absent With Out Leave). SSAFA offers a confidential support line on 0800 731 4880

If you find yourself considering this option, Steven Williams urges you to consider the potential repercussions: “You may have difficulties accessing benefits. I know that the longer you’re AWOL, the worse you’re going to feel, but you can always come back. Loads of people, as proven by the armed forces covenant, are willing to help you.

Need support? The Mix provides free advice and counselling to under 25s. Check out our support options here.

Next Steps



By Emma Rubach.

Updated on 09-Jun-2022