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This is part 2 of a series I’m calling ‘How to start a Lifestyle Financial Planning business from scratch’. If you are new here, welcome! You can read the part 1 here

Last week I explained that Clarity had just passed its first birthday, and I want to take that as an opportunity to give you an insight as to how I got here.

I believe that doing so will help to explain why I do what I do, and why I do it the way I do it.

So, let’s begin…

It’s 1999 – do you remember it?

I wasn’t ‘partying like it’s 1999’ though when the fireworks brought in the new Millennium – I was babysitting!

I was also closing in on my GCSE’s and working on my fitness because I had recently decided to join the Army straight from school.

Why?

There were many reasons behind my decision to join the Army, reasons that are beyond the scope of this blog.

But one of the main ones was that I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to do with my life, or what I wanted to ‘be’ when I ‘grew up’.

I was also sceptical about spending more time in an educational system which I felt had already failed me.

The closest I ever got to ‘career guidance’ from school was in year 10 (age 14) when I had to complete an electronic survey of 20 questions which would ostensibly give me an idea of where my skillset would be best suited in the labour market.

The answer….

Fence erector 😳

Hmmm, thanks for that.

Firstly, at the age of 14 I had only recently learnt what the word ‘erection’ actually meant, and secondly – I was, and still am, absolutely hopeless at any form of manual task. 🤦‍♂️

Naturally, I felt a little disheartened by the outcome of this survey and so I thought I may as well get away from Rotherham and see some of the world by serving my country.

Melting pot

Basic training was an extended 9 months long for me because I had joined the Royal Corps of Signals as a Radio Systems Operator (think, military call centre operator – but from the back of a Landrover) and this included educational as well as military training.

I really enjoyed basic training and I loved meeting folk from all over the country (I had barely been out of South Yorkshire up until this point) – I loved the different accents, the stories, the camaraderie, and doing ‘boy’ stuff like assault courses, firing rifles, playing sports, survival training and playing pranks on each other – it was ace!

Of course, we got ordered around a lot and every day we had ‘inspection parade after inspection parade’ where our training staff would ensure our beds were made properly, our bed-spaces were tidy, our boots were polished – I even had to shave, when (at the time) I had zero hair on my face!

But I rolled with it because let’s face it – it was basic training and we needed some discipline!

Learning a trade

After the proud moment of graduating from basic training, we were sent off to phase 2 training. Another 9 months of training, but this time it was focussed on teaching us our trade.

I found 2 things quite surprising during this stage of my training. Firstly, all the equipment we were supposed to use was shockingly out of date and was often unserviceable. And secondly – despite having graduated from our basic training we were still very much treated like children. A theme that would continue throughout my time in the Army and something I would tire of.

I also found that I really didn’t have much love for my chosen trade either – which was quite boring.

It was so dull in fact, that during lessons I would sometimes drift off and daydream about being a fence erector!😕

The World has changed

On September 11th 2001 I popped back to my shared accommodation during my lunch break to find my room-mates starring at the TV.

“What’s going on” I asked,

“A plane has just flown into the world trade centre” one of my buddies replied.

At that point, I had no idea what the world trade centre was – I’d never heard of it.

I had no idea who Al Quaeda was either – I wouldn’t have questioned you if you had told me he was our national ping-pong champion!

But very quickly I learnt that it meant things had changed.

The UK threat levels were increased, and our barracks were on lock-down.

Iraq

In spring 2002 I finally completed all my training and I was dispatched to my Unit on the outskirts of Bath.

Apparently, this was ‘big boy stuff’ and I could now look forward to a rewarding career in the military.

There were a few problems with that though. Firstly, apparently the Government had decided we didn’t need such a big Army anymore, so they were cutting the budget for the MOD which subsequently went on a massive cost cutting bender.

Secondly, there was a desert somewhere in the middle east that was part of the ‘Axis of Evil’ – George Bush Jr wasn’t a fan – which meant we were now at war!

All this meant that any ‘perks’ of being in the Army vanished overnight. That 3-month military exercise in Cyprus, the 3 weeks advanced survival course in Belize and the 2 weeks Skiing in Canada – all disappeared from my diary.

Come March 2003 you fell into 1 of 2 groups – those who were part of Operation Telic – the first tranche to be sent to Iraq, or those who had nothing to do back at barracks (me).

To fill our days we were given petty, pointless tasks.

I’m not joking when I tell you that I once spent an entire week re-painting floor markings back to their original shade of green, even though they had only just been re-painted in a slightly lighter shade of green.😵

The next 2 years were mind-numbingly boring (except for my time in Iraq).

I applied for every course under the sun to get away from the humdrum of barrack life and the issuance of banal tasks to fill our meaningless days.

Some of them were military courses, but I also managed to go paragliding in Wales, rock climbing, parachuting & took part in the squadron annual boxing competition.

Ants the size of sheep!

Finally, in August 2003 I was off to Iraq!

We flew out from RAF Brize Norton and landed at Basra airport in complete darkness. There were reports of aircraft having missiles fired at them and a few had been hit. So naturally I was rather nervous.

Iraq had already fallen, and although we were subjected to random mortar attacks, by and large Basra Airport (where I was based) was well fortified and safe.

I honestly still had absolutely no idea why we were there though (I don’t think the government knew either) but my time in Iraq helped me begin to learn what was important to me in life, and what things I found interesting too.

We had some Iraqi staff working at our base and I loved meeting them and asking them about their families, about their homes and about their culture. They would show me pictures of their families and I would lament the fact that I couldn’t just walk out of the gates and go meet them.

Whilst I was in Iraq I realised that I didn’t care for war, this wasn’t what I pictured when I thought about ‘serving my country’, I pictured keeping the peace as we did in Sierra Leone, I imagined humanitarian interventions like in Kosovo, and defending the Crown like in The Falklands.

I didn’t know what this was, but it didn’t feel like it would qualify as any of those.

The duality of the cradle of civilisation

One day I was part of a huge, heavily armoured convoy driving down to Kuwait. One minute I would be looking at the huge swathes of desert and incredible distant mountain ranges and daydreaming about this place being the cradle of civilisation, the next I would see starving children with their hands cupped, chasing my landrover in the hope I would throw some food out of the window (which we were given strict orders NOT to do under any circumstances).

There were emaciated dogs covered in flies, houses, buildings and vehicles that had seen the wrong end of a missile.

I learnt a lot in Iraq, it was a huge turning point in my life. If you were to ask whether it affected me I would say ‘no’; not least out of respect for our soldiers who were at the coal face – in comparison to them, I was on holiday!

But the reality is that it did have a huge impact on me. It gave me a thirst for life, it made me want to learn, it made me want to know ‘why’, and made me realise how fleeting life is – and how easy I had it.

I also came to the conclusion that I plain didn’t enjoy my actual job as a Radio Systems Operator. It was boring.😴

Oh, and one final thing – I learnt that the ants in Iraq are huge! Seriously, they are like sheep! (🐜or🐑)

You’re not 19 forever

I returned home just in time for my 20th birthday.

Naturally, I can’t remember it. 😐

I was unsure of whether I could see any future for myself in the military, but I was reinvigorated from my time in Iraq and I thought I would give it one last shot to see if this Army lark could be for me.

After all, I was doing well!

My report from serving in Iraq was full of praise and I was informed I would be promoted to Lance-Corporal in the next round of promotions.

(Unfortunately, by the time those promotions were granted I had already made it clear to my seniors that I planned to leave the forces as soon as I could – and so I never did get that promotion).

Army – Be The Best (just not in public)

The immediate post 9/11 world was a strange time to serve in the military.

I remember attending a briefing where we were warned NOT to wear our uniform outside of camp for fear of being targeted by terrorists OR by the anti-war movement – which had been known to verbally abuse service personnel or even attack them.

I couldn’t quite get my head around having to be publicly demure about being a member of our Armed Forces.

(Thankfully, this has now turned 360 degrees and we seem to have a renewed appreciation for those who serve our country)🙌👏.

The straw that broke the camels back

In the spring of 2004 I was guarding the side entrance to our camp. Fully armed – I would check everyone’s ID as they entered from the garrison (which is like a little military village stuck on the side of the barracks – it’s where the soldiers live if they have families).

A chap I recognised walked in with his wife and 2 young children, the youngest of which he was carrying in his arms. He was a Corporal of about 12 years’ service, I knew of him from Iraq, he was maybe 30 years old.

“Good morning Corporal, off to the shop”? I asked chirpily.

“Oh yes” he replied, “Big match on tonight, we are off round to the neighbours for a few beers”.

“Great stuff, have fun” I encouraged him as he passed by.

I remember watching them all walk into to the shop together and I wondered if I could ever envisage myself having a military family. After all, my own mum was brought up in one.

“Probably not” I thought.

I don’t think I could have a family, and then be away from them for months at a time.

I thought nothing else of it and carried on with my duties.

A few weeks later we were away on a military exercise somewhere cold and horrible. We were all sat in an old wooden shelter having a quick food break when suddenly a deep booming voice screamed; “Everyone outside, in full kit, NOOOOOOOWWWWW”.

Panic ensued as we all struggled to get our kit packed away and pick up our rifles before heading off to line up in 3 ranks in double quick time, ready for the inevitable bollocking – for whatever reason this time.

“Anyone not on parade in 5 seconds is in BIG trouble” barked the staff sergeant.

“5,4,3,2,1 – right – YOU LOT – get here, face down in that mud – 50 burpees in full kit, GO!”

The rest of us stood to attention in the pouring rain whilst a group of around 8 fellas were humiliated in front of us.

I noticed that amongst the punished was my Corporal friend from earlier in the story. I remember watching him and feeling sorry for him. This guy had served in The Balkans, Kosovo, Sierra Leone and Iraq. He had uprooted his family and moved them several times whenever the Army decided it was time for him to change to a different detachment, he had abandoned them for months on end and put his life in danger – and this is the thanks he gets?

“This – is how they treat war veterans these days”? I rued.

I remember that moment vividly to this very day. I can feel a slight headache coming on as I write this and think back to it, and I certainly remember coming to the stark realisation in that very moment – that I would not accept that as my fate.

I’m all for discipline, but I thought “You won’t be treating me with such contempt after 12 years service”.

My decision was made. I was leaving – as soon as I could.

The remainder of 2004 was a struggle for me. You see, at the time you had to serve a 12 months notice period to leave the Army (which is surely contravening some sort of human right these days)!

I’m not sure if those same rules still apply?

Imagine having to stay in a job for a year when you have totally checked out emotionally – I felt like I was wasting a year of my life – it became a prison – it was horrible!

I swore I would never waste time like that ever again in my life – once a decision is made – it gets done!

Sometimes it’s right to quit

At the time, I allowed myself to feel like I had quit, like I didn’t have the minerals to see it through, like I had let myself down, let my family down.

I was devastated that I had given 5 years of my life to something, only to realise that it wasn’t for me.

But looking back, I now know that those very qualities have made me who I am today, and that life is full of attempts, failures and lessons learnt.

I now know that being in the Army was essentially just a job like any other – and on average we have 11 different employments throughout our lives. The Army was just 1 of mine.

I enjoyed it at the beginning, but I grew tired of my mundane job, realised that my future lay elsewhere and decided to move on. That’s all there is to it.

In February 2005 my time was officially up. I had absolutely NO IDEA what I was going to do next.

I moved back home after 5 years away, broke, broken – having to start all over again. I’ll tell you what happened next week.

Waste

Serving in Iraq helped me develop a sense of perspective.

It’s been 15 years since I saw those starving children.

I don’t know where my Iraq medal is, receiving it was bittersweet – I only wish I could find it, sell it, and send the money to the poor people who lost loved ones during that tragic waste of so many precious lives.

We will remember them…