“But what if you get made to go to war?” This must be the most prevalent initial response I get from my NHS colleagues on hearing that I juggle being both a junior doctor and an army reservist. It is a question that I have honed my response to over the last year and yet every time I’m asked it I wonder what more I could do to help educate my peers about what it is that we do as reservists.
Unlike the majority of Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) reservists in the NHS I did everything the wrong way round. Whilst many of my colleagues attended roadshows at work, chatted with recruiters in the canteen or even just knew a friend of a friend who was a “reservist” and joined up, I was a reservist before becoming a medic. I joined the Reserves back in 2009 as a Royal Artillery Gunner and quickly learned a trade in Surveillance and Target Acquisition before voluntarily mobilising to deploy to Afghanistan in the summer of 2011.
It was out here, 5000 miles from home and under the dust-filled, baking desert winds that I began to find some true direction in my life. On a couple of occasions I got to witness first-hand the cutting edge medicine that was being literally plucked from thin air in order to deal with injuries so severe no one had survived them previously. So much so that I eventually put an application to study medicine in from Camp Bastion in Helmand province, having done very little toward any actual planning for such a sudden career change.
Fast forward five years and I’m stood on a ward round trying to explain to my Consultant the somewhat random and confusing journey that has led me to be a foundation doctor in the North East of England. Having beguiled them with stories of war and the exciting opportunities that the Army Reserves can offer I am again left facing the same question everyone invariably asks: “But what if you get made to go to war?”
The short answer is that it is rare for anyone to get “made” to go to war nowadays. In fact conscription hasn’t existed in the UK since around 1960 so I’d be more than surprised to find myself being plucked out of a hospital in Newcastle and dropped into a warzone. Although as a reservist we can be called up to mobilise, depending on the requirements for manning and what events are unfolding across the globe, most of the time we can voluntarily mobilise with the Army asking for volunteers rather than mobilising people at random. Furthermore don’t go thinking that just because we can get called to mobilise that we then have no say. It is possible to ask for a dispensation if you are in training or you have sole parental responsibilities. Your employer can even ask for exemption or deferment if your loss will impair their provision of services. Again, most of the time this would mean you wouldn’t have to mobilise if you really could not make the commitment, although in extremis you would have to go if ordered. Ultimately though most reservists join with the aim of mobilising to go to war, that they might be able to put their acquired skills to the test and just might help to save the lives of injured personnel and civilians alike.
“But you don’t get paid to do the training though?” Funnily enough this is another popular misconception. Of course we get paid; we are giving up our time to train in order to provide a service, it’s just that in doing so we acquire certain skills that make us more attractive as employees. We work on skills such as team working, leadership, effective communication, fitness and coping with stressful situations – all of which are transferable to the NHS and our own lives. Of course it never hurts when the adventurous training involves skiing in Norway, trekking across Iceland or walking the Grand Canyon!
It’s not all glamorous events and getting paid to go skiing though; in fact it is often quite a struggle to fit everything in on top of a busy life as a doctor. This year for instance, I left from a night shift in order to travel straight down to Sandhurst to attend my Professionally Qualified Officer (PQO) course at Sandhurst. An exhausting two week course designed to give you the basic skills needed to allow you to function as a junior medical officer. I returned from that and went straight back to work on A&E.
The long story short is that we have an input into our own careers, we choose how much time we have to commit and what we particularly want to get out of it. After all, we made the decision to become reservists in the first place. Despite these reassurances many of my colleagues feel it is almost too good to be true and that there has to be a catch somewhere. All I can say is that if there is one, I’ve not stumbled across it yet.
So now when I’m feeling particularly exasperated with colleagues I’ve stopped trying to explain the intricate workings of the army reserves and simply reply; “Well I’d prefer to be at war than on this tedious ward round.”