Kris O’Brien is a Community and Peer Advisor with Open Arms — Veterans & Families Counselling. In early 2020, he was seconded to Team Rubicon to help them with emergency relief in the wake of the bushfires. The combination of roles has turned out to be his dream job. But it took years of job-hopping to find his calling. His advice is to develop a transition plan before you leave the Australian Defence Force (ADF), don’t be too hard on yourself, and remember that it’s not just veterans who sometimes struggle to find their way in the world.
Kris O’Brien joined the Army in 2010 when he was 19 and served with the 7th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (7RAR). He enlisted because was looking for a sense of purpose and community, which he found — the sense of community, in particular.
7RAR was a busy battalion, and Kris found himself serving back-to-back deployments to places like East Timor and Afghanistan. He began to find life in the infantry was taking a toll on his body, and in 2014 he left the regular Army as a private before the injuries became permanent and debilitating.
Kris had no transition plan in place. He had acquired technical skills, working with combat communications and anti-improvised explosive device countermeasure equipment, so he felt that he would be able to transition into civilian industry fairly easily. He was soon proved wrong.
‘I was lucky,’ says Kris. ‘I was never unemployed but I bounced around a lot between different jobs.’
Kris worked on a farm, in a glazing factory, in hospitality, and at a gym. He then started a university degree while doing multiple jobs. It was then that he began to really question what he was doing with his life. Because he had always loved cooking and wanted to take some time to gather himself, he deferred his university studies and began a chef’s apprenticeship at a café in Geelong. Even though he enjoyed the role, eventually he left and worked in Corrections for 18 months.
He says this tendency to go from one job to the other without a long-term plan is common among veterans.
‘In the military mindset, we always look at the next big thing — the next deployment, posting cycle or promotion.’
A turning point came when he heard about WithYouWithMe, co-founded by former 7RAR officer Tom Moore, and decided to get involved. WithYouWithMe provides free training to veterans to help them establish a career.
He spent just over a year with them, working as a learning and development coordinator. While there, he developed a passion for easing the difficult process of translating military skills to civilian industry.
‘I started to recognise that it didn’t matter what job veterans got, if they didn’t have a sense of community and purpose, lacked support or became isolated, they’d start to struggle and they’d question what they were doing. This, coupled with not having the ability to communicate how they were feeling, leads down a dangerous road.’
It was while researching the link between psychology and community reintegration that he came across a TED talk by Jake Wood, the CEO of Team Rubicon in the US. Team Rubicon is a not-for-profit that uses the skills and experiences of military veterans to rapidly deploy emergency response teams to natural disaster areas around the world.
Kris then got in touch with Team Rubicon Australia, did a firefighting course with them and immediately felt a sense of belonging. This was cemented when he had lunch with Team Rubicon Australia’s CEO, Geoff Evans.
Team Rubicon has very few paid staff so Kris came on board in a voluntary capacity providing every kind of technological support. Two years ago, he became the National Technology Manager.
‘All the skill sets I needed for the job came from my military service,’ he says.
His job at Team Rubicon is still voluntary. His paid job is with Open Arms — Veterans & Families Counselling where he works as a Community and Peer Advisor. He is now on secondment from Open Arms to Team Rubicon, combining the two roles, which he describes as his dream job.
‘I definitely have a sense of purpose now. I have two jobs I love. For me, the big thing is helping with the mental health side of veteran transition and reintegration.’
Make a plan
Kris has no regrets about serving in the Army: ‘I wouldn’t change a thing. The ADF has given me amazing mateship — the best mates you can think of who are there to support each other and it helped me to sharpen the drive to do more.’
But he does have some advice:
‘Have a transition plan. There weren’t a lot of services when I was discharging. [The ADF] has come an extremely long way since then. Take the time and allow yourself to think about what you’d like to do in the future, while in service. Have your “What would I do if I left” plan?
‘Also, give yourself a break. We put ourselves under a lot of pressure — trying to figure out our place in the world and how to come back into a different community. It’s a huge learning experience — you have to learn how to be a person all over again and you never achieve anything by beating yourself up.
‘In the military, we’re told that we’re a veteran so no one else will ever understand how you feel, but in fact every other person is as deep and complex as everyone else. You can have conversations with a variety of people from all walks of life who might be feeling the exact same way you are for different reasons — not just people who’ve been in the military. Just because you speak with a veteran who ‘gets you’ doesn’t mean they necessarily have all the answers or have even transitioned successfully. Isolating yourself because of how you perceive yourself to be isn’t the answer, so be open to change.’
For tips on transitioning successfully, see the Leaving the ADF page on the Defence Community Organisation website.
If this story has raised any issues for you, please contact Open Arms — Veterans & Families Counselling, which provides support for current and ex-serving ADF personnel and their families. Free and confidential help is available 24/7. Phone 1800 011 046 (international: +61 8 8241 4546) or visit the Open Arms website.