Highs and Lows

Life as an RAF Squadron Leader

Carl Beech talks to Jonathan Palmer about life in the British Armed Forces

You’re a military pilot and commissioned officer in the RAF but before that you were a mental health nurse. That’s a big change?!
If you met the guys I work with you’d realise that it was a very easy transition! I loved my time working as a nurse. Especially being able to connect with those at their lowest ebb and be part of helping them to gradually lift their eyes back up to the horizon and see that there is life in all its fullness out there to grab hold of. I could easily have stayed and maybe come a psychologist, but I had that burning desire to fly from my earliest childhood, and realised that I’d never be able to forgive myself if I never even tried to get into the RAF. I have a friend who says, ‘If you don’t risk anything, you risk everything…’ and I think it was that mentality that made me just go for it.

Honestly, I don’t think it’s a big change – service is in my blood and is probably the single greatest driver and motivator in my life. Both nursing and the military are about serving others and, often, putting their needs above your own.

You’ve seen active service in Afghanistan. What were the highs and lows during that time?
I loved Afghanistan – I loved feeling like we were really making a difference: every time I returned there was more and better infrastructure and lines of communication. My favourite sorties were those where we would taxi-around key Afghan and British politicians or military officers, because they would often open-up as to the scale of the challenge, but also the positive movement they were seeing in country.

It was also great to have the opportunity to be away with a small team of dedicated professionals focussing on just one task for an extended period. You really got to know each other as we were in each other’s pockets the whole time. On a long flight there’s only so much time you can spend on small-talk!

By far the hardest part was leaving the family for long periods of time over and over again. It was heart-wrenching and had a massive effect on our kids who could really struggle whilst I was away. People think that going away on operations is a hardship, but it’s far worse for our partners and kids who are left to deal with anything and everything that goes wrong whilst wondering every day if they would get a phone call or visit from the commanding officer and padre telling them that I wasn’t coming back. Doing that to people you love is heart-wrenching!

Tell us about your family
My family are great and the centre of my life. I have been married to Hayley for 16 years, which is a significant accolade given how rough-cut I was when she started work on me. She’s a Leadership Mentor with the Armed Forces’ Christian Union and runs our property investment company on the side. More than anything though, she is the most fantastic mother to our three amazing kids!

Ethan’s 15 and wants to be a screen actor. He’s really very good and we’re trying to encourage him to go for it – we feel it’s critical to teach our kids to pursue their dreams no matter how crazy or difficult they may be to achieve.

Izzy is 11; she’s had a really tough couple of years. She has what can only be described as a Python-esque sense of humour. She’s incredibly loving and deeply brave – she’s taught us a lot about our resilience as a family and how to love each other more closely when the chips are down.

Eliora is 7 and is possibly the most girly-girl on the planet. She is most likely to be seen dancing around the house in a Disney Princess costume singing at the top of her lungs. Her name means, ‘God is my light’ and she would be able show anyone God’s light though her gap-toothed grin and insatiable appetite for life.

You’re a Christian. How does that affect your work?
My faith is my reason for being and affects everything I do: work, family, social and business decisions all stem from my desire to follow Christ and live like he taught us to – seeking to live life in all its fullness and bringing some of that to the people around me. I think this is why service-before-self forms such a core part of my perspective on life.

What does that mean in reality?
I think in many ways you might not notice the difference between my work and the next guy’s. I’m surrounded by some very capable and intelligent individuals who are seriously impressive at what they do. I think the major difference is in the drive. I love what I do and I’m very driven to be the best I can possibly be at it; but the reason I do it is not necessarily to get ahead, but to work as if I’m working directly for Jesus – for his fame and glory rather than my own.

How does your family cope with so many moves and of course, the risks associated with your job?
Sacrifice. I think that this is the reality for many military families. My wife and children have given up a lot to enable me to pursue this career, and for that I am eternally grateful to them. A good example of this is that both my older children are in boarding school. This was a massively hard decision to make, but we simply couldn’t guarantee them continuity of education or friendship group without it. Ethan was in a different primary school every school year and we’ve moved nine times in 13 years; when you look at it like that, it’s no wonder the kids wanted the option for more stability!

We also try to ensure that the children understand why we do what we do – that in being part of the RAF we are serving the country and others’ around the world who don’t have the ability to defend themselves against those who would seek to do them harm. In doing so, we try to help them see how they are a part of the story; a small cog in a massive narrative which I genuinely believe screams of social justice.

What does the future hold?
I genuinely don’t know – and that’s ok. I like to have an ‘abundance mentality’: God created enough for us all to end up where he intends us to be, doing what he intended for us to do. I just need to stay open to God’s calling. Currently, that looks like being the very best staff officer I can be in the RAF Headquarters and I’m happy to keep marching to the RAF’s drumbeat for the foreseeable future.

Hayley and I recently set up a property investment company to provide high quality homes to those on the lowest incomes, and to work with charities and the Government to house the homeless. We team up with socially-minded investors to give them a great return, whilst making a genuine difference to the living standards of those on low, or no, income. I’m also beginning to grow links with the political community as I’m a beginning to believe that real, meaningful and sustainable social change can only come from Government. I’ve also been approached a couple of times to go into full time work in the Christian charity sector. Any of these could point to what the future holds; but for now, I’m just concentrating on smashing tomorrow out of the park!